A Traditional Muslim Wheat Pudding, Just in Time for Passover

What do a wheat pudding, the Day of Ashura, and Passover have to do with each other?

Here’s an odd choice for a Passover recipe: A wheat pudding.

The ashura pudding, cooked with honey and milk and served with raisins and nuts,is a dish popular in Egypt and many other Middle Eastern countries and is named after the holiday in which it is eaten – the day of Ashura.

But what do a wheat pudding, the Day of Ashura, and Passover have to do with each other?

According to my friend Amy Riolo, a cookbook writer specializing in Egyptian and Arab cuisines, Sunni Muslims are encouraged to fast on the Day of Ashura to thank God for saving Moses and the Israelites from Pharaoh.

Yes, the very same Moses and Pharaoh from our Passover story.

After the fast, families congregate for a communal meal where the ashura pudding is served for dessert.

“The tradition is that the Prophet Mohammed was walking in the desert when he noticed some Jews walking," says Amy, who converted to Islam in 1997 and lives in Washington with her Egyptian husband. “He then offered them food and they refused.”

The Jews told Prophet Mohammed that they were fasting to commemorate God delivering Moses and his people and drowning Pharaoh and his people

“The Prophet Mohammed said that Muslims also believe in Moses (Musa in Arabic),” Amy tells me, "and that if he lived until next year he would fast on Ashura to give thanks to God and commemorate him saving the Jews from Pharaoh."

"Prophet Mohamed died before he was able to do this, but many Muslims who believe in the Sunnah (Prophet Mohamed's actions and teachings) continue to do it,” says Amy. (You can read the full Sunnah version here).

The Day of Ashura (literally "10" in Arabic) is celebrated on the tenth day of Muharam, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Some see a connection between this date and the tenth of the Jewish month of Tishri, when Yom Kippur is celebrated.

“Fasting on the day of Ashura... was almost certainly a Jewish custom in the Hejaz [a region in Saudi Arabia],” says Jonathan Brown, an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. “And when the Prophet Muhammad moved to Medina in 622, he observed the fast of Ashura for the first two years.  When the Ramadan fast was then revealed in the Quran, this replaced the day of Ashura fast, which then became optional for Muslims and not required. Later Ashura would be associated with a number of Prophetic events, such as the landing of Noah’s ark and the deliverance of the Children of Israel.”

“But just to clarify,” Jonathan adds, “since the prophet noted the association between the day and the deliverance of the children of Israel, then that association is permanent in theory.  But that doesn't mean that that is what's on the minds of those people who celebrate a holiday or even that it governs how the holiday is celebrated.”

For Amy, who is a truly kind and generous person, the connection to Passover was clear from the first time she heard the story of the Ashura.

“Due to my cultural bridge-building background in the volunteer world, I am used to looking for parallels where other people don't see them," she says.

Amy chairs the Baltimore Luxor Alexandria Sister City Committee and has just returned to Washington from a visit to Egypt where her committee helped organize a film festival to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Luxor and Baltimore sisterhood.

The organization recently got a grant from Sister Cities International to build a water project in a village outside Luxor, which Amy is involved with as well.

The link between the Ashura pudding and the Jewish tradition goes beyond Egypt. The Turkish Asure pudding, also known as Noah’s pudding, commemorates Noah’s salvation from the flood. It is prepared similarly to the Egyptian Ashura, but with the addition of beans and chickpeas on top of the grains. As the story goes, when the flood water began to recede, Noah prepared a sweet pudding using all the remaining foods that were still available in the ark. The Asure is traditionally prepared in large quantity and is shared with friends and family from all religions as a symbol of love and peace.

And despite all these similarities, we should still keep in mind that Ashura pudding is not kosher for Passover - not even for us Sephardi Jews! But if you want to try it out before the holiday, here is Amy’s recipe.

Check out this recipes and more on Haaretz.com's Food and Wine page