Food trails: A gastronomic exploration into the history and origin of Iraqi food

In the second part of our series on food from the region, we trace the origins of Iraqi cuisine, the ways in which it has evolved to suit the modern palate, and how it has influenced dishes around the world.

Basima Al Tamimi and her husband Aziz Al Tamimi enjoy a Iraqi meal at their home in Abu Dhabi. Reem Mohammed / The National
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Gourmet prince Ibrahim ibn Al Mahdi, the half-brother of Abbasid Caliph Harun Al Rashid (763-809), once wrote: “On a hot summer day, the cook brought us a dish of shabbut (carp) fish, a golden kid-roast resembled.

“Masterly roasted; with parsley, leeks, olive oil, and thyme stuffed.

“Then its sibagh he made of pomegranate juice, sugar, and almond,

“Vinegar, murri, asafetida leaves, black pepper, olive oil, walnut, and coriander.

“He brought it in looking like the sun, a radiant delight, redolent with aloe wood, musk, and amber.”

The fish dish mentioned above is one of the 600 traditional dishes featured in Ibn Sayyar Al Warraq's 10th-century cookbook, Kitab Al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes) – quite possibly the world's oldest and most comprehensive Arabian cookbook, which details ancient dishes served in Baghdad court.

"Iraqi cuisine is one of the oldest cuisines in the world," says Dubai-based Iraqi chef Raghad Al Safi, author of The Iraqi Table, which was published by Motivate Publishing in 2016.

It’s a cuisine that dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, where the Babylonians took great pride in their food and documented it on cuneiform tablets from 1700BC to 1900BC. From types of bread and cheese to soups, the old dishes have survived and been modernised over the ages.

“Babylonians made spicy sausages with minced meat, stuffing the mixture into animal intestines to act as skins in approximately 1500BC,” says Al Safi.

Some Iraqi dishes have historically derived names such as: shorbat dajaj ahmar or shorbat al wajaa (red chicken soup for the sick); Tartar qulaghi (ear of the Tartar), a meat-filled pasta in yogurt sauce dating back to the 1258 Siege of Bagdad by Tartar forces; lessan al qadhi (the judge’s tongue), a kebab wrapped in eggplant, the name of which is though to be a reference to the ceremonial cloak worn by judges; and sheikh al maheshi (stuffed elder or leader), a humorous title for the most popular stuffed-vegetable dish, with tomato sauce. There is also imam bayildi (the imam fainted), a stuffed-eggplant dish that has Ottoman-­empire influences. It is said that an imam who had fasted all day was so taken with the dish that he fainted when he ate it.

“We like to stuff things, in our cuisine, whether we are stuffing vegetables (dolma dish) or animal intestines, such as mumbarat – stuffed lamb intestines with meat, rice, spices and almonds,” Al Safi says. The use of animal intestines is said to have been perfected by the Sumerians, who are credited with the invention of sausages about 4000BC.

A civil engineer and an interior designer, Al Safi, who has three sons, worked for more than seven years on her Iraqi cuisine cookbook, which has 100 recipes. Some are more than 1000 years old and taken from Al Warraq’s book, others more contemporary and popular on the streets of Iraq. As well as the recipes, she reveals the story behind the dishes and her personal enhancing touches.

“Iraqi cuisine is made up of Assyrian, Kurdish, Turkmen, Yazidi, Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim dishes, and so it is important to include them when we pay homage to our colourful and diverse food culture,” she says.

Influenced by neighbouring countries, the south of Iraq is known for its seafood dishes, with spices similar to those used in the Arabian Gulf – 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.

Al Safi tells in her cookbook that kubba, which means dome, or anything round, from the Akkadian word “kippatu”, has maintained its spherical shape for thousands of years.

“Every dish has a story,” she adds.

Perhaps one of the most-famous dishes out of Iraq is samak masgouf, which is considered by many to be the national dish of the country. A lot of Iraqi restaurants in the UAE have named themselves after it.

“A large fish, like carp, is gutted and scaled, basted in a mixture of olive oil, rock salt and tamarind, before being impaled on a sharp piece of wood, suspended between two other sticks speared into the sand and surrounded by an open fire fuelled by apricot-tree twigs or date-palm leaves,” says Al Safi.

“After it is well-cooked, it is placed on a tray garnished with lime, slices of onions and Iraqi pickles. It is delicious.”

Other dishes mentioned include bamiea bil zait (okra salad), which was called “ubanu” in ancient Iraq on Assyrian cuneiform tablets, and is known today as “lady’s fingers”; bagella bil zait (broad bean salad); sammoun (diamond-shaped bread); shalgham wa tamur (turnip with dates); tamreya (fried dates with eggs), kabab (skewered minced meat), manti (filled dumplings), temman bi dibis al rumman (rice with pomegranate syrup), and a wide variety of date dishes, including a date cake.

Basima Al Tamimi, an Iraqi housewife who lives in Abu Dhabi, says she learnt how to cook most of her home country’s traditional dishes after she was married.

“My mother-in-law taught me, and now I am teaching my daughter-in-law,” the mother of three says with a smile, adding that when she was single, living with her family, she did not have to cook as her older sisters and mother would make food for everyone.

“It is funny, as I didn’t let my daughter in the kitchen out of fear she would hurt herself. So the Iraqi cooking traditions in our family is going along the in-laws line.”

Al Tamimi’s daughter, Sura, learnt how to make Iraqi cuisine with help from her own mother-in-law. Besides making all sorts of marga (stews), Al Tamimi also makes Iraqi dishes similar to the ones in the Gulf, such as majboos (spiced rice) with chicken or meat, and harees, a type of wheat pudding or porridge with beef, spices and local ghee.

“When we lived in Baghdad, our dishes reflected the seasons,” says Al Tamimi. “When it is chima [desert truffle] season, we use them in our dishes. When it is rumman [pomegranate] season we add them to our food and drink them with our meals. Our fertile land helped create a very diverse cuisine.”

After moving from Iraq in 2006, Al Tamimi says that though the country has been in turmoil, the devotion to serving good food remains.

“No matter what happened, we gather and eat our traditional dishes together,” she says. “It is a ritual and a tradition we never broke, and hopefully, it will never break.

“Our cuisine reflects our unity and diversity as a people, and that is something Iraqis and the world needs to remember. A dish is not complete without all its ingredients.”

While serving dates and Arabic coffee is a must in every Iraqi and Arab home, Al Tamimi says chocolates are a new culinary tradition.

“We have a great sweet tooth,” she says. “We have all sorts of desserts, from jams to halwa (sweet pastry), which is made with carrots or pistachio or dates, and halwat shariea (sweet vermicelli with walnut), similar to local balaleet.

“Ancient Iraqi civilisation has passed through ancient UAE, and so it left its mark through some of the dishes that are served here today.”

Iraq is also famous for its biscuits, says Al Tamimi: “We make lots of types of cookies.”

As if Iraqi cuisine needed any more honours, it appears it is a “cradle of cookies”, too.

Iraqi scholar and author, Nawal Nasrallah, who translated Al Warraq’s book (including Al Mahdi’s poem) and has published other books and articles on the history of Iraqi cuisine, writes that “top quality breads were called “kuku” in Akkadian, the ancient language of the Mesopotamians, from which the Arabic kaak (cookie) must have derived”.

"The cookies were shaped into rings, pillars, turbans, crescents, hearts, heads, hands, ears and even women's breasts," she writes on her blog, In My Iraqi Kitchen. "And the tradition continued. The existing cookbooks of the medieval Arabo-Islamic world testify to the sophistication and popularity of cookie-making and consumption. The most prevalent were those stuffed with nuts or dates, back then called khushkananaj, which resemble the ancient Mesopotamian 'qullupu' cookies, and the kleicha and maamul of modern times.

“There were also varieties of the ka’k dry cookies, sandwich cookies, glazed cookies and delicate almond cookies. All were infused differently with the aromas of rosewater and musk, seasoned with spices, and decked with nuts.”

It would seem that this region – and many other parts of the world – can trace a lot of its favourite dishes back to ancient Iraq.