Fish, lamb, stews and breakfast staples
Iraqi food is probably not what comes to mind when you think of Middle Eastern food. It may be true to say that Middle Eastern food looks and roughly tastes the same too—all the way from Dubai to Damascus—but each Arab country has its own nuanced palette.
Iraq straddles Central Asia, Turkey and the Middle East. Its food culture stretches over 10,000 years. Tablets found in the Mesopotamian ruins include recipes for religious rites, making them perhaps, the world’s oldest cookbooks. As Baghdad became the capital of Muslim empires, further influences made their way into the ancient recipes of the Mesopotamians.
With Turkey, Iran and Syria contributing to this colorful cuisine, there is another influence that has changed the nature of the food enjoyed by the people of the Iraq: conflict. However, there are some staples that remain intrinsically Iraqi and are unlikely to be found in other parts of even the Arab world.
This whole grilled fish dish is the de facto national dish of Iraq and the basic recipe and technique dates to Babylonian times. I remember my first authentic experience of Masgouf in the backyard of my mother’s cousin Abdul Ridha aka Aboudi, on the outskirts of Karbala. As my mother reunited with her family after some 50 years, they prepared a whole carp, covered in homemade tomato paste, local paprika and a hint of dried lemon. The grill was more like a standing tandoor. The whole project took no more than 30 minutes and was served hot off the grill with plain white rice. The really special treat was the golden crust formed at the bottom of the rice pot.
While the masgouf was prepared by the men, the women took care of the chicken soup, turshi (pickled vegetables) and yogurt drink. This simple, hearty meal is not as easy to come by as it once was in Iraq. Decades of conflict put pressure on the country’s rivers so carp is more expensive and smaller than ever before.
Loosely translated to okra stew, this flavorsome, tangy item is traditionally made with lamb meat. The base of the dish is simply tomatoes and garlic with the consistency of the stew ranging somewhere between a sauce and a curry. Usually made on Eid and special days in my household, it is more of a staple everyday meal in Iraq.
The Askari shrine in the city of Samarra serves the dish for lunch, every single day to visitors, without the lamb and with a side of salt. It is a popular buffet dish in hotels that serve pilgrims in Najaf and Karbala. Stews are a cornerstone of Iraqi cuisine: pumpkin, eggplant and bengal gram cooked in tomato-heavy concoctions. However, what was once in abundance is now missing in these stews at roadside eateries: the lamb.
Bagilla bil Dihin
Eggs and beans are a roadside breakfast staple. The literal translation of Bagilla bil Dihin is beans with fat. It is served steaming hot and you are meant to dunk your hand right into the mix. Bagilla is the Iraqi term for broad beans or foul (in the rest of the Middle East).
The plate is layered with torn-up bread, boiled and smashed bagilla and an omelette or fried egg on top with a splash of hot oil. The seasoning is simple, just salt. Breakfast restaurants feature it in the areas around the shrines, particularly in the cosmopolitan district of Kadhimiya in Baghdad. They serve a variety of eggs, devilled with tomatoes, onions, beans, rice and even chicken. Not just broad beans, but a variety of beans features heavily in Iraqi cuisine, as sides and as the stars of their own show in stews, providing a cheap protein alternative to meat.
Iraqi food is simple and hearty, designed to feed large families and communities. Perhaps, the biggest influences on contemporary Iraqi cuisine have been conflict and war, followed by an opening up of the country to pilgrims and expats. Recently there has been a surge in Iraqi restaurants in the food capitals of the world such as London and Kuala Lumpur, but everyday Iraqi food remains unrepresented. A slew of Instagram accounts showcasing the cuisine seem to be the outpourings of affluent nostalgic Iraqi expats. A lot remains to be understood and experienced about this ancient cuisine but one thing is for certain, it holds the potential to serve as comfort food to the world.