Celebrating with henna

by Sarah on September 6, 2012

sesame seed cookies, Moroccan

The henna ceremony is a cross cultural celebration, practiced among the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews alike. It transcends borders and religions and represents the joyous moments of life.

Depending on the cultural context henna can symbolize fertility, fortune, good luck, protection and happiness.  It has been used since antiquity to mark auspicious occasions- marriage, the birth of a baby or religious holidays and continues to do so today.

Below: A Moroccan-Israeli henna celebration with family

Moroccan Israeli henna ceremony party

In Israel this ritual still flourishes in communities originating from North Africa, India and the Middle East as well as among Palestinian. Before my own marriage, a modest henna party was organized by my family, albeit an eclectic one. I was draped in the colorful garments of Kurdistan to honor my grandmother’s heritage but my uncle, a proud Moroccan from Casablanca was adamant that his country be represented as well. As a compromise the groom wore the scarlet fes and flowing robes of the Maghreb and platters of Moroccan confections adorned the festive table. The music, however, was strictly Kurdish. The zurna blasted from the tape player and escaped into the neighborhood, eliciting curious glances from passersby. In the small apartment we managed to whoop and dance as my grandmother twirled the tray of henna above her head. She placed a blob of the paste in the palm of my hand and closed my fingers over it.

moroccan Israeli henna ceremony

Today modern henna rituals are a cross between a discotheque and a costume ball, with the aunties and grandmas joining right in.  Many families hire a henna specialist to manage the event.  As tradition is lost with the older generation this lucrative business has sprung in its place.  Instead of a heirloom dress passed from mother to daughter, the henna mobile arrives at the reception hall crammed with all the necessary paraphernalia – costumes, robes, hats, scarves, tents, tables and even wigs, for the hosts and guests alike. It’s a carnival in a minivan. Most of my friends agree that the henna ceremony is pure fun, without the stress and the formality that accompanies most weddings.

There are still small communities in Israel who have retained their folkways. My friend Iris, whose parents were born in India, celebrated her henna the way her mother did- in a close knit all-women group.  As the mehndi artist painted intricate designs on her hands, friends and family pampered the bride to be. Without the DJ’s and crowds, it is a much more contemplative and spiritual gathering.

Moroccan Israeli henna ceremony

While henna is usually reserved for milestones but it can be purchased any time at most spice stores around the country. Many women use it to dye their hair a funky red color or use the powder to prepare the henna paste. Often other ingredients are added to it as a fixative or for symbolic value, including lemon juice, orange blossom water and garlic.

Some may say henna possesses mystical properties, others are more skeptical. One thing is for sure- it has been bringing people together for thousands of years.

Warnings: Henna is derived from the crushed leaves of Lawsonia inermis, a plant endemic to Africa. Although it is rarely allergenic in its pure form,  it should be purchased from a reputable vendor since contaminants have been found to cause adverse reactions. Also, black henna is not related to the henna species and can cause severe scaring.

sesame seed cookies moroccan

 Moroccan Sesame Seed cookies


A Moroccan henna ceremony would not be complete without their wonderful pastries, including these sesame cookies. The original recipe calls for frying the batter and dousing it in sugar syrup. Instead I baked them and omitted the sugar syrup for less sticky results. These cookies are compatible with the vegan diet, without resorting to weird substitutes or hard to find ingredients. They are also perfect with a cup of mint tea.

The recipe was adopted from the Hebrew cookbook My Mother’s Moroccan Cooking by Rachel Kinan published by Korim.

3 cups sesame seeds

2 ½ cups flour

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup water

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

sesame seed cookies moroccan

In a large bowl combine all the dry ingredients and mix until uniform. Add the oil, stirring until incorporated. Slowly pour in the water, a little at a time, and continue to mix.  It might not be necessary to add all the water. The batter should be smooth and slightly tacky like Playdough but not goopy.

Preheat the oven to 165⁰C (330⁰ F). Divide the dough into three parts and cover in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator for 20 minutes if the batter is sticky. On a piece of parchment paper, roll out the dough so it is about ½ cm (0.20 inches) thick. Using a cookie cutter, (I used a cup with a thin rim) cut out the cookie shapes. Roll out the scrap dough left over and cut out additional shapes.

Place the cookies on a parchment lined baking tray. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden.

Moroccan sesame seed cookies

sesame seed cookies, moroccan

There is another group of food bloggers traveling around Israel with Project Taste of Israel. Follow them on twitter and facebook to see their latest adventures.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Yael the Finn September 6, 2012 at 11:14 am

Mmm,I love those cookies! And a really nice story about the henna:)


Sarah September 6, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Thanks Yael!


Rosa September 6, 2012 at 11:27 am

A wonderful tradition. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and pictures with us.

Those cookies look so delicious! That is something I love.




Sarah September 6, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Rosa, Thanks! The great thing about these cookies-they are so easy to make.


Zack September 6, 2012 at 11:40 am

It is so sad that the hinna celebration is considered something of the past. I once saw it on TV ( Leylat el hinna) where an actress playing the role of a midwife performed the ceremony of (Hinna) to a bride-to-be. The midwife was supposed to have helped the bride’s mother deliver the baby(or the present bride- to- be).
Hinna is used now by women for dyeing thier hair ( sometimes it is mixed with the root extract of (Fua) plant to make the color crimson-red.


Sarah September 6, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Zack, Henna is still very popular although, as I mentioned, it has undergone a transformation. It is sad to lose some aspects of the tradition though, I agree.


Joynil November 19, 2012 at 5:20 am

:) I’m so glad you’re back to blogging. I misesd you. If it makes you feel any better my little brother gets mistaken for being Mexican when we’re really Persian. Maybe you can tell everyone you’re Persian too! I’ll teach you some Farsi to help your cover.


foodwanderings September 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Love this post and the cookies look heavenly, Sarah. I did too have a henna ceremony, primarily thanks to my American husband. I am happy in hind sight that we did. Today, my cousins have an elaborate staging, though no disco like, still very authentic. I regret missing all the celebration as I live in the States!


Eha September 6, 2012 at 7:42 pm

It’s wonderful to be stopped in the middle of a busy Friday to learn something totally new: filed already to be reread more than once! I knew a few small details, but had no idea this was so cross-cultural! Love the look of the biscuits [cookies] also: perhaps I truly should break my ‘no bake’ rule to try, as sesame seeds area huge favourite :) !


dineke September 6, 2012 at 11:52 pm

I just read Alain de Botton’s “Religion for atheists”. It would be great for atheists too. All of us need rituals to celebrate life. And thanks for the cookie recipe.


Yael Morris September 8, 2012 at 9:14 pm

How lovely


blanche September 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I just made these cookies, followed the recipe and technique meticulously, and after adding the oil, the dough was very sticky. I could see that adding ANY water at all would make the dough extremely “goopy” and impossible to roll out. Therefore I added NO water. The dough was still difficult to roll out due to the stickiness of it, but I managed to do it. However, even though the baked and cooled cookies are delicious, they are VERY soft and crumbly to the softest touch!! What’s my problem?


Sarah September 11, 2012 at 8:53 pm

That’s unfortunate about the cookie batter. I know from experience, there is a difference in the way flour absorbs liquid-not every flour absorbs the same amount. I checked the recipe against the cookbook and it’s fine and what I used. My guess is you might just have to reduce the amount of liquid where you are. Hope this helps. It is also a good idea to put the dough in the refrigerator. This allows the dough to rest, making it easier to work with.


Javelin Warrior September 14, 2012 at 7:46 am

I really enjoyed learning about the henna ceremony as I knew nothing about it – fascinating to read… And I love these cookies! I’ve always thought there should be a way to use sesame seeds for cookies and these look amazing… I’m featuring this post in today’s Food Fetish Friday (with a link-back and attribution as always). Thanks for always inspiring me with your creations…


Sarah September 14, 2012 at 11:04 am

Thank you for the featuring my post!


msmarmite September 16, 2012 at 1:42 am

I wonder if the tradition of henna is linked to the ancient use of ochre. Ochre, being red, is supposed to represent blood, the mother goddess, perhaps menstrual blood too.


Sarah September 16, 2012 at 3:24 am

Ms Marmite, Perhaps there is a link to the ancient use of ochre. I don’t know enough about it. Although henna can stain the hands reddish I don’t think either Muslims or Jews link it to blood as it has purity issues in both these religions. Observant Jews for example do not get married during menstration and there are separation “laws” between couples during this period. Also both Jews and Muslims avoid eating blood (no black pudding for them).


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