Food forms such an important cornerstone of Iraqi culture. The multiple layers of identity that form Iraq mainfest themselves through a wide range of flavors and practices across the world. We recently met up with Nawal Nasrallah, an Iraqi foodie and author of “Delights from the Garden of Eden,” a book that traces the origins of Iraqi food to the beginning of civilization itself. Here is what she had to say.
Q: Please introduce yourself to our readers. Who are you and what do you do? Where do you live and where did you come from? A: Before coming to the United States in 1990, I worked as a professor at the universities of Baghdad and Mosul, teaching English language and literature. The reason for this move was to join my husband who at the time had just started his scholarship for a PhD degree at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. Currently I live in Salem New Hampshire, and in my capacity as an independent scholar, I spend most of my time pursuing my passion for spreading the word about the legacy of the Iraqi cuisine and its culture, by writing about it, translating important medieval culinary texts, and giving public talks about it, often with cooking demonstrations of medieval and contemporary dishes.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book about Iraqi cooking? A: I became aware of an empty space that needed to be filled. On the shelves of libraries and bookstores I would see all kinds of beautiful international cookbooks but none on Iraq. That made me feel kind of jealous. Besides, ever since the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was on the news practically all the time, and whenever people knew I came from that region, they would ask me about my dishes, and if I knew of any Iraqi cookbooks for recipes. It was then that I started to seriously think of putting together an Iraqi recipe book. What was at first planned to be a collection of recipes expanded into a full blown project, in which these recipes were interwoven with whatever was related to Iraqi food, of history, folklore, art, culture, stories, etc. I wrote the kind of cookbook I myself would have liked to read of any given culture.Q: How would you describe Iraqi cuisine to someone who has never tried it before? Why should non-Iraqis read this book? A: Those who have in mind the generic Levantine fare of hummus-falafel-tabbouli-kibbi, and so on will undoubtedly soon discover that the Iraqi cuisine is kind of differently oriented. For one thing, and irrespective of differences in ethnicity or religion, region, or even social status, the Iraqi daily staple revolves around the dishes of rice and stew, what we call in Iraqi timman wa marga. White rice is usually served with a tomato-based stew cooked with chunks of lamb on the bone and a seasonal vegetable, one day it would be okra — the most popular of all – and another day, it would be spinach, or white beans, or eggplant, or zucchini, and so on. Therefore, it is never boring as it might first sound. Another thing typically Iraqi, is having pickles with such meals, especially pickled mango, called ‘amba. It is usually imported from India, and I have not seen any other people more fond of ‘amba than Iraqis, not even perhaps the Indians themselves who manufacture it for us. One reason could be that these daily dishes are usually spiced sparingly.
Iraqi cuisine is also distinguished by its elaborate dishes, mostly stuffed, which are usually cooked less frequently for the family, reserved for feasts and special family occasions, and are always expected to grace the table for the dining guests. More labor – mainly of love of course – is involved in making these dishes, the more honored and welcome the guests would feel. It is also in such dishes that more regional differences in the Iraqi way of cooking can be seen. For instance, the Iraqi pot of dolma (vegetables stuffed with meat and rice) is made with an assortment of vegetables, and not just one vegetable as is done in other Middle Eastern countries. However, whereas the Baghdadi’s prefer it simmered in clear liquid, cooks from Mosul (in northern Iraq) like to use tomato-based liquid; and Iraqi Christians cook it without meat during the fasting days of Lent.
Another example is the stuffed bulgur dough, called kubba or kibbi, shaped into flat discs, impressively large and thin. This dish is the specialty of the cooks of Mosul, where wheat is abundant; whereas in other regions south of Mosul, where rice is more commonly used, kubba is made with rice, such as kubbat halab, or potatoes, such as poteta chap. A Baghdadi specialty, along the banks of the river Tigris is the dish of grilled whole fish, called masgouf. Split-open fish is hung on two sticks and barbecued on camp-like fire. If you are a lover of hot spicy foods, head southwards to Basra, where it has always been a key port for the spice trade ever since ancient times. For a Kurdish treat, ask for parda palaw, an enticing bundle of rice-meat mix enclosed in thin sheets of bread dough and baked to beautiful crispiness.
And of course for weddings and even large official banquets, you will always see a beautifully roasted whole sheep proudly centered on a huge tray of rice, sometimes served in multi-colored, white, red (with tomato sauce), green (with herbs), and yellow (with saffron or turmeric). This majestic dish is called qouzi.
All these dishes, even those with rice, come accompanied with the characteristic breads of Iraq, namely, khubuz, flat bread baked in the tannour (domed clay oven) and the diamond-shaped sammoun, baked at commercial bakeries in brick ovens firin.
Iraqis are great drinkers of black tea, a heavy brew served with lots of sugar served both after and between meals. This might also be one of the reasons why dessert is not necessarily served as a finale to the meal as is the custom in the West. Occasionally, baklawa and zalabiya (fritters drenched in syrup) are served late in the evenings, especially during the fasting month of Ramadan. Iraq is also known for its excellent dates, usually consumed fresh during the summer and dried year round. Very nourishing and refreshing when served with a glass of chilled yogurt drink, we call shineena.
As you see, the offerings of the Iraqi cuisine are really unique, delicious and wholesome, and they deserve to be more widely known. My book on the Iraqi cuisine with its extensive scope will be very useful for those who wish to get to know Iraq through a unique lens, away from politics. It is a practical guide, by means of which they learn how to make authentic dishes with great success. I am sure thousands of people who spent some time in Iraq for the last decade or so would be interested in knowing about the dishes they experienced there. The book is also a reliable source for those interested in the culture and history of food, or indeed anybody who likes a good read and entertaining stories.Q: Why should Iraqis read this book? Are there any misconceptions about Iraqi cooking that you want to set straight in the book? A: Sadly, a huge number of Iraqis in the diaspora, most of whom were still quite young when they had to leave the country, did not have the time or opportunity to absorb our beautiful culinary heritage. My book with all its inclusiveness of all things related to the Iraqi way of cooking, be they recipes, stories, history, culture, songs, folktales, you name it, will be the sure key.
As for Iraqis who already know how to cook the food, I still think they do need to read it. Before I started my research for this book, I was clueless regarding the long and bright history of our cuisine, which, as I have discovered, goes all the way back to ancient Iraq.
Who would have thought that the daily staple stew dish marga was also cooked by the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, the ancient inhabitants of Iraq? Who would have thought that the first documented cookbook was written on cuneiform tablets by the ancient Iraqis themselves in 1700 BC; or that the earliest medieval cookbooks written worldwide came from Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate?
These and many more discoveries I made along the road of my long and extensive research I want to share with my fellow Iraqis, even though they are familiar with the dishes. My book is a recipe book, and much more. It is this ‘much more’ that I would love to spread the word about. A very bright spot in our heritage that every Iraqi needs to be aware of, which is contrary to the commonly recycled notion that the Iraqi cooking has no character or roots of its own, that it is derivative, being heavily influenced by the Persian cuisine, or Turkish, or Ottoman, and so on.Q: What is the most important ingredient in the Iraqi kitchen? A: Generally, the Iraqi kitchen is not really that demanding. Almost all the ingredients needed for cooking authentic Iraqi dishes are available in the general stores. It is the cooking techniques that give it its characteristic touch. However, I do think that certain dishes, such as the Iraqi rice dish biryani and some fish dishes, do not taste authentically Iraqi if these two key ingredients are absent: 1) Noomi Basra, which is dried lime, and 2) baharat, a spice mix similar to the Indian garam masala. Check my website for more details, photos and recipes. Q: What is your favorite Iraqi dish? And how do you make it? A: I like more than one dish, but of course time and energy determine how often I can indulge in them. At the top of my list is Kubbat Hamudh Shalgham. It is basically a winter dish, a rich soup, which is a meal by itself: turnip and Swiss chard soup with luscious kubba dumplings made by filling thin shells of rice-meat dough with already cooked aromatic mix of ground meat and onion. I never really had my fill of it when I was a kid. It was a labor intensive dish as all the pounding and kneading was manually performed in a mortar and pestle. This is now all done in a food processor within minutes. I guess that is why this machine quickly acquired the well-deserved name sitt il-beit (lady of the house) in the Iraqi households. I have a detailed recipe for making this dish in my cookbook.
The other dish which I like very much and cook all the time is mtabbag simach (literally, layered fish). Here is my recipe.
Mtabbag Simach ('Layered Fish')
By June 5, 2013Published:
- Yield: 4 Servings
- Cook: 30 mins
This is an aromatic spicy fish dish, usually shabbout or bunni (river fish of the carp family), with yellow rice and raisins. In just 30 minutes, you can have a feast, one that is truly delicious, satisfying and healthy. Traditionally, the fish is layered with the rice and raisin mix, but I sometimes make it simpler by just arranging the fish pieces and the raisins on the rice itself. To make it lighter, I broil the fish instead of frying it. Start by cooking the rice, and in the meantime prepare the raisin mix. 10 minutes before serving the dish, start broiling the fish.
- 1 tablespoon oil for yellow rice
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric for yellow rice
- 2 cups rice for yellow rice
- 3 1/2 cups water for yellow rice
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt for yellow rice
- 4-5 whole pods cardamom for yellow rice
- 1 stick cinammon for yellow rice
- 1 tablespoon oil for raisin mix
- 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped for raisin mix
- 1 1/2 teaspoon turmeric for raisin mix
- 1 teaspoon curry powder for raisin mix
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced for raisin mix
- 3/4 cups raisins for raisin mix
- 1 teaspoon crushed nooma basra for raisin mix
- 1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds for raisin mix
- 1/2 tablespoon salt for raisin mix
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper for raisin mix
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley for raisin mix
- 2 tablespoons water for raisin mix
- 1/2-2 pounds salmon (or any other fish of your choice) for fish
- 1 tablespoon olive oil for fish
- 1 tablespoon mustard for fish
- 1 tablespoon honey for fish
- 1 sprinkle coarse salt for fish
- To make the rice: In a medium heavy pot (preferably non-stick), put all the rice ingredients, and let them boil, covered, for 7 to 10 minutes on high heat, until all visible moisture evaporates. Reduce heat to low and let it simmer for 20 minutes. Fold rice gently 2 to 3 times while simmering to allow it to fluff.
- To prepare the raisin mix: In a medium skillet, sauté onion in oil until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in turmeric and curry powder in the last 30 seconds. Add the rest of the raisin-mix ingredients, and stir and cook for about five minutes. Keep warm.
- Skin and fillet the fish and divide into 4 portions. Turn on heat of the broiler. Line a shallow baking pan with aluminum foil, and drizzle it with half the oil. Arrange the fish pieces on the pan leaving space between pieces. Brush them with half the mustard-honey mix, drizzle with the remaining oil, and sprinkle with salt. Broil for 5 minutes, then turn over the pieces, brush them with the remaining mustard-honey mix, and let them cook until surface is crisp and golden, about 5 minutes, or until flesh is flaky when poked with a fork. Immediately, spread the rice in a big platter, arrange the fish pieces on the rice, and spread the raisin-mix between and around the fish pieces.