In midsummer every year, the souqs of southern Iraqi cities such as Basra and Nasiriyah are tinged with gold, from the dust of khirret, a crunchy candy made from the pollen from an aquatic plant that grows in the country’s southern marshes. This delicately-sweetened, seasonal Iraqi street sweet looks like bright yellow chalk or a solid clump of mustard powder.
The Marsh Arabs of al-Ahwar, a UNESCO world heritage site composed of three archeological sites and four wetland marshes in southern Iraq, eat every part of the plant (Typha domingensis Pers.), which is also known as bardi and cattail. The plant is considered to be medicinal, thought to relieve gastrointestinal issues. The male flowers of the plant release the pollen used to make khirret in the springtime. According to Nawal Nasrallah, author of the Iraqi cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine, the name khirret (meaning “the stripped”) refers to the way the pollen is harvested by stripping it off the plant. Once the pollen has been collected, it is set out to dry in the sun and subsequently filtered to remove impurities. It is then mixed with sugar, wrapped in a cheesecloth or bag, and steamed. The steam binds the pollen together, and the solidified candy is ready to be sold in chunks as khirret.
Nasrallah offers a theory in her book for why khirret (pronounced “khar-ee-at”) became a festival food for Iraqi Jews. According to the Book of Exodus, the baby Moses was found in a basket among Egyptian papyrus reeds, similar to the reeds of the southern Iraqi marshes. Because the reeds hid Moses and protected him, Nasrallah theorizes that they became sacred for the Jewish community. “When the captive Jews settled in ancient Babylon, they eyed the region’s reeds with the same reverence, and the pollen candy khirret developed a religious significance for Judaism in Iraq,” she writes. The Baghdadi Jewish community served the marsh treat during Purim until the mid-20th century, around which time the group started a mass migration to Israel. Sadly, khirret did not go with them, but it can still be enjoyed as a seasonally-available, healthy snack in Iraq today.