Adventurous travelers looking for a truly unique vacation go to Iraq to explore Basra’s Venice-like canals, the ruins of Babylon, the famous city bazaars in Bagdad, and experience the world’s oldest cuisine. Also known as Mesopotamian cuisine, Iraqi cuisine dates back more than 10,000 years ago to the pre-Islamic civilizations of Babylonian, Assyrian, and Sumerian. History buffs and foodies alike are fascinated to learn that recipe “books” written on ancient clay tablets have been discovered with recipes for religious festivals held in the temples. Later, traditional Iraqi foods were influenced by Kurdish, Turkish, and Jewish dishes. While in Iraq, look for these dishes to introduce your taste buds to the world’s oldest cuisine.
Let’s begin with the National Dish of Iraq, Dolma. This dish is actually a family of dishes featuring a variety of vegetables stuffed mainly with meat. For example, Dolma Mahshi, one of the most popular dolma foods is a stuffed onion. The Iraqi people are proud that expensive meats are consumed at almost every meal, except for pork which is forbidden by the Islamic religion. While other Mideastern countries use grape leaves for this dish, the Iraqis use boiled chard as wraps for minced meat, rice, nuts, and spices along with lemon zest for a delicious version of dolma.
Mesopotamia is the Greek word for “the land between two rivers.” It’s not surprising that Masgouf, a fish dish is popular all around Iraq, especially in cities along the River Tigris. Masgouf is usually prepared with freshwater carp. The fish is butterflied and commonly covered with salt before cooking to give it a crispy exterior. The salt is often omitted if the fish is very fresh. It’s then placed on skewers and grilled over an open fire.
Tassreeb is a term denoting dishes that consist of Iraqi flatbread (nan) topped with a combination of various stews using chicken or lamb, beans, chickpeas, and an array of spices. Tomatoes are sometimes added to the stew. The hearty, tasteful dish, originally known as a “pheasant’s dish,” is now one of the favorites of all Iraqis. It’s traditionally consumed as a communal meal. Guests use bread rather than utensils to scoop the stew.
Tepsi Baytinijan is a type of casserole that layers ground beef or lamb meatballs with vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, onions, peppers, and eggplant. In Iraq, tepsi baytinijan is a comfort food much like mac n’ cheese is in the western world. And like mac n’ cheese, each household has its own way of making it. Some Iraqis fry the eggplant and then wrap the pieces around small meatballs. The casserole is served straight out of the oven as soon as the veggies are slightly melted. As with many Iraqi dishes, it’s served with cooked rice for a hearty, healthy meal.
Samoon is an Iraqi yeast bread that is baked at home and sold in stores. It’s traditionally baked in a tandoor oven with an interior made of a special type of clay that can handle high heat. Samoon is recognized by its unique diamond shape, and stores that sell it have yellow diamonds painted on the outside. It’s often served with cream cheese for breakfast but also used as a dip for hummus or split in half and used for grilled meat sandwiches.
The traditional holiday cookie of Iraq, Kleicha are served at Eid, a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims, and at weddings or birthdays. The cookies are made with flour, butter, and yeast and spiced with fennel, cardamom, and nigella seeds. They are baked in various shapes such as discs and half moons and filled with either a walnut filling or date filling. The festive cookies are usually served with a cup of tea.
Image courtesy of aziz1005, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
This traditional Iraqi dish uses a whole roasted lamb to cook over low heat or in underground ovens using charcoal for a smoky flavor. Before cooking, the lamb is stuffed with rice, vegetables, spices, raisins, and nuts. The rice and vegetables absorb the flavor and aromas of the spices contributing to the dish’s delightful taste. The seasonings used include cardamon, cinnamon, and baharat, an all-purpose spice blend. Similar varieties of this dish are served in other Arab countries where it is better known as ghuzi, khuzi, or qouzi.
Tabbouleh is a salad and a popular mezza (starter) for a meal in Iraq. It’s light and full of flavor making it an excellent appetizer. The ingredients include tomatoes, red onions, uncooked but soaked bulgar wheat, fresh lemon juice, and mint leaves. Some recipes also call for lettuce or cucumbers. All of the ingredients are finely diced and then mixed together. It’s often served alongside other international appetizers such as pita bread and hummus.
Margat Qeema is a popular dish for serving at mosque meals and during the holy month of Muharram and for other religious holidays. It consists of a gravy base, minced meat, and lentils and is flavored with numerous spices and lime zest. This dish has a toasty orange-brown look and a wonderful texture. It’s served with a side of warm rice.
Known as pomegranate soup in English, shorbat rumman is a sweet and savory dish, a flavor that is popular with the Iraqis. The soup is made with both the fleshy seeds and juice of the pomegranate fruit and thickened with yellow split peas. Pieces of beetroot add color, nutrition, and flavor. Spinach is added right before the soup is done just in time to wilt down. Mint is often added to compliment the sharp pomegranate flavor.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.