Delicious diplomacy: Stephen Hickey’s cooking hobby has made him popular with Iraqis

The British ambassador in Baghdad has cultivated his own take on 'soft power'

Stephen Hickey cooking. Courtesy Stephen Hickey
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British Ambassador Stephen Hickey’s passion for cooking has made him one of the most popular diplomats in Iraq, as he showcases the country’s rich flavours to the world.

Over the past few months, the British diplomat has uploaded videos of himself cooking at his Baghdad home on social media, to get tips and reactions from Iraqis.

I've been so lucky to get invited to people's houses for dinner and the food is amazing

It was a bold gambit but it appears to have paid off and has brought him closer to the Iraqi public.

Mr Hickey is aiming to master the art of cooking complex dishes that reflect Iraq’s heritage as well as strong regional influences on the country's culinary traditions.

"It helps the public realise that western diplomats are people and are not just here to pursue our country's interest; we are also here to learn about the country and experience it as well," Mr Hickey told The National.

“I found that it builds confidence and trust in people,” he said.

Even with senior Iraqi officials, the British diplomat spends 10 minutes discussing dishes before speaking about issues such as early elections, economic reforms and the public protests that have been a frequent occurrence since October 2019.

“I enjoy talking and learning about food just as an individual, not a diplomat, and I find that Iraqis enjoy talking about it too, especially where each dish comes from, or whether it’s been influenced by neighbouring countries,” Mr Hickey said.

Over the centuries, many empires have passed through Iraq, leaving their mark on the country’s dishes.

Different eras of Iraqi history, culture and cuisine can be threaded together by the influence of these successive invasions.

Showcasing different aspects of Iraqi cuisine also sparks debate on the origin of dishes, which Mr Hickey has experienced.

“There’s always controversy over the dishes I cook, some people say I’m cooking it in the wrong way, it’s an Iraqi dish. For the dolma, people say it’s Turkish or from the Levantine,” he said.

But the diplomat is open to suggestions.

Mr Hickey has attempted to cook dolma, Iraq’s most famous dish, consisting of various stuffed vegetables with rice and minced meat, cooked slowly in lemon, pomegranate and tamarind and also Bamya, a traditional stew of lamb, okra and tomatoes.

“I took the advice I was receiving from comments online; there’s the Iraqi cookbook by Lamees Ibrahim – used her recipe as a basis and used a few small tweaks based on what people said.”

During Ramadan he attempted to make a milk toffee pudding on an Iraqi television show, following a recipe from the famous Iraqi cook, Chef Shaheen.

“I was pleased not to burn down the studio, I think it turned out OK.”

Mr Hickey believes that through food, the world can see Iraq in a different light.

“It’s an aspect of Iraqi culture that’s not well known, especially not in the West, so it's nice to show something positive about Iraq, it improves the picture of what life is like there too.”

But the diplomat has also received criticism for showcasing his hobby to the public.

“Just by being the British ambassador and putting yourself out there on social media there will always be some criticism, it comes with the job and that’s OK,” he said.

A comment he often hears is “why are you spending your time cooking when there are many things you could be doing as the ambassador to Iraq?”

Mr Hickey’s response is simple: he believes that it “is possible for a person to cook occasionally and to also do their job”.

“I spend less than one per cent of my time cooking and the other 99 per cent on human rights issues, economic reforms, early elections, supporting British companies; the two are not mutually exclusive,” he said.

Despite such a keenness to showcase Iraqi cuisine, Mr Hickey was unfamiliar with Iraqi cooking prior to taking up his post in Baghdad in 2019.

“I’ve been so lucky to get invited to people’s houses for dinner and the food is amazing. It’s incredible, the generosity of Iraqi hospitality is striking, and also the flavours.”