Sunday, July 26, 2009

a (partial) paatcha experience at london's sarchnar iraqi restaurant

In The Iraqi Cookbook, the Iraqi medical doctor turned food writer Lamees Ibrahim describes the famous Iraqi dish paatcha, a type of tashreeb - meaning a dish made of sauce poured over dry bread in a deep dish.

She writes: The most unusual tashreeb is paatcha, which is a tashreeb of lamb's head, trotters, pieces of stomach and tongue. In Baghdad, specialised shops cooked and sold paatcha to men, especially poor labourers, who started the day at dawn by performing fajr (sunrise) prayers at the mosque. Instead of going home to wake their sleepy wives and children for an early breakfast, they gathered at the shop of Abu Al Paatcha to enjoy a big bowl of their delicious tashreeb followed by a few cups of strong dark, sweet tea. They exchanged jokes and set off ready for their long hard day's work. By midday, the shop-keeper would have sold out, washed up, closed and gone home.

Last night I had the chance to sample paatcha for the first time, not in Baghdad but in London at the Iraqi Kurdish restaurant Sarchnar Kabab in Edgware Road (the restaurant's name comes from a free in Kurdistan). An Iraqi friend had been promising for some time to take me there for the paatcha experience, and last night was the night. As it was latish the restaurant had run out of some of the components of the paatcha - there were no lamb's feet - but the lamb's head was there, as was a bowl of deliciously tender pieces of meat on the bone in a clear broth on a bed of bread pieces. The restaurant has its own oven working ceaselessly to produce flat bread. Tashreeb dishes are, like bread and butter pudding, or even the simple bread and milk of childhood, an example of the way in which bread can be transformed when incorporated into recipes. The texture of the flat bread in the sauce is somewhat pasta like, although the sauce soaks in rather than clinging. Paatcha appears in Ibrahim's Iraqi cookery book not in the meat section, but in the bread and tashreeb chapter, which reflects the important place of tashreeb in Iraqi cuisine.

The service from our waiter Aki was charming. To wash down our meal we drank from large glasses of shenina, yoghourt drink with ice cubes. The tashreeb was well-seasoned and extremely tasty. The sheep's head came with tongue, eye and brain in tact. My dining companion shared the first and last of these; the eye went untouched. The meat of the head was again meltingly tender, with the occasional cartilaginous crunch.

Paatchi may not be the most glamorous -looking of dishes (the head, cheekside down, is in the dish on the right), but it is delectable, and the tashreeb qualifies as a comfort food. The dish glimpsed on the left was is my companion's bamia in a rich sauce. Rice came sprinkled with sultanas.

Sarchmar Kabab is that rarity in London - an authentic Iraqi restaurant. I have only been to one other - the Babylon, that was open for a time in Westbourne Grove but which mysteriously and suddenly closed, with the electric lights inside left blazing for months.

I intend to return to Sarchnar to sample some other dishes, such as the various kubba, among them the Mosul kubba - the broad saucer-shaped speciality of that city. (“The size of this kind of kubba is a matter of pride to the maker, and the mouselians are proud of being able to make the largest sizes possible,” writes Ibrahim). And maybe to have the full paatcha experience, lamb's feet and all.

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