Friday, November 23, 2012

Recipes from Baghdad

The First Cookbook in the History of Modern Iraq

Front of dust jacket

In 1946 a cookbook titled Recipes from Baghdad was published. It was by far the first cookery document to have been written in Iraq after a long silence of almost seven hundred years.

Back of dust jacket

To be sure, documenting cookery in Iraq has a very long history, which goes as far back in time as ancient Mesopotamia, when our ancestors the Babylonians immortalized their cooking on cuneiform tablets around 1700 BC. Also, from medieval Arabic sources we learn that a lot of cookery books were written in Baghdad during the Abbasid era between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, by professional chefs, gourmets, physicians, princes, and even the caliphs themselves. Unfortunately, only a couple of cookbooks survived the ravishes of time, one was written in the tenth century by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq and the other, in the thirteenth century by Muhammad bin al-Kareem al-Katib al-Baghdadi, both titled Kitab al-Tabeekh (cookery cook). After that, our records remain silent until 1946. But this time around the cookbook was written in English. Recipes from Baghdad was its title, published to raise funds for the Indian Red Cross. It was printed at the Government Press in Baghdad. The second edition was published by the Red Crescent Society (Women’s Branch) in Baghdad in 1952, and the third and last edition was done by the privately-run El-Ani Press in in Baghdad in 1961. Obviously, the book was pretty popular. 

Inner title page

Besides its culinary significance, this book is a rare social document from Iraq written in collaboration with a host of Baghdad residents just after WWII. It was edited by May H. Beattie (B.A., Ph. D.), an Englishwoman from Sheffield England, who later established herself as the world’s top rug scholar until her death in 1997. (See for instance her book Carpets of Central Persia: With Special Reference to Rugs of Kirman)

May Beattie

In editing the book Beatie was assisted by Bedia Afnan, an eminent Iraqi educator who later worked for the UN; Renee Al Kabir, a member of a prominent Baghdadi Jewish family; and Helen Gaudin (B.S., MA.) and Ann Walter, two English or American ladies whom I have not been able to trace.

Lady Margaret Cornwallis, wife of the then British ambassador to Iraq, Kinahan Cornwallis, wrote the Foreword (March, 1945). In it, Lady Margaret stated that the purpose of writing this book was to raise funds for the Red Cross. She also saw in it a chance for a cultural exchange. With its ‘oriental’ and ‘occidental’ collection of recipes, she explained, the book would enable Westerners who enjoyed the Arab delicacies of the table to make them for themselves, and introduce the Eastern readers to Western food. The book was “the result of friendly co-operation between Iraqi and British housewives, with help from the ladies of other nations.” Indeed, the Acknowledgment list the book provides of contributors included no less than 118 names of Baghdad residents, which besides the ‘housewives’ Lady Margaret mentioned, included professionals, physicians and institutions, such as ‘Home Arts School’ for girls, and ‘Painforce Schools of Cookery.’

The book reveals a mid-twentieth-century cultured metropolitan Baghdad, rarely depicted in documents dealing with this era in the history of Iraq. At the head of the contributors list were the names of two Iraqi female royalties: Queen mother of Iraq Aliyya bint Ali (1911-1950), spouse of King Ghazi and mother of Faisal II, the last of the Iraqi kings, and Queen Nafisa bint Abd al-Ilah, who is Aliyya’s mother. Queen Nafisa provided recipes, but Queen Aliyya’s involvement in the project went beyond offering recipes. She was the one to write the Introduction for the book, enthusiastically endorsing it as a ‘scholarly’ work, “artistically executed and exceedingly interesting.” Recommending it, she adds,
I find that it meets an urgent need and fills an existing deficiency. I was delighted with the variety of dishes dealt with and I admire the accuracy and originality with which the recipes are explained.    
After acknowledging the emergence of the ‘art of cooking’ as a respectable field in this modern age, Queen Aliyya embarked on summarizing the background to the interest of the Arabs in cooking, which goes back to the times when they entered into settled life and civilization, She supported her claim with references to medieval books such as Kitab al-Diyarat by al-Shabushti, and more importantly al-Baghdadi’s thirteenth-century cookery book Kitab al-Tabhk [sic], mentioned earlier, which at the time was a relatively new discovery. It was published in Mosul in 1934, and translated into English in 1939 by the British Orientalist A. J. Arberry.

Queen mother of Iraq

The book’s 163 pages cover a lot of territories. Baghdad is depicted as a ‘cosmopolitan city’ which “has drawn its customs from the west as well as the east in recent years.” An amusing fusion of east and west can be seen in their choice of a cocktail drink called ‘Abu Nuwas’, the famous ninth-century Baghdadi poet famous for his khamriyyat ‘wine poems.’ Shopping in Baghdad is vividly described, and is supplemented with a bilingual list of the most common spices used. Its 457 recipes deal mostly with Iraqi dishes, but a good number also come from countries like Turkey, Iran, Levant, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, India, England, Poland, Monaco, France, Switzerland, Italy, and China.

Abu Nuwas Cocktail:

1 part Vodka
1/2 part lemon juice
1/2 part pomegranate juice
1 part Cyprus Cointreau

Add a dash of orange bitters and the white of a fresh egg to the shaker. Shake well and do not trust it too far. (p. 92)

The recipe directions are briefly described but the amounts of ingredients are given in exact measurements, using kilos, teaspoons and tablespoons, and tins. The measuring unit of the tin was chosen by the editors as a substitute for the standard American measuring cup, which was difficult to obtain in Baghdad. It was the Players or Gold Flake 50-cigarette canister, easily available at the time.

Illustrating measuring units in the end-papers

What is truly exciting about this book is the cartoon-style sketches, all 35 of them, dispersed throughout the book, done by Suad Salim, as stated in the inner title page. No further mention of this cartoonist was made in the book. Interestingly, I was under the impression that the artist was a woman since Suad is a familiar female name in the Arab countries. I was pretty amazed to discover that this Suad is no other than the older brother of the famous Iraqi artists, Jawad Saleem and Nazeeha Saleem. He was one of the pioneering cartoonist in Iraq. Surprisingly, little is written or known about him (here is a link to an Arabic interview with him in 1985), and no records of his artistic works are available in print. This is one of the reasons why this book is a truly precious rare find.

Here are samples of Suad Saleem's cartoons:  

Coffee house (Gahwa)

Baklawa and the inevitable flies

Cocktail party in Baghdad  

The chapter on cocktails was written by W. N. M. Hogg, author of the Canadian publication The first Ascent of Bush Mountains (1936).  He compares cocktails to Arabic verbs: "At first acquaintance they appear disarmingly simple but a close study leads to headaches." 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Madgooga: An Iraqi Date Confection

Madgoogd made with dried dates and tahini (see second recipe below)

The date palm is the national tree of Iraq, and that is for a good reason: it was there on the land of ancient Mesopotamia that this tree was first cultivated and flourished about seven thousand years ago. From there this beautiful and generous tree spread to the rest of the Middle East. It nourished and protected the poor, enriched the fine pastries of the rich, and inspired the people’s spiritual and religious rites. Every single part of the tree, fruit and all, was used. An ancient Babylonian hymn singing its praises, tells of the 360 uses of the date palm. It was that perfect!

Ancient Sumerian plaque featuring a dates and pomegranates, both symbols of fecundity (Iraq Museum)  

Fresh dates, sweet and crunchy

But the date is of course the most important part of the tree, and in the Islamic Arab lore, it is a privileged food. The Prophet himself recommended having seven dates a day, as this was believed to guard against poison and witchcraft all day long. According to the Qur’anic verses describing the birth of Christ, Mary nourished herself with the dates falling from the palm underneath of which she went through labor. During the fasting month of Ramadan, Muslims break their fast at sunset by first having a few dates following the tradition of the Prophet, as this is believed to provide the much needed nourishment fast.

Fully ripe fresh dates, sweet and soft

The date is almost a miracle food: According to recent scientific research, dates have heart-friendly antioxidants, which can also prevent certain kinds of cancer. Dates are believed to allay anxiety and nervous disorders in children. How to do it: Just let your kid eat seven dates a day. Easy. Want to treat alcoholism? No problem:  Twice a day and for a whole month, drink the liquid in which a few dates have been steeped for a couple of hours. This is believed to weaken the urge for alcohol. Going through a bout of low libido? Not to worry. Eat half a pound of dates or cook “Cupid’s omelet.” 


Want to eat something for sheer joy? Nibble on five or six dates, fresh or dried, or make them into a delicious confection, which Iraqis have been making for many many centuries.

This confection is called madgooga (literally ‘the pounded’) as it was traditionally made of equal amounts of dry dates and walnut or rashi/tahini (sesame paste) pounded into paste with a mortar and pestle for a long time, nowadays conveniently replaced with the food processor. The dates Iraqis use for this sort of candy is a dry date called tamur ashrasi. This variety is hard to find outside the country, but you may substitute with any kind of dry dates, or even the regular dried dates, as you will see in the following two recipes:

Madgooga made with date sugar crystals and walnut (first recipe)

1. For this version, I use ‘date sugar crystals’ purchased from Shields Date Garden in southern California (link: Shields Date Garden). This stuff is 100 per cent dry dates crushed into granules. To make a small amount, put ½ cup ‘date sugar crystals’ and ½ cup walnut in a food processor. Pulse the ingredients until they form into paste. A few drops of water or tahini may help the mix bind faster, and make the resulting madgooga less crumbly in texture. Spread the candy in a small plate, in one-inch-thick layer, and sprinkle generously with coarsely crushed pistachio, or any nuts of your choice.

Madgooga made with dried dates and tahini (second recipe)

2. If you only have the regular dried dates, then follow this method:
½ cup flour
2 cups pitted dates
½ cup tahini/sesame paste

1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon coarsely ground toasted aniseeds
½ teaspoon crushed coriander seeds

½ cup toasted walnut halves
¼ cup coarsely crushed pistachio

Dry toast the flour by putting it in a heavy skillet and stirring it constantly until it starts to change color and emits a pleasant fragrance, about 5 minutes on medium heat. Let it cool down a little.

Then, in a food processor, put the toasted flour along with dates, tahini, cardamom, aniseeds, and coriander. Process until mixture forms a ball, about 2 minutes. Divide the date paste into two portions. Press one half onto a flat plate forming a 7 inch disc. Arrange the toasted nuts all over the surface, and cover with the other half. Press the surface, and sprinkle it with the pistachio. 

Madgooga with date sugar crystals and walnut (first recipe)

All you need know about the date palm and its fruit, the history, the culture, the myths, the legends, and of course recipes including ‘Cupid’s Omelet,’ and much more, you will find in my latest book Dates: A Global History (Edible Series, published by Reaktion Books, London, 2011. In USA, distributed by Chicago University Press). You can order it from your local bookstore or on-line.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Watermelon Rind Jam (Mrabbat Raggi)

مربة رقّي

Photo Nawal Nasrallah

You will be surprised how beautiful and tasty this jam will turn out to be. Its origin cannot be any humbler: watermelon rind, usually discarded after the juicy ruby melon pulp is sliced off. In other parts of the world this rind ends up being pickled, but in Iraq we transform it into a charming chunky jam, usually served with geymer (slabs of clotted cream) or butter for breakfast.

Growing up in Baghdad, I remember that marabbat raggi was also available in small tinned cans imported from Australian. It was good but it lacked the luxurious texture and the enticing aroma of the homemade jam.

Here is a recipe adapted from my cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden:  

2 pounds watermelon rind (measure after slicing off the red pulp and the green hard outer skin)
3 cups granulated sugar
½ cup honey
2 strips lemon peel or 2 small pieces of peeled fresh ginger
4 whole pods cardamom
2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Cut rind into strips, about 1 inch wide and 2 inches long. Cover in cold water and bring to a quick boil. Reduce heat, and simmer slowly until translucent, about 30 minutes. Drain, and reserve 3 cups of liquid.

2. In a heavy pot, completely dissolve sugar in reserved liquid. Add honey, lemon peel or ginger, and cardamom. Bring to a boil, skimming as needed. Add the drained watermelon rind, and boil gently over medium heat, for 30 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and set aside, overnight.

3. Boil pot again over medium heat until syrup thickens, about 30 minutes. Add lemon juice in the last 5 minutes. Test for doneness by putting a drop of syrup on a dry cold dish, and tilt it. If the drop does not go flat, and keeps its domed shape, it is done. Let the jam cool off completely. If wished, put the jam in a strainer to get rid of extra syrup. Store it in the refrigerator and use as needed. It will stay good for a long time.   

Photo Nawal Nasrallah

Monday, March 26, 2012

Okra Stew (Margat Bamya)مرقة باميا

(Makes 4 servings)

First, an interesting bit of history on okra ‘hibiscus esculentus’, Arabic bamya:

This vegetable was mentioned in ancient Iraq on Assyrian cuneiform tablets dealing with herbal medicines. It was called ‘ubanu,’ literally ‘finger’, which brings to mind the English name for okra, ‘lady’s fingers,’ and Iraqi vernacular for okra banya.

Okra stew (margat bamya)
Today, okra is a very popular vegetable in Iraq. It is exclusively used for making margat bamya (okra stew). No spices are used in preparing it, and yet, it will come out wonderfully delicious. I think what puts off many people, who did not grow up eating it, from dealing with it is the sticky substance that comes out when it is cut open. The traditional Iraqi way to get rid of most of the slime is to cut off both ends of the okra, making sure some of the holes show, and then wash it under running water for a long time. I find this tedious and time consuming. A better way to deal with it is to cut off both ends making sure some of the holes show, wash it briefly, and then boil it briefly for no more than 5 minutes (it should still look vibrantly green). Strain it and use it immediately, or let it cool off, and freeze it for future use. I usually buy a whole box of fresh okra, prepare it this way and keep it in the freezer. Very convenient.

When buying okra from the market, I recommend you look for medium-sized ones about 2 inches long, but since these are hard to find in the markets, you can cut the long ones in half. Another thing, choose the ones which do not sound crunchy when gently squeezed between the fingers, these will more likely be fibrous in texture. Or buy frozen okra, just wash it in a colander and use as directed below. 

4 to 6 chunks of lamb on the bone, such as trimmed lamb shanks, cut in half (2−2½ pounds)
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
5 to 6 cloves garlic, whole and leave skin on
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste (one 6-oz can) diluted in 4 cups hot water
1½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon pomegranate syrup, or ½ teaspoon sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 pound fresh or frozen okra (follow directions given above)
2 to 3 small dried hot peppers, optional

In a medium heavy pot, sauté meat pieces in oil, until browned, about 10 minutes. Add hot water, enough to cover the meat. Bring to a quick boil, skimming as needed, and then let simmer gently, covered, on low heat until meat is tender and moisture has evaporated, about 45 minutes. If meat is cooked and there is still some liquid in the pot, strain it and use it as part of liquid required in the recipe. 

To the meat pot, add garlic cloves and stir for 30 seconds. Stir in the rest of ingredients and bring pot to a quick boil, skimming as needed, then reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer gently, covered, until sauce is rich and somewhat thickened (35 to 40 minutes).

Serve the stew with white plain rice or bulgur along with slices of onion and green pepper. Another popular way of serving okra stew is having it as tashreeb: put bite-size pieces of flat bread in a deep dish and drench it with the stew sauce. Arrange meat pieces and garlic on top.

The fun part is eating the cooked whole garlic cloves: Hold the garlic clove between your thumb and index finger and squeeze out the soft pulp into your mouth, discard the skin. Yummy!

Photo Nawal Nasrallah 
(Recipe adapted from my cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

 Spicy Dried-Plum Cake

كيكة العنجاص المجفف

The delightful prune, or dried plum as some marketers would prefer to call it thee days, is sweet and sour and chewy in texture, it is fun to eat, nutritious, and as with all dried fruits, available year round. 

To people in the ancient Near East, the prune was food fit for the gods, in whose lavish meals the prune had its cherished place. Its health benefits did not escape their attention either. Some ancient cuneiform clay tablets dealing with the Assyrian plant drugs do include the prune, and the recommendation was to eat it with butter and honey. Fast forward to the present -- We are hearing some very good prune-news these days, the most exciting of which is that it tops the list of foods rich with antioxidants and that eating ten of them a day, can keep osteoporosis at bay. It cannot get any better of course since unlike most medications prescribed for osteoporosis, prunes have no adverse effects - keeping one ‘regular’ surely should not be counted as one.

Besides eating it off hand as a snack, the prune is quite delicious cooked, in sweet and savory dishes. Here is a recipe for a scrumptious prune cake. And by the way, for the record, the first cakes in history were baked in the ovens of the Sumerians in ancient Iraq more than 5,000 years ago. We know this from some excavated records, such as the proverb in which the husband (?) protests, “In my budget there is no (place for any) one to bake cakes!” Or when they brag about the superiority of their cuisine as they criticize the way the Bedouin of the western desert took their food, they said that if you gave them flour, eggs and honey for a cake they would not know what to do with them. Besides, some cuneiform texts even give the proportions in which the ingredients were to be mixed for fruit cakes made to go to the temple and the palace.

1½ cups (10 ounces) dried prunes
1¼ cups brewed tea, or water with a tea bag

½ cup oil
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
1½ teaspoons vanilla

2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup finely shredded unsweetened coconut (optional)  
1 cup walnuts, halved or broken, for the bottom of the pan
 Preheat oven 360°F

Put prunes and tea (or water and tea bag) in a small pot. Bring to a quick boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes, or until prunes soften, but not mushy. Drain the prunes, but reserve the drained liquid. Let them cool off to room temperature. Cut the drained prunes into small pieces, and add enough cold water to liquid to make it measure 2/3 cup. Set aside. 

In a big bowl, put oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla, and beat for 2 minutes. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and coconut if use. Stir the flour mix into the egg mix, in two batches alternately with the measured prune liquid. Stir in the prunes. Grease and flour a 10-cup capacity ring pan, or a large loaf pan, and shake off excess flour. Spread the walnuts in the bottom of the pan, and pour the batter on top of the nuts. Bake the cake for 40-50 minutes, or until surface feels firm to the touch. Let it stand for 10 minutes and then invert it on a cooling rack.

When completely cool, dress the cake with this delicious icing:

1 cup packed, brown sugar
½ cup heavy cream
6 tablespoons butter
1½ teaspoons rose water or vanilla
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted 

In a small saucepan, combine sugar, cream, butter, and rose water or vanilla. Bring to a boil, on medium heat, stirring to allow sugar to dissolve. Boil gently for about 4 minutes. Let it cool off to room temperature, and then stir in the confectioners’ sugar until smooth. It should be neither too thick nor runny in consistency. Ice the cake with it immediately and decorate the top with some walnut halves, if you wish. Chill cake for about an hour and serve. 

( (Makes 16 slices)

(Recipe adapted from my cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine). See also  a variation on this cake made with dates, and filled with rose-water scented whipped cream. 

Photo Nawal Nasrallah

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kleicha and Ma’moul Cookies: What’s in a Name?


Photos Nawal Nasrallah 
Follow this link to an article I wrote for Repast (volume xxiv, no. 4, 2008, pp. 4-7):
Read about the story behind these festive Middle Eastern cookies, their cultural and historical ties with the ancient pagan Near Eastern New Year festivities, Norouz, and the Jewish and Christian feasts of Easter and Purim, and Muslim religious feasts.
The article’s title is: "The Iraqi Cookie Kleicha, and the Search for Identity"