Oct 032016


By coincidence today is the beginning of the New Year for both the Jewish and Islamic calendars. This coincidence does not happen too often because the calendars are not calculated in the same way. The Islamic calendar is lunar and does not add extra days to help mesh it with the solar calendar. Consequently it drifts back about 11 days relative to the solar calendar each year, meaning that festivals drift slowly through the solar calendar year by year. The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, is only partly lunar. It still keys its main events to phases of the moon, but it adds days to the year so that festivals keep pace with the seasons. Passover is always in Spring, and Rosh Hashanah (New Year) is always in autumn  This kind of calendar is known as luni-solar. The fact that the two calendars mesh today is very unusual. But . . . to make matters worse, both the Jewish and Islamic calendars mark days from sunset to sunset, not midnight to midnight, so special days in those calendars span two days in the Gregorian calendar. This year that’s good for me. I’ll talk about the Islamic New Year today, and the Jewish New Year tomorrow.

The Hijri New Year, also known as Islamic New Year (Arabic: رأس السنة الهجرية‎‎ Raʼs al-Sanah al-Hijrīyah) is the day that marks the beginning of a new Islamic calendar year, and is the day on which the year count is incremented. The first day of the year is observed on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. The first Islamic year began in 622 CE with the emigration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, known as the Hijra. All religious duties, such as prayer, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage, and the dates of significant events, such as celebration of holy nights and festivals, are calculated according to this calendar.

While some Islamic organizations prefer determining the new month (and hence the new year) by local sightings of the moon, most Islamic institutions and countries, including Saudi Arabia, follow astronomical calculations to determine future dates of the Islamic calendar. There are various schema for calculating the tabular Islamic calendar (i.e. not based on physical observation), which results in differences of typically one or even two days between countries using such schema and those that use lunar sightings. For example, the The Umm al-Qura Calendar used in Saudi Arabia was reformed several times in recent years. The current scheme was introduced in 1423 AH (15 March 2002).

Basing a calendar on local lunar sightings is, to a degree, more sensible than basing it on calculations that hold true for Saudi Arabia, but not for the rest of the world. The Gregorian calendar works that way. Time zones are based on the sun’s relative position, so when it is 4 am on Monday here in Italy it is 10 pm on Sunday in New York. We manage. If the whole world’s calendar were linked to Greenwich Mean Time (in London) the world would be in a royal mess. Beijing is 5 hours ahead of Mecca, so if Chinese Muslims (of which there are millions, courtesy of the Mongols) followed a calendar based on moon sightings in Saudi Arabia, they’d be performing half of their required prayers in the middle of the night. That’s what happens when global telecommunications become normal. I began my birthday celebration at midnight on 30 March in China, even though it was 1 pm on 29 March at that time in Buenos Aires where I was born. When the actual time of my birth rolled around (9 pm) it was already the morning of 31 March in Kunming. My birthday goes from midnight to midnight where I am at the time.

The first day of the new Islamic year is not an especially important day in the calendar, but it is the beginning of the second holiest month (after Ramadan) – Muharram – which is important. The word “Muharram” means “forbidden,” and some Muslims fast during this month. The 10th day of Muharram is the Day of Ashura, which to Shi’a Muslims is part of the Mourning of Muharram.

Sunni Muslims fast on this day, because it is recorded in the hadith that Musa (Moses) and his people gained a victory over the Egyptian Pharaoh on the 10th day of Muharram; accordingly Muhammad asked Muslims to fast on this day (Ashura) and on the day before (Tasu’a). More about those days in other posts.


Shi’a Muslims during Muharram do different things and with different intentions. They observe and respect Muharram as the month when Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet and son of Ali, was killed in the Battle of Karbala. They mourn for Hussein ibn Ali and refrain from all joyous events. Unlike Sunni Muslims, the Shi’a do not fast in this month. In addition there is an important Ziyarat book, the Ziyarat Ashura about Hussein ibn Ali. In the Shi’a sect it is popular to read this ziyarat on the “Day of Ashura”, although many of the Shi’a try to read Ziyarat Ashura every day and they send salutations to Husayn ibn Ali.


Say goodbye to 1437 AH at sundown and hello to 1438. What to do about a recipe? This is a little tricky because for Sunnis this is the beginning of fasting, but for Shi’a it is not. Even so, finding a Shi’a recipe is much like finding a Jewish recipe (tomorrow’s problem). The Shi’a, like Jews, eat what’s common in the culture that is home to them. So, if you search for Shi’a recipes on the internet you’ll find some Iraqi ones, even though the Shi’a/Sunni conflict in that country is well known. Iraqi Shi’a are the majority. But you’ll also find Iranian, Pakistani, and Lebanese recipes. Furthermore, you’ll find Italian and Chinese dishes along with hamburgers and hot dogs. The only common denominator is the avoidance of pork and eating halal meats.  On one Shi’a chat room I found, someone was asking for Shi’a recipes and a member posted this:

get pizza from local store, put it in oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes and then eat it. :!!!

So much for “authentic” recipes. Here is Murtabak (martabak, mutabbaq) (Arabic: مطبق‎‎) a stuffed pancake or pan-fried bread which originated in Yemen but which is now commonly found in Saudi Arabia (especially the Tihamah and the Hejaz regions), India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand, being spread by Muslims. Depending on the location, the name and ingredients can significantly vary. The name mutabbaq (or sometimes mutabbag) in Arabic means “folded.” Sometimes murtabak is served simply as a fried, spicy bread, but most often it is stuffed with a meat and vegetable mixture. I am using a Yemeni spice blend here (hawaij) but you can just see the recipe and add the spices separately. The recipe is a real rigmarole, but not that complex if you read the recipe carefully and follow the steps.





300g all purpose flour
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp salt


300g ground mutton (or beef)
12 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
1 tsp hawaij (see below)
1 onion, peeled and sliced
10 green onions, chopped
extra salt, sugar, white pepper, vegetable oil
4 duck eggs, beaten
3 chicken eggs, beaten


½ cup vinegar
1 cucumber
4-5 shallots

Martabak Sauce

75g palm sugar
25g granulated sugar
10 bird-eye chiles, chopped (or to taste)
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
2 tbsp lemon juice


First make the flour dough. Place the flour in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Place ½ teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil into the well, then pour in 190ml of slightly warm water a little at a time, whilst folding in the flour to make a dough. Once you have a firm, slightly sticky ball, knead it with your hands until it is smooth (about 20 minutes). Divide the dough into 8 and roll the pieces into little balls. Immerse the balls in vegetable oil and let them rest and soak for at least 1 hour.

For the pickle, bring ½ cup of vinegar (I prefer rice wine vinegar), 1 cup of water, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, and 3-4 tablespoons of granulated sugar to the boil. Peel a cucumber, remove the seeds, and chop. Peel and chop an equal amount of shallots. Place in a non-reactive bowl and pour over the boiling vinegar mix. Refrigerate for at least one hour, or overnight.

For the filling, put a little vegetable oil in a big skillet, heat over medium heat and add the sliced onion and shallots. Sauté until wilted, then add the ground mutton (or beef), Add in ½ tsp of sugar and the hawaij blend, plus salt and pepper to taste. Continue to sauté for a few minutes, then add the green onions. Continue to sauté for an additional minute or two.

For the martabak sauce. Heat 300ml of water in a pan. Add in 75 grams of palm sugar and 25 grams of granulated sugar. Stir to dissolve and add the chile and garlic. Continue to cook over medium heat until thickened. Add the lemon juice at the end and remove from the heat.

To prepare the martabak.  Remove the dough balls from the oil, and heat the oil in a heavy skillet to 160°C. Flatten each dough ball with the palm of your hand and then stretch it out by pulling with your fingers to form thin flat disks. This takes a lot of practice. You can cheat with a rolling pin.

Combine the beaten eggs with the meat and onion filling mix. Divide the filling by eye between the 8  disks (about 2 tablespoons each), and place the filling in the middle of each disk. Fold over the tops then the sides of each disk to form a square package. Press down a little on the package, then fry them in batches until golden on all sides. Serve hot with pickles and sauce (for dipping).



¼ cup ground cumin
1 tbsp ground cardamom
2 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp ground coriander
¼ cup freshly ground black pepper


You can simply mix the ingredients and store them in an airtight jar, or, as some Yemeni cooks do, toast the ingredients first for a few minutes and then store them.