Yid.Dish: Iraqi Rice Milk

By Guest Post

Published October 07, 2008.
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While a Yom Kippur recipe might seem like an oxymoron, there are many food traditions surrounding the meals immediately preceding and following the 25 hours in which most Jews refrain from food. Jews in Iraq, for example, frequently break the fast with a nourishing yet easily digestible glass of rice milk.

I was surprised to find this beverage in such a traditional context, having until now chiefly associated it with vegans and the lactose intolerant. But it turns out that rice milk is popular in many parts of the world besides those places where you can order a dairy free smoothie for the cost of a meal. Take the Thai kokkoh or Mexican horchata, for instance. Cut the sugar and skip the cinnamon of the latter and you’ve got something that closely resembles both the stuff in the rectangular carton at Whole Foods and the drink made by Iraqi Jews to close the most holy day of the year.

Unfortunately I am at present unable to consult the source from which I learned this custom, and the internet is surprisingly unhelpful on the topic. However, while searching, I was surprised by yet another unexpected context for rice milk.

In a 1990 New York Times article, Iraqi doctors cite the use of rice milk as a substitute for cow’s milk as one of the sources of malnutrition that claimed the lives of 1,400 children. Iraqi medical officials, while being closely monitored by Iraqi government officials, blamed sanctions in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait for making milk scarce and prohibitively expensive. According to them, desperate mothers turned to rice milk as an inadequate substitute.

Observers outside of Saddam’s regime (including then ambassador Joe Wilson) begged to differ, saying that there was no evidence for the 1,400 deaths and that markets were full of both food and medicine. Regardless, this instance is a reminder of many things as we contemplate both a new year and the dawn of a new administration.

Iraqi Jews have chosen to cap the day of atonement with rice milk for who knows how long (if anyone knows, I’m all ears!) It is a drink popular all around the world, and one that has at least once played a pivotal part in the complex relationship we have with a region many Jews still call home. Growing up in Boca Raton, we always had bagels and lox – but this year I can’t think of a more thought provoking way to break my fast than with this history laden drink.

Iraqi Rice Milk

Cook any kind of rice, though brown is preferred, using twice as much water as you normally would. Once the rice is soft, blend it and the water. Strain and spice (cinnamon, cardamom, etc.) or sweeten (sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave, etc.) if so desired. To thicken, blend again with a neutral oil (like canola).


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