Tess Mallos
22 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson

In northern Iraq lies Kurdistan, an area stretching across to southern Turkey and western Iran. It is here that humans first began farming, planting grain crops and raising livestock in order to control food production.

The fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers saw the birth of the Sumerian civilisation before 5000 BC. Called Mesopotamia by the Ancient Greeks, this area is regarded as the birthplace of Western civilisation. Towards the southern part of the valley, Babylon and Ur grew, flourished and died around 500 BC, leaving a legacy for civilisations to come.

After the unification of the Arab people under the banner of Islam some 1300 years later, the region came under Arab rule, with Baghdad succeeding Damascus as the capital of the Islamic world. Baghdad became the centre of Arabic culture and trade, with caravans bringing foods and spices from China, India and Persia (Iran).

In the courts of the caliphs of Baghdad, the art of cooking thrived, with a strong Persian influence — a legacy of Persian civilisation. Arabic cooking and food tastes flourished and expanded with the vast variety of foods brought from Asia. As the Arabs swept westward, spreading Islam, they took with them the foods to which they had become accustomed — saffron from Asia Minor; citrus fruits, almonds, rice and sugar cane from Asia — many to be planted in their conquered lands, thus introducing new foods to Europe.

The Mongols, then the Ottoman Turks, swept into Baghdad and the political power of the city diminished, but the culinary glories spread far and wide, influencing the cuisine of the Arab world in general. That influence is still evident today.

The flavour of Iraqi food

One usually enters a country with preconceived ideas about their foods. Though I expected an extension of Arabic cuisine, all I could associate with Iraq was the Lion of Babylon dates I had been buying for years, and I wondered in what other ways the date was used on its home ground.

When dates are being dried for export and for use throughout the remainder of the year, a thick dark amber syrup is exuded from the fruit. It is used in hamuth heloo, a lamb and dried fruit dish reminiscent of Iranian meat and fruit combinations, but with a flavour more sweet than sweet–sour. Marees is a combination of date syrup and butter, heated and blended with squares of khoubiz (bread) and eaten with gaimer, the thick buffalo cream of the area, similar to the ushta and kaymak of neighbouring countries. The Kurds in the north of Iraq use a raisin syrup for marees.

For a simple date sweetmeat, try holwah tamar, or the more intricate murabba tamar and klaicha, for a mouth-melting pastry filled with dates and perfumed with rosewater or orange flower water.

Iraqi date varieties dried for export are kahastawari, khadrowi and zhehdik, the first two being the varieties exported to the West. Baban and berhi are delicate dates best eaten fresh, though they freeze very well. Baban is a black date with a fairly firm skin — when squeezed gently the flesh pops out and literally melts in the mouth. Berhi, a light golden date with a tender skin, is not skinned before eating. It is stringy, sweet and delicious, with a slightly peppery undertone, and the texture of fresh sugar cane. If left too long, berhi dates become overripe and squashy, rather like bananas do.

The rice dishes of Iraq, though not extensive in range, are somewhat similar to those of Persia: timman — steamed rice very similar to chelou — and timman z’affaran, a rice dish reminiscent of Persian polous, with the spiciness of the Gulf Arabic cooking, but essentially Iraqi in concept and presentation.

Dolmas are as popular here as elsewhere and I was fascinated with mumbar, basically a dolma meat filling in a sausage casing. A long length of the casing is filled and coiled into a pan and given a long, slow simmering; the mumbar is then sliced into portions and served as an appetiser.

Though potatoes are relative newcomers to Middle Eastern cooking, and in Iraq not readily available all year round, the Iraqis make the most of the potato when it is in season, using it for delightful potato cakes called batata charp, filled with a spicy meat or a tomato and parsley stuffing.

In discussing foods with our Iraqi contact, I would frequently ask how a particular dish was served. His reply was always ‘as part of a feast’, giving me the impression that Iraqis are always feasting. After visiting his home unexpectedly, I found that every meal indeed is a feast, with huge quantities served. It was at this meal that another side of Arabic hospitality was revealed. Our host did not eat while we were his guests, as it is the custom for the host to look after their guests’ needs exclusively; his needs were not considered until after our departure. I was impressed and amazed at his self-control in not even venturing to take a nibble during the many hours we enjoyed his hospitality. However, he did take care of his thirst with a few glasses of beer — Australian beer at that.

One typically Iraqi dish, and a speciality of Baghdad outdoor restaurants bordering the Tigris, is masgoof. It is a dish that is seldom prepared in the home, though it is possible to do so. The Tigris River teems with a vast variety of freshwater fish — very large, firm-fleshed and flavourful. The fish is gutted and slit, opened out and impaled on two green sticks secured in the earth and set alongside a fire of fragrant woods. As the fish is rather oily, it needs little attention from the cook, except perhaps light seasoning with salt, pepper and paprika before cooking. The fish is barbecued slowly with the inner flesh exposed to the heat. After almost an hour’s cooking in this way, the fish is removed from the sticks and thrown skin side down on top of the now-glowing embers to complete the cooking. It is served on a platter with sliced onion and tomato, and plenty of bread. The right way to eat masgoof is with your fingers, so that you may feel the bones — it makes a lot of sense. While the variety of fish is large, the most popular fish for masgoof is the shabboot, though booni and theka are also available and equally good (local alternatives include Murry River carp or golden carp). The diner is given a choice of which fish to have prepared, as they are all kept in a tiled pond on the premises for your selection. There is certainly no doubt about the freshness.

Beautiful parks and gardens stretch along the banks of the Tigris, with bronzed statues set in groups, the tableaux depicting tales from the Arabian Nights, a reminder of the glorious days of the caliphs of Baghdad and their contribution to the art and culture of the Arabic world. Zlabiya, a kind of sweet, syrupy pastry rosette and a favourite of the Iraqis, is immortalised in the stories of the Arabian Nights: ‘Of sweet zlabiya chain I hung a necklace around her neck. From its delicious loops I made a ring on her ears.’ The same confection is prepared in neighbouring countries to the west and as far east as India, but its home is Iraq.

One particular dish served at feasts — that is, real feasts — is khouzi. A version that I found fascinating, khouzi khasibi, needs very special facilities for its preparation. A rice is prepared similar to timman z’affaran, but with little cooking of the grain. The lamb is steamed beforehand in a conventional oven until half done. It is then skewered with two green ribs from palm branches passing through the leg and shoulder on each side. The rice is placed in a deep tray on top of a bed of glowing coals set in the base of a tannour oven. The lamb is lowered head down into the tannour, with the fat tail of the lamb at the top of the carcass so that the meat is basted as the fat melts. The opening of the oven is crisscrossed with green palm leaves, and wet clay is packed on top to seal the opening completely. The lamb cooks slowly, the juices dripping onto the rice below, and when the clay seal begins to crack, the lamb is cooked. The use of the green palm ribs is all part of the flavour of the whole dish as these begin to smoulder towards the end of cooking, imparting a special fragrance to the meat. The khouzi of the city-dweller is prepared in a similar way to the khouzi of Saudi Arabia, and you may find that recipe easier to duplicate for an Arabic feast.

Khoubiz, the flat bread of Iraq, is similar to the mafrooda burd of the Gulf States and the nane lavash or taftoon of Iran. There is also a recipe for khoubiz, in the chapter on Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Samoon is a diamond-shaped thick loaf similar to the barbari of Iran, but only a quarter of its size. Khoubiz is served with every meal; samoon is a popular bread for breakfast.

Eating Iraqi style

A meal in a town house is served on a dining table spread with a cloth, with china and cutlery. All the dishes for the meal are placed on the table at the one time. Soup is seldom, if ever, served. Rice is always part of the meal and served with murag, a meat stew with okra, eggplant, green peas or beans. A roast chicken could also be served with a platter of batata charp, a large bowl of salad containing cos lettuce, crisp cucumbers, tomatoes, onion rings and a cress-like herb called barbeen. Another herb which could be included is rashad, resembling coarse dill and with the peppery flavour of cress. Date vinegar is used as the dressing on salads, with a little salt and pepper. The beverage is more than likely to be beer, and when one recalls the area’s earliest history it is understandable because beer was made by the Sumerians as far back as 3000 BC. At the conclusion of the meal, coffee — prepared in the Turkish manner — and sweet pastries are served in another room. If you are a guest, on your departure your hostess sprinkles the top of your head with rosewater dispensed from a long silver decanter fitted with a perforated top. The significance is to carry the pleasure of the visit away with you, the lingering fragrance serving as a reminder.

Ingredients for Iraqi cooking

Favourite meats are lamb, beef and chicken. The rice preferred is the basmati rice of Pakistan. You will need baharat, the spice mix popular in the Gulf States, although the Iraqi cook is quite likely to substitute ground allspice, adding a little pepper and paprika for added heat and colour. Flat-leaf parsley is essential, and watercress for salads in place of the rashad and barbeen which are difficult to obtain outside the region. Dried dates are essential and, if you can get them, fresh dates for preserves and sweets; rosewater, orange flower water, saffron, almonds, walnuts and dried fruits also feature heavily. The dried lime of the Gulf States and Iran is also used in Iraq, where it is called noomi basra. Basra is a seaport on the Arabian Gulf, and as the dried limes would arrive from there the locals added the name of the seaport to the name for the lime. I have referred to the lime as noomi in the Iraqi recipes, although it is elsewhere known as loomi.

Pronunciation of Arabic names

Pronounce ‘a’ as in past; ‘e’ as in egg; ‘eh’ as in egg, slightly aspirated; ‘ou’ as in soup; ‘i’ as in pit; ‘u’ as in put; an inverted comma (’) before a vowel is a barely perceptible ‘k’ (Lebanon, Syria and Jordan only).

This guide serves for all Arabic-speaking countries: Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gulf States, Yemen and Egypt, and for Iran and Afghanistan.

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