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Food Chatter: Exploring Iraqi Food on the Internet

As a multicultural team, we are perpetually curious about what’s on our colleagues’ plates during lunch hour in different parts of the world. We occasionally swap photos and anecdotes, but when that doesn’t quench our curiosity and love for gastronomy, we look at food uploads on the Internet. Today we decided to explore Iraqi food.

From Dubai to Damascus, Middle Eastern food may appear to be similar, but each Arab country has its own unique rendition. Iraqi cuisine, in particular, dates back 10,000 years — with the world’s oldest cookbooks (in the form of 4000-year old tablets containing recipes prepared during religious festivals) found amongst the Mesopotamian ruins.

Although Mesopotamia was home to many sophisticated civilizations that were highly advanced in the culinary arts, Iraqi food reached its peak in the medieval era under the Muslim Empire. It later declined when the Mongols took over Baghdad in 1258 A.D. but was revived in the last century thanks to the commercial and cultural interactions with the rest of the world.

Iraqi cuisine, today, has strong influences from Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian culinary traditions, resulting in rich and diverse cuisine that is a delight to the senses!

Using our proprietary Culture AI tools, we categorized the food featured in social media uploads based on flavors and preparation styles. Much like the cuisines in other Middle Eastern countries, we found grains (such as wheat and rice) to be the base ingredients of most Iraqi dishes. ‘Stuffed’ items (like stuffed pastries and stuffed bread) seem to be extremely popular — typically filled with meat or vegetables — creating ‘dense’ foods that are rich and filling. These are accompanied by lighter side dishes such as pickles in brine, hummus, sumac (tangy lemon paste), or dukkah (nuts or seeds).

We also observed that most of the cooking is fire-based — from kebabs to fish — indicating a liking for flame-grilled taste. The uploads showcased lavish spreads — either in variety or in the size of bread and dishes, reiterating Iraqis’ love for communal dining.

A little more desk research and a qualitative read of the food uploads on social media revealed that there’s more to Iraqi food than meets the eye!

A 10th-Century Baghdad cookbook gives a taste of the past

Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid dynasty in the 10th-century and attracted intellectuals from across the Muslim world, leading to cultural and culinary exchange. The Caliphs, who were the civil and religious leaders of the time, threw lavish banquets in their courts, featuring communal dishes lining tables and poetry for entertainment, including poems in praise of food (such as the one below by al-Hafiz).

Iraq’s gastronomical history is extensively covered in Nawal Nasrallah’s cookbooks titled ‘Delights From the Garden of Eden’ and ‘Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens’.

Breakfast for champions

As we delved deeper into the most popular food items consumed in Iraq today, Kahi emerged as the clear favorite when it comes to breakfast foods.

A cross between a delicate Parisian pastry and a glazed cream doughnut, Kahi is the breakfast of the masses — offering a perfect mix of sugar and fat to kickstart the day.

Bagilla Bil Dihin is another popular breakfast dish. Multi-layered, broth-soaked bread topped with fried eggs or an omelet, onions, and boiled beans, it’s seasoned with just salt and best eaten with the hands! Makhlama, on the other hand, is less heavy, and made of fried eggs, tomatoes, onions, and spices, and eaten with fresh Iraqi bread.

Traditional dishes that have survived the test of time

Masgouf is one of the most famous Iraqi dishes. Slow-grilled fish that is grilled standing sideways, it is served with a generous amount of sumac, pomegranate seeds, and lemon. Tepsi Baytinjan is another household name and consists of flavorful fried eggplants wrapped around small spiced meatballs, baked in a tomato-based sauce.

Tashreeb, known as ‘peasant’s dish’, is a favorite dish in Iraq. It consists of Iraqi bread and a chicken-based broth poured over on top to soak the bread. Margat Albamiya is another common staple. Baked okra paired with tender lamb or beef in a spiced tomato-based stew, the flavors of this dish are sure to delight any foodie. Further, stews are a cornerstone of Iraqi cuisine, coming in various tomato-concoctions cooked with pumpkin, eggplant, and Bengal gram.

While dolma is popular across the Middle East, the Iraqi version is supposed to be the best. Instead of a grape-leaf stuffing, Iraqis stuff lamb-intestines, a recipe inherited from the Sumerians who are said to have invented sausages in 4000 B.C.

Animal parts are a delicacy and Khash (also known as kale pache or pacha) is an offbeat Iraqi breakfast food made of boiled cow or sheep’s feet or head and served with bread.

Festivals and celebrations feature unique dishes that please the palate. Quzi is slow-roasted, stuffed lamb and features in all Iraqi festivals and family gatherings, while Margat Qeema — a gravy dish made with minced meat and lentils — is cooked on religious holidays.

A few Iraqis online recall that every dish reflects a season, highlighting the use of seasonal fruits and ingredients such as chima (desert truffle) and rumman (pomegranate). It is also fascinating to learn about the stories behind some of the dishes, such as kubbah (spiced ground meat that is deep-fried like an oval cutlet), which means dome and has retained its spherical shape for thousands of years.

Snacking habits and a moving feast

Iraqis make all kinds of cookies — in various shapes, sizes, and flavors! They range from cookies shaped like rings, pillars, turbans, crescents, hearts, heads, and hands, to dry cookies, sandwich cookies, glazed cookies, almond cookies, and spiced cookies.

While dates and Arabic coffee are a common feature in every Iraqi household, chocolates are making their way into homes in keeping up with the times.

Banking on Iraqis’ love for food, Iraqi entrepreneurs are scrambling to open new restaurants in Baghdad. An interesting trend in recent years has been the emergence of Western-style food trucks dishing out hamburgers and kibbeh. Many see this trend as a small win for public life in tense times, bringing people out of their homes to enjoy a quick meal in the outdoors, making the neighborhood come alive again.

Comfort food in a conflict zone

Iraqi cuisine reflects the unity and diversity of its people and is designed to feed large families. It is simple yet hearty, succeeding in providing the comfort we seek from ancestral dishes that are thousands of years old but cooked with the same love and passion even today.

The greatest influence on contemporary Iraqi cuisine, unfortunately, has been conflict and war, and Iraqi dishes remain under-represented in most parts of the world. Social media uploads attempt to bridge this gap by raising awareness about Iraqi food. While there’s much left to be explored, we can’t wait to taste the dishes we have discovered online!

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