For almost three decades, Iraqi chef Raghad Al Safi spent her life soaking up the food, culture, customs and society of her homeland. But at age 28, Al Safi left Baghdad and has since lived in London, Baku, Amman and Vancouver before calling the UAE home.
While the Dubai resident has a civil engineering degree and studied interior design, Al Safi says her true calling is in the kitchen.
“In Iraq, we celebrate everything with food,” says Al Safi. “Whether it’s a wedding, Eid, a birthday, or even just getting good grades. I come from a big family. I have 11 uncles and aunts, and around 65 cousins. My father was the head of the family. Every day, we’d have at least three to four families coming for lunch, dinner or tea.”
It is those lively family gatherings that serve as the inspiration for The Iraqi Table, a cookbook delving into the history of Iraqi culture and cuisine.
“It took me seven years to collect the recipes and do the extensive research required to take the book from a few notes on my iPad to a published piece,” Al Safi says.
“I’ve been experimenting with different recipes and serving them to my family for ages; but for the book, I wanted to go beyond the dish and find the little bit of history or culture related to each one.”
Al Safi spoke to family and friends about their memories of living and eating in Iraq. She even found an elder Turkmen woman, who was visiting Abu Dhabi, who explained to Al Safi the extensive history of Kasham Ashi soup, an Iraqi favourite.
While the food and the ingredients are the focus, the joy in Al Safi’s cookbook is the personal anecdotes peppered throughout.
“The book is filled with personal stories from my childhood, the history of Iraq and its many regions,” she says, “as well as the cultural backgrounds of the many dishes and cuisines shown in the book.”
Al Safi says each Iraqi region has its own specialities: the south is known for its seafood dishes, with spices similar to those used in the Gulf, such as lime, cumin and turmeric. The north is renowned for its kubbas (minced meat and bulgur patties), while Baghdad is best known for its dolmas and stews.
“You can actually sometimes even differentiate similar meals from different regions based on the colour of the sauce they are cooked in,” Al Safi says.
Compared with other Arabian cuisines, she says Iraqi food is “often richer, with a complex layering of flavours that amounts to more than the sum of its parts”.
Al Safi’s pride in her country’s rich culinary culture shines.
“Each city or region in Iraq has particular flavours and dishes,” she says. “We have different regional cuisines from many cultures – Turkmens, Arabs, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians and Kurds to name a few. I hope this book showcases the complexity, the cross-pollination of ideas and the wonderful diversity of Iraqi food.”
Al Safi’s book includes beautiful photography which she hopes will inspire people to recreate the dishes at home.
"The Iraqi Table – both my book and literally the piece of furniture that so many meals are eaten on – is much more than food," she says. "Both are symbols for what the Iraqi culture can serve the world – history, authenticity and a sense of unity among people of all backgrounds."
At the festival, Al Safi will prepare and serve a breakfast, with dishes from each region of Iraq.
• Friday, 10am to 11.30am. Terra Firma Steakhouse, InterContinental, Dubai Festival City, Dh200. The Iraqi Table is Dh165 from UAE bookstores and www booksarabia.com.