Purim in Iraq meant a paradise of parties, pastries

For Jewish children growing up in Iraq, Chanukah wasn't the premier holiday. It was Purim.

"We were excused from school and over the two-day holiday, we'd attend six parties," says Nora Iny, who grew up in Baghdad during the 1960s and is now a trustee of Congregation Bene Naharayim, an Iraqi synagogue in Jamaica Estates, N.Y.

Looking back, she recalls the spectacular dinners and lunches people threw for their extended families and friends.

"We had guests in the house all the time," says Jamila Shooker, a Manhattan resident who left her homeland with bittersweet feelings in 1946 after witnessing attacks on Jews. Yet she has vivid memories of aunts and uncles lavishing children with gifts at Purim.

At Purim children received gifts, such as pieces of silver jewelry or coins. Iny describes her parents and grandparents going to the bank to get two or three new riyals per child, coins worth about 50 cents each.

To escape Saddam Hussein's tyranny, in 1974 she and her family were in the last wave of Jews to flee the country. Although a Jewish culture once flourished there for centuries, today approximately 100 Jews live in Iraq.

Although Purim was a spirited occasion, people didn't use noisemakers or stamp their feet at the mention of Haman's name.

"Even in good times, we didn't dress in costumes as children do here," says Iny. "We wouldn't parade or call attention to ourselves. We were afraid to show we were Jews."

Playing cards was the major entertainment at parties and people often gambled for small change.

"I hated cards and would quit after 15 minutes, claiming I was tired," says Iny, whose fondest memories of Purim revolve around food.

While Ashkenazi Jews adore hamanstaschen, the Iraqi signature dish is Sambusk El Tawa, says Carole Basri, an attorney of Iraqi descent who teaches cooking classes through Sephardic House in Manhattan.

Sambusk are small pastry crescents filled with chicken and vegetables. Fabulous as appetizers, they can also be served as the main course. The pastry is el tawa, meaning fried.

"My mother made this dish every Purim," says Iny, explaining how her mother started cooking two days in advance, stopping only when several platters were piled high with crescents. "My sisters and I would eat them by the dozen, never tiring of the taste."

Beets and turnips graced Iraqi Purim tables, too.

"Simply slice and boil them, then sprinkle with salt," says Shooker. "They're delicious."

From a country where date palms were plentiful, people often topped these root vegetables with date syrup made from straining simmered dates through cheesecloth.

Like Jews the world over, Iraqis also visited friends at Purim and brought sweets to their hosts.

The amount of desserts was incredible, Iny says, describing phyllo-rolled almond cookies and baklava filled with pistachios, sugar and cardamom. Her favorite is Zangula, doughnuts prepared by drizzling dough into hot oil.

After frying Zangula, Basri teaches students to dip them in a syrup of sugar, lemon and rosewater, a distillation of rose petals with an intensely perfumed flavor that's been popular for centuries in the Middle East. Today, rosewater is usually sold at Indian and Middle Eastern stores.

No Purim celebration in Iraq was complete without plenty of extra food for all the friends expected to stop by.

"The warmth in the Jewish community was incredible," says Shooker who, in exile for five decades, still misses the sweetest part of life in Baghdad — Purim parties, family and friends.

Here are recipes from Basri:


Makes 30 crescents


4 cups flour

3/4 tsp. salt

2 packages of dry yeast

1-3/4 cups warm water

1 Tbs. olive oil


1 large onion, diced

1 Tbs. olive oil

4 pounds cooked, diced chicken

1/2 cup frozen peas

salt and pepper to taste

2 cups corn oil

For the dough, combine flour and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup of warm water for about 5 minutes, until proofed, or foamy. Add to flour. Slowly add 1-1/2 cups warm water to form a sticky dough. Remove dough to a floured counter and knead until smooth. Coat a large bowl with oil and place dough inside. Cover with plastic wrap until dough doubles in size, about 45 to 60 minutes.

For the filling, sauté the onion in olive oil until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add chicken, peas, salt and pepper. Cool.

Place the dough on a floured counter. Roll dough 1/8-inch thick. With a 3-inch round cookie cutter, cut circles of dough and place on an oiled cookie sheet.

Place 1 Tbs. of filling on each circle. Fold in half and seal tightly by pressing edges together. Heat corn oil in a deep skillet to 375 degrees. Fry a few pieces at a time until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.


Makes 14 to 16 donuts


1-1/2 cups flour

1/4 tsp. salt

2 packages of dry yeast

1-1/4 cups warm water

2 cups corn oil


1 cup sugar

3/4 cup water

Juice of half a lemon

1 Tbs. rosewater

For the dough, combine flour and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water for about 5 minutes, until proofed, or foamy. Add mixture to flour. Slowly add 3/4 cup of water to form a creamy, sticky dough. Coat a large bowl with 1 Tbs. oil. Cover with plastic wrap for 30 minutes.

For the syrup, combine sugar and water in a saucepan. At medium heat, stir until sugar dissolves and mixture thickens. Add lemon juice and rosewater, cooking one minute. Cool.

Place dough into a plastic squirt bottle. In a large frying pan, heat remaining oil to 400 degrees. Squeeze dough into oil in circles and swirls. Turning once, fry until both sides are golden brown. Remove to paper towels. When cool enough to handle, dip into syrup and serve.