Koonday: Sacred Memories of a Shared Culinary Heritage

Koonday: Sacred Memories of a Shared Culinary Heritage

In Karachi, Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui finds that religious sectarian differences have seeped into a shared culinary heritage, and a feast that was once celebrated in every home, is now scarred by political ideology. 

A woman is hunched over in her tiny kitchen. She is fully absorbed in knuckling down a soft ball of dough, of semolina, flour, milk, sugar and cardamom. Her long hair, tied firmly in a plait, snakes down her back.

Three young girls, perched on the floor of the kitchen on small stools, wait anxiously for the woman to tear for them small bits of the creamy dough, flecked with cardamom seeds. She bends to show them how to roll the dough on the perforated edge of a parakeet-green bowl. The dough curls like a seashell, imprinted with patterns from the bowl. The girls are excited to try, but struggle with the delicate, deft motions. The woman suggests another way: with a rolling pin, she rolls out the dough, flattening it like a roti. Then she cuts out little circles, using a bottle lid, smoothing the edges with the thumb of her hand.

The seashells, known as khajoorain (named so because of their resemblance to dates) and the discs, meethi tikkiyaan, are placed gingerly on a plate. The woman then drops them gently into a pool of hot oil. She nudges them around with a slotted spoon, watching that they brown evenly. Satisfied that they have reached a shade of brown similar to real dates, she gathers a few into the spoon, drains the oil against the wok, and drop them onto a newspaper-lined silver tray. The girls tremble with excitement, but fearful of the woman’s ire, they hold on till she is done.

Image credit: SooperChef

Image credit: SooperChef

When the confections have cooled down, the woman covers her head with a dupatta, bringing her hands together, to offer a silent dua (supplication). The girls follow suit, closing their eyes. When the prayer ends, they fall on the scented sweet treats with both hands. 

The woman, my mother, taught my sisters and I the art of creating meethi tikkiyaan during the Islamic month of Rajab. Just like her mother taught her daughters how to prepare the traditional sweet, made especially on 22 or 27 Rajab, also known by several epithets such as Rajab ke koonday, koonday ki niyaz, koonday nazar or simply koonday. 

Associated with the sixth imam of Shia Islam Jafar al-Sadiq, whose life spanned the two great dynasties of the Islamic Empire: Umayyad (661-750 CE) and Abbasid dynasties (750-1258 CE), roughly around 1400 years ago, koonday draws its name from koonda, an earthenware flower-shaped shallow clay dish in which dough is kneaded. 

It has been a while since this beloved rite of my childhood days was observed. Faint memories linger, of subtle cardamom aromas and the biscuit-y texture of meethi tikkiyan, whenever 22nd Rajab nears. Between juggling our careers and personal lives in the fast-paced city of Karachi, my sisters and I can manage little else, let alone the elaborate task of making meethi tikkiyaan. But sometimes, I wonder if it is more than just busy lifestyles that have made us unwilling: I look at my family and friends, and the gulf between the Sunni and Shia faiths is striking. My Shia friends still observe the tradition with gusto, despite their hectic schedules. Invites are sent out for all-day open houses, to attend the sumptuous koonday feasts prepared by the women of these families. Their dastarkhwans are often laden with meethi tikkiyaan, kheer, dum ka qeema, dahi baday, badami qorma, cholay tarkari, sheermal and taftan.

But from our Sunni kith and kin? Only an eerie radio silence on the subject of koonday. My mother however, can rattle off the names of Sunni relatives who, not too long ago, would observe this tradition. I am surprised; I have always known our Sunni relatives to be puritanical observers of Islam. But as food documentarian Anthony Bourdain observed, “There is nothing more political than food.”

Historically at loggerheads over disagreement on leadership after the death of Prophet Muhammad in the year 632 AD, Sunni and Shia Muslims have been engaged in bloody sectarian warfare in the subcontinent for a while. But until the 1980s, these divisions were largely kept at bay. It was during this relatively tranquil phase that the post-Partition generation (my mother and her siblings included), grew up in Karachi, with fond memories of making meethi tikkiyaan on the eve of 26 Rajab, placing heaps of these in koonday (clay containers) on a takht, covering them with a cloth for safekeeping.

In the morning my nani would read a dua over the niyaz. Relatives, neighbours and friends would drop by in the early evening for high-tea of chaat, puris, tea and meethi tikkiyaan, along with a reading of milad, recounting beloved stories of the Prophet’s life.

But even then, there were dissimilarities my mother recalls. “Koonday would not take place in every Sunni house, and it was not an extravagant all-day affair.” It would only be observed if a mannat (a wish) had been fulfilled.

General Ziaul Haq’s ascent to power (1978-1988) was a watershed moment in the religio-political landscape of Pakistan. During his decade in power, he went on to ‘Sunni-fy Pakistan in the name of Islamisation, and lent support to anti-Shia elements.’ 

The Afghan jihad (1979-1989) and Iranian revolution (1978-1979) deepened the fissures in the country, resulting in frequent violent and bloody confrontations between Sunnis and Shias. Tolerance of sectarian differences began disappearing from the social fabric of Pakistani society. Consequently, it seeped into our shared culinary heritage. Rumours and stories around koonday began gaining wider currency: Koonday, it was whispered, a secret celebration by the Shias to mark the death of the first founder of the Muslim empire, the Umayyad dynasty, Muawiyah I (AD 602-680), who also fought against the fourth caliph of Islam, Ali, revered by Shias as their imam. Muawiyah’s son Yazid I suppressed the rebellion led by Ali’s son Hussain, who refused to recognise Yazid’s rule, killing Hussain and his band of followers in the Battle of Karbala in AD 680. The rift between the followers of Ali and Muawiyah, the Shias and the Sunnis, reached a point of no return.

Even with this split, Ali and Jafar al-Sadiq continue to be respected and revered by Sunnis. But as the godfather of Nazi propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, once said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

And sure enough, koonday is no longer marked by Sunnis in Pakistan. But as we all know, nothing ever truly disappears.

I asked my mother dejectedly, “So none of our family ever observes koonday anymore?”

“I am not aware of any who do," she says. "But my sisters still make meethi tikkiyaan in Ramzan [the month of fasting]. Don’t you remember last year Mina sent a photograph of her handmade tikkiyaan in our family WhatsApp group?”

Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui is a food writer based in Karachi, Pakistan. The more she travels the more she appreciates home-cooked food made by her septuagenarian mother.

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