About the food of Iraq

Children in Iraq

So, here’s the humbling truth: there’s lots of things I thought I knew about Iraq, thanks to the constant stream of current events infiltrating my subconscious. But, when it came right down to it, I actually knew nothing about Iraq.

Nothing.

So I began digging. After just a few minutes, I found this lil’ tidbit out: from the northern mountains to the windswept deserts, Iraq is known as the cradle of civilization.

What? Hold the presses. While you might have known this rather fundamental piece of history, it was news to me.

(Perhaps I should have taken a greater array of history classes in college – 89% of my courseload was centered on Medieval French Arthurian legend, specifically during the time of Crétiens de Troyes – but now is a good a time as any to keep learning.)

Paddling down the Euphrates River, Iraq. Photo by Christiaan Briggs.

Anyway – formerly known as Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers (Tigris & Euprhates), Iraq was built upon the fertile crescent plains, where rich soil facilitated healthy crops and plentiful pasture for cattle. From this bedrock Uruk and Ur built up, known as the world’s first cities.

If that wasn’t cool enough, the area has several other claims to fame:

– the earliest writing systems
– the first kings
– the place where the wheel and plow were invented.

Epic. Epic. Epic.

With such a glorious history, it is no wonder that the Iraqis worked up a good appetite.

For starters, thanks to her seat on the rivers, Iraq is known for wonderful fish dishes, such as masgouf – grilled fish with sour tamarind.

Inward from the rivers, field upon fertile field produce beautiful fruit and vegetables, like Iraq’s world famous dates and eggplants. Dates make their way into many dishes, especially ever popular date and nut balls, commonly made with walnuts or pistachios [Recipe], and fly off the shelves like a Middle Eastern candy bar.

Most meals begin with mezze, made up of an array of small dishes that are so alluring in hot weather. Dishes popular all over the region, such as tabbouleh [Recipe], muhammara [Recipe], falafel, cheese, hummus, yogurt – and breads, such as pita [Recipe], all make a show.

Meat dishes can be cooked any which way, but especially stewed or skewered and grilled. In fact, kabobs much like what we made last week [recipe] are incredibly popular in Iraq. Long-grain rice is ever-loved as a base for meals.

Iraqi maps, courtesy of CIA World Factbook. | Tigris River. Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

And that’s just the beginning.

So listen, turn off the radio. Turn off the TV. And pull up a chair to the Global Table.

This week we’re in the cradle of civilization.

What are your favorite dishes from this region?

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Comments

  1. I commented in your most recent post that I love Persian rice, with the crunchy top layer. The reason Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization is that agriculture was started in the Fertile Crescent. Once man was no longer a hunter and gatherer and could come to rely on crops, he could also start to specialize in other fields. Beautiful pictures.

  2. Collette says:

    That was really interesting. I knew it was known as the cradle of civilization and that they had great land for growing food. i did not know they grew egg plant.

    With all the ugly craziness in the middle east it is nice to see something positive about the area.

  3. I hope that this opens others eyes also! The media is currently responsible for our opinions of other countries! They tend to only show is the horrible, the ugly and the hopeless! I love that I learn something I didn’t know every week from you! Plus I get to form my own opinion with more information!

  4. Jessica Bennett says:

    I often eat Mesopotamian (or as Jon Stewart calls it, Mess-o-Potamian) food, especially hummus, falafel, and pita (which clearly are eaten in other middle eastern countries as well). I think they also eat halloumi cheese, which I love but don’t eat very often.

  5. I fell in love with Ancient Bablyon reading old books when I was a kid., interestingly enough like you , I spent much of college studying Medieval French losing myself in Arthurian Legend with Marie de France.

  6. Brian S. says:

    Five thousand years ago, the kings and top leaders hired professional chefs and they wrote down their recipes. Some have been preserved. One recipe is for chicken pie, and says something like this. Put chicken meat on platter, cover with chopped gizzard and liver and bread crumbs, pour sauce over it, cover with pie crust and bake. 5000 years old. Sounds like the pie I ate at White Lion Restaurant a few weeks ago.

    You mustn’t forget Iraq’s OTHER glory days. A thousand years ago Baghdad was capital of the whole Moslem empire, which stretched from Spain and Morocco through till India. (As I recall, the Maghreb was independent though.) This was a glorious time for philosophers, scientists, poets… and cooks. Then around 1250 the Mongols swept in and destroyed everything just for fun. And that was the end of Iraqi glory.

  7. Deni Harding says:

    Baba Ghanoush! Wonderful roasted eggplant “dip”, but exquisite on rice, too.

  8. Caroline says:

    I had an amazing Western Civ teacher my freshman year of high school. We read The Epic of Gilgamesh, one the earliest known works of literature. It is from Mesopotamia. She insisted that we have a real understanding of that part of the world, rather than what we were being fed from the media (This was one year after 9/11). One of the most important pieces of information she gave to us was that all three of the major monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) have a shared origin (The Story of Abraham for the Bible) and that this all took place in what is known as the Fertile Crescent, and that this was more than likely the location of The Garden of Eden. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have been dammed and diverted, so the images we see on the news of a barren desert make it difficult to believe this, but time changes a lot of things. I’m really looking forward to reading about your exploration this week.

  9. Hi Sasha:

    I think it will be really interesting to compare the food you cook this week with the food that we cook for the Ancient Mesopotamian Cookoff on my site. It will be great to see what is the same and what has changed over the millenia. I think there will be a few surprises – like your mersu.

    There are already about 6 or 7 recipes – as seen through my analysis (not Bottero’s) and I will be adding more soon.

    I hope that a few of your readers will join us as well – especially folks who already know the work that Bottero did – like Brian S.

    Laura

    • Brian S. says:

      Thank you. I don’t know much at all but I was just reading more online and it’s fascinating. Bottero thought (and he might be right) that the biggest innovation of ancient Mesopotamia was braising (or boiling in liquid). Before that, people baked or roasted meat, but with braising, stocks and sauce became possible. Also from what I saw the recipes are (as are many ancient languages) very cryptic. They omit things they think the reader knows and if you read them literally they don’t even say to cook the food. (They assume the reader knows this.) So taken literally they tell you to serve raw meat. This is why Bottero’s first reaction to finding the recipes was to say he’d serve them only to his enemies.

  10. Karen F Bowers says:

    It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we had basic information about people we are oh so happy to kill in the hundreds of thousands. Well, better late than never for you to realize they are actual human beings with a rich culture. Please pass the word to your fellow conservatives.

    • anonymous says:

      I have a feeling Karen’s comment was directed toward Laura, of the Silk Road Gourmet, not Sasha. Laura works for the Secretary of Defense and has worked for the FBI.

  11. Paul Bowler says:

    That’s really harsh and unnecesary

    This site is all abour discovering and celebrating the world’s cultures through medium everyone can relate too; food. And long may it continue! I’ve never had Iraqi food but have tried lots from other middle eastern countries; looking forward to see how Iraqi cuisine differs!

  12. Sasha Martin says:

    There is so much beauty in the world that is overlooked or simply not mainstream.

    Lots of interesting information in the comments this time.

    We have the choice, with every action, to build each other up or bring each other down. I think this web site demonstrates my preference.

    We create peace when we learn about each other – when we *understand* one another. It might seem like the talk of a dreamer, but we can change the world by changing one person – ourselves. Opening our minds is the beginning of a bright future.

    • elisa waller says:

      “you may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m (your) not the only one…” :-) xoxo<3
      I love hummus…tabbouleh, and, falafels,,,If i could share one thing: when I worked in the kitchen I made falafel burgers that were formed into a kinda oversized falafel burger shape (squished flat with a pan, similar to your techniques with your paneer) then I grilled them but you could bake ……placed on a bed of crispy crispy lettuce, served with sliced or semi-cubed tomatoes, and a tamari/nayonnaise (Nasoya..soy based mayonnaise) sauce..OMG! delcious..especially if the falafel is served slightly warm..get a fork and knife……no pita needed but you can certainly make it a sandwich as well….just had to share…that! Great Global Goodness…..batman!!! haha

  13. Wish I could get in touch with Sr Olga Yaqub – she’s busy in retreat developing her strategy for a new women’s religious order in the Boston area. Check out National Geographic Nov 1999…Eyewitness Iraq.

  14. phyllis says:

    The history of the Hungarian people can be traced back to Mesopotamia. Attilla is said to have come from there and he raped and pillaged his way thru to what is now Hungary,where he finally settled. I find the history very interesting.

  15. A Mesopotamian says:

    Hi Sasha,

    As a person with Iraqi heritage, I appreciate the effort that you are putting into highlighting Iraqi cuisine for this week. I have a few comments, mostly for commentors here to think about, that I’d like to share.

    First of all, it’s interesting to read what people think about Iraq from a non-Iraqi perspective. Iraq’s glory years continued, I’d say, until the Gulf War and sanctions of the 1990’s. That era, coupled with one of the most horrific and barbaric invasions Mesopotamia has ever known (yes, the one that happened in 2003), pretty much destroyed Iraq and reduced it to the one that you see represented in the first photo: a few urchins (possibly orphans) living in a shambles. You’d all do well to read about Iraq’s more recent history and appreciate that, as well as the Mesopotamian one (sometimes, I wonder whether the Mesopotamian history is accentuated over that of the recent history here in the West because a lot of Westerners are in complete and total denial that Iraq represents so much more than just the birthplace of Civilization, and Mesopotamian history is of interest to many simply because it ties into Biblical history). The totally brutal invasion and occupation have now created one of the largest refugee populations in the world and the death toll is estimated by more reputable sources to be in the 100,000’s, if not in the several millions. Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq had one of the best educational and medical systems in the world (some say the best in the Middle East), infrastructure that was supported by nationalized oil wealth, and a relatively good lifestyle for the vast majority of the population. Yes, Saddam may have been a dictator, but as an apolitical person in Iraq, one could do very well and even have a job with benefits that exceed relatively “liberal” benefits here (for instance, Iraqi women had better maternity leave policies than we have anywhere here, Stateside). Iraq is not now more than a fiefdom run by a few corrupt individuals and their clans, expats, mostly, seeking to pillage their motherland since they have no real appreciation for the country or the diversity of people who lived there through the millenia until today. And, I’m not coming at this from a radical or sectarian perspective: my Iraqi heritage is Christian, for the most part.

    Anyway, I have a suggestion for Iraqi cuisine, which you may want to mention, if you’re unwilling to cook, Sasha: kibbe hammoud. There are some great books on Iraqi cuisine that one can read online, as well.

    Best of luck with your endeavor!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I tell the positive stories so that we can recognize our common humanity. My goal is to open people’s minds and have people get excited about every country I talk about. To have them say “I want to go there!” by the time the week is over. While every country has lots of stuff to celebrate, I usually only have time to *barely* hit the highlights.. and it is especially difficult when I don’t have personal experience with a country (97% of the world). Bottom line – I’m just a mom trying to better myself and my family by broadening my horizons – not a historian or expert. (I wish :) ).

      I think it’s incredible that we even know where the birthplace of civilization is… one of the first things I wanted to be growing up was an archaeologist … Still, I know what you mean – that is just one part of the big picture of who Iraq is. That’s the very real challenge with my country overviews – finding a way to distill the essence of a country into a short blog post. It’s so incredibly difficult and I do put a lot of care and thought into what I write – trying to touch on the bigger, positive aspects of every country as I go. I could spend years on each country, but then – sadly – I would never finish the Adventure.

      As for the kibbe – it’s so funny you mentioned that. When I cooked Iraq (I work a week ahead), I tried making this and completely failed. The texture was described like a workable dough, but I ended up with a very wet mixture and couldn’t shape it. I ended up making patties and grilling them, but even still it was a mess. I don’t know where I went wrong – I think maybe too much onion… Anyway, the flavor was good, but my technique was lacking. I ended up making my first pita bread instead…. which was wonderful. Too bad you couldn’t be here to help me out! I could use a lesson or two.

      • A Mesopotamian says:

        Hi Sasha,
        You are so sweet and understanding. It must be very hard to represent an entire country in a week’s worth of blog posts, but you do a great job with your overviews. I really liked the post that you wrote about Iraq, and there is something about people calling it the “cradle of civilization” that always makes me (and other Iraqis I know) proud. Same thing with the role Baghdad played during the Caliphate. But, yes, Iraq is a lot more than even that – that piece of land has nourished so many people of so many different faiths and traditions, for so long – it was a mosaic. Anyway, it’s absolutely wonderful that you’re exposing your little girl to the cuisines of other cultures/nations, too.

        As for the kibbe: I have a recipe from a relative. She’s like the world’s expert on Iraqi cooking. You can try it out, if you like. Here’s what it says.

        Looking forward to your next posts!

      • Brian S. says:

        I don’t think that any one place is the birthplace of civilization. Civilization was born many times… in Egypt, in India, in China, in Central America. I think each time was independent of what had gone before. I don’t think that ideas from Mesopotamia were brought by travelers to China, thus starting civilization there. But I could be wrong. Many people now believe, for instance, that agriculture was invented about 11000 years ago somewhere in the Middle East, probably in what is now Turkey, and people migrating westward from there spread the invention to everywhere else.

        • A Mesopotamian says:

          I agree with you, Brian, with your opinion regarding the title “birthplace of civilization,” because it’s obvious that there were other places in which civilization also sprang forth, independently from each other. However, Mesopotamia is one of those places and can be credited with some very important advances in science and technology and literature that helped to build the foundation of civilization as we know it today. It’s coming to light, more and more, that Mesopotamia influenced ancient Greek civilization, which is traditionally thought to be the origin of “Western” civilization.

          With regard to Native American civilizations, I’ve been reading the book “1491” by Charles Mann recently – apparently, Native Americans may have had their own “birth” of civilization prior to Sumerian civilization. It’s very interesting, too, that so many of the vegetables and fruits we eat today (potatoes, tomatoes, corn) were staples of the Native American diet that were introduced to European (and Middle Eastern) cuisine only after the “discovery” of the Americas by Europeans. So, what *really* is a “traditional” Mesopotamian dish? Should we ignore anything with tomatoes, potatoes, or corn?

  16. When I visited the British Museum in London – the big one – which is free and open to the public, by the way….I saw the enornous HUGE exibit from Iraq and could not believe all those giant inscribed walls were dug up and exported/shipped out of Iraq…amazing exibit. A friend of mine speaks ancient Arimethea (sp?) – the language of Jesus – she was born and brought up in Bagdad. Check out National Geographic Nov 1999.
    Peace.

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