Sunday, July 26, 2009

'the iraqi cookbook' by lamees ibrahim

The Iraqi Cookbook
Lamees Ibrahim

Published 2009
Stacey International, London
Interlink Publishing Group, Northampton, Massachusetts
302 pages, hardback

Iraq has one of the world’s most ancient cuisines, thanks to its two great rivers and the irrigation systems that fed the fertile soils of Mesopotamia. The country’s history, and its position as a focus of trading and cultural interactions, produced over the centuries many exchanges of culinary influences.

But the past decades of political upheavals, war and mass migration have taken their toll on agricultural production and on social and cultural patterns. Millions of Iraqis have been scattered abroad, and it has become more difficult for culinary skills to be passed down the generations.

It was a perceived need to provide the younger generation of Iraqis living outside their country with access to their culinary heritage that prompted Lamees Ibrahim [pictured], a London-based Iraqi medical doctor, to write The Iraqi Cookbook. She started the book as a collection of recipes for her son and daughters and then realized there are many young British Arabs who find it hard to read Arabic cookery books, which anyway are primarily designed for people living in Arab countries with easily available ingredients.

Ibrahim first came to London as a postgraduate student at a time when ingredients vital to Iraqi cookery were hard to find or unavailable. In the past 20 years the availability of Middle Eastern ingredients has vastly improved in Britain and other Western countries. It is increasingly possible to find ingredients such as date syrup (dibis), pomegranate molasses, dried or powdered limes, whole wheat kernels and cracked wheat (burghul).

Over more than 300 pages, lavishly illustrated by photographer Terry McCormick, Ibrahim leads the reader across the spectrum of Iraqi dishes. The recipes range from the elaborate to the minimalist. One of the simplest dishes is the delicious tamriyya haneeney, a mixture of dates and eggs fried in oil which is “one of the most famous and traditional sweet dishes among poorer communities in Iraq.”

The more extravagant dishes include stuffed whole lamb (qoozi) and the regal parda pilaou, a deep pie filled with rice, peas, meatballs or chicken pieces, hard boiled eggs, sultanas, flaked almonds, vermicelli, baby potatoes, mixed spices and ground cardamom. There is a recipe for domla Baghdadia, in which a variety of stuffed vegetables are cooked together, and three recipes for maqlouba – large cake-shaped layered assemblages of meat or chicken, nuts, vegetables and rice which are turned upside down at the end of cooking.

There is an entire chapter on kubba, shells stuffed with a minced meat mixture. The numerous kubba recipes reflect the ingenuity of Iraqi cooks in devising shells from a variety of ingredients, including burghul, boiled rice, mashed potatoes and ground rice. One of the most distinctive types of kubba comes from Mosul and has a flat saucer shape. “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.

Another characteristic Iraqi meal is the tashreeb (a sauce served on a base of dry bread) known as paatcha, made of lamb’s head, trotters, pieces of stomach and tongue. Ibrahim remembers shops in Baghdad that were devoted to the cooking and selling of paatcha and catered particularly for poor labourers who would eat the dish for breakfast after morning prayers.

The most famous Iraqi soup is probably hareesah, a porridge of whole wheat cooked with lamb. Shiites cook hareesah in large cauldrons on the 10th day of Muharram, on which they mark Ashura. It is served in bowls topped with sugar and cinnamon and doused with smoking hot oil.

No book on Iraqi food would be complete without a mention of the famed barbecued fish, samak masgouf, served in Baghdad restaurants along the river Tigris. Ibrahim has fond memories of evening promenades with live music and poetry that would end with a samak masgouf meal. The Iraqi Cookbook contains recipes for fish such as carp, bream and sea bass as well for masmouta, a dish made from dried fish by the tiny Mandean community.

Like the Mandeans the different religious communities in Iraq have had their own culinary specialities. The book includes a number of recipes from Iraqi Jews, such as kubba in beetroot sauce, unleavened bread and a chicken dish known as tabyeet which was cooked overnight on a very low heat for the Sabbath.

There have been various historical and regional influences on Iraqi food. Ibrahim says that tatar qoulaghi, mini ravioli in yoghurt sauce, probably dates from the time of the Ottoman Empire. Iran has had a considerable impact, as in fasanjoon, chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce.

Ibrahim often suggests one or more variations on her recipes, and she has made them as vegetarian-friendly as possible. The recipes are on the whole straightforward to follow, although in some places they seem at times geared more to those already familiar with Iraq food than to the novice.

The Iraqi Cookbook is an important contribution to the still small volume of literature on Iraqi cookery available in English, and it is bound to attract a readership far beyond the pool of young Iraqis in exile at whom it was originally aimed.

Susannah Tarbush
Banipal magazine

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