International Cooking: Food from Iraq

I think it’s pretty rare that I cook from two neighboring countries back-to-back, but that’s what happened here. I was interested to see how similar food from Iraq was after just cooking dishes from their neighbor, Iran.

Iraq is a Middle Eastern country, mostly landlocked except for a tiny area with access to the Persian Gulf.

Some of the world’s earliest civilizations once lived in the area that is now Iraq. Part of the region is referred to as Mesopotamia, and some of the inventions made there include mathematics, timekeeping, and astrology, as well as a writing system, calendar, and law code.

When the Muslims conquered Mesopotamia, Baghdad, the current capital of Iraq, became an important Islamic city. Baghdad was significant not just culturally, but also intellectually; it gained a worldwide reputation for its academic institutions. However, the city was mostly destroyed by the Mongol Empire in 1258, and it was centuries before it could begin to recover.

After a short period of British control, Iraq gained independence as a monarchy in 1932. In 1958, the monarchy was overthrown and replaced by the Iraqi Republic.

Since then, Iraq has invaded both Iran and Kuwait, leading to global condemnation and the United States intervening. There has been a series of conflicts since then, and general unrest within Iraq.

What Do People Eat in Iraq?

Ancient Iraq is thought to be the source of the very first cookbooks, with recipes etched onto tablets. This means some dishes have roots that go back thousands of years! Iraqi cuisine shares similarities to that of Persia/Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and other Middle Eastern countries.

Meals usually begin with mezza, a selection of appetizers and salads. Flatbreads are common here; they are served with a variety of dips, cheese, olives, and jams at just about every meal.

Soups and stews are popular main dishes and have been for a long time. Various dumpling and meatball dishes are also common. Most dishes are served with rice, usually a specific type grown in the region.

Some staple ingredients in Iraqi cooking include rice, bulgur, barley, and wheat. Iraqi cuisine also incorporates lots of vegetables such as onion, eggplant, tomato, leeks, garlic, and chilies.

The most popular meat in Iraq is lamb, but chicken, beef, goat, and fish are also common. Plant-based proteins such as chickpeas, lentils, and cannellini beans show up in many dishes too.

Some seasonings have been used since ancient times, including spices such as cumin, cinnamon, coriander, and herbs such as mint, dill, and cilantro.

Iraq cuisine includes the use of a range of fruits in both sweet and savory dishes. It is one of the world’s largest producers of dates.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Iraqi dishes I didn’t make!

Makhlama (Lamb Breakfast Skillet with Eggs)

Makhlama (Lamb Breakfast Skillet with Eggs)

Makhlama is a breakfast dish that reminds me of shakshuka, except the eggs are cooked in a meat mixture rather than a tomato-based sauce. You can use ground beef or lamb, and sometimes potato is used instead for a vegetarian option.

I started by cooking some onion and garlic in oil, then added ground lamb, cumin, curry powder, paprika, allspice, chili flakes, salt, and pepper. After a few more minutes, I added some tomato, green onions, parsley, and cilantro. When the tomatoes were soft, I made little hollows in the meat mixture and cracked eggs into them. Then I covered the skillet and let everything look for a few minutes until the eggs were done to my liking.

To serve, I garnished with green onions, parsley, cilantro, and sumac. I paired this with some homemade pita bread.

I loved this dish and I’m sure I’ll make it again! The spice mix just worked really well with the lamb, though I’m sure it would also be good with beef or potatoes.

If you’d like to make this, the dish I used is from Alaa’s Pantry.

The pita recipe is from Family Friends Food. This is my second time making pita and I found this recipe to be really successful with minimum fuss. You just make a simple bread dough, then after it rises you divide it into balls. After another 10 minutes, you roll the balls out flat and bake them in a very hot oven for about 5 minutes. Almost all my pitas puffed really well; the ones that didn’t were the first ones that went in the oven and I think it might just not have been hot enough yet.

Shorba (Lentil Soup)

Shorba (Lentil Soup)

As far as I can tell, ‘shorba’ is a name used for a range of different soups and stews across the Middle East and surrounding regions. This version is a soup made with lentils and vegetables in a tomato-based broth. There is a special ingredient that can be difficult to find: dried lime, also called ‘loomi’. I already had a bag of these left over from when I made chicken machboos for Bahrain. They smelled fragrant so I decided they were probably still good, and they did impart their flavor into the soup.

To make my shorba, I started by sautéing some onion. Once translucent, I added dried lime, carrot, and potato, and cooked for a few minutes. Then I added garlic, cumin, tomato, tomato paste, chicken stock, cilantro, salt, and pepper. After a few more minutes I added my red lentils, then once they were cooked I added some Middle Eastern vermicelli noodles which cook in no time.

Right before serving, I added some fresh lemon juice and sprinkled with more cilantro. I really enjoyed this soup; it was easy to make, delicious, and even healthy too!

The recipe I used is from Food. It’s for a gluten-free version so calls for rice vermicelli, but I used wheat since I already had that.

Kubba Mosul (Bulgur Meat Pie)

Kubba Mosul (Bulgur Meat Pie)

This is where the week takes a sad turn! This photo is meant to be of my kubba mosul, a pie with a bulgur crust and meat filling. As you can see, I had a few problems.

First I cooked some onion and ground beef for the filling. I seasoned it with salt, pepper, allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and cayenne pepper.

While that was cooling, I made the crust. I let some bulgur soften in warm water for about 10 minutes, then I added semolina, ground beef, salt, and allspice. Adding raw meat to the crust was a new concept for me, but it seems common in kubba recipes.

I was meant to run the mixture through a food processor or meat grinder to form a paste, but it already seemed paste-like to me so I didn’t. This was the only time I did not follow the recipe (aside from reducing it, and I triple-checked my measurements). I don’t feel this could have caused my issues but it’s possible.

There was one part of the directions that I found confusing. The recipe said it made 8 small kubbas, but if you follow the directions you end up with 4. You use 1/8th of the mixture for each kubba crust, and you need two per kubba. I followed the directions rather than the serving suggestion, but I think it would have been easier for me if I had made double the amount of smaller kubba.

For each crust, I put a portion of the bulgur mixture between two greased pieces of plastic and rolled it out into a circle. Then I put half my filling over one crust and put another crust over the top. I sealed the edges, wrapped the whole thing in plastic, and put it in the freezer. I think this is meant to help the kubba stay together while cooking, though it didn’t work for me!

I boiled my frozen kubba first, and then I was meant to pan-fry briefly to make the crust crispy. But my kubba began falling apart as it was boiling. I couldn’t even lift it out of the pan in one piece so as to pan-fry it. So I ended up slicing it, and then pan-frying it, trying to keep each piece together as well as I could.

The other issue was that this didn’t even taste very good! So I was disappointed. If I make another attempt at this I’ll do more research to work out why my kubba fell apart, and to find a better flavor combination. I am not providing the recipe for this one because I don’t like to be putting someone’s recipe out there and saying it’s bad.

Bagila Bil Dihin (Pita and Fava Beans with Onion Omelet)

Bagila Bil Dihin (Pita and Fava Beans with Onion Omelet)

I still have dried fava beans to use up from Egypt week so I decided to make bagila bil dihin. This simple breakfast dish is a great way to use up any stale bread you have lying around. It’s made from pita, fava beans, and an onion and egg omelet.

First, I cooked the fava beans. They took longer than they should have and I think they are a little old, so I had better finish them soon!

When the beans were nearly done, I started on my omelet. First I cooked sliced onion over low heat until it was starting to caramelize, and then I poured beaten eggs over the top. I was meant to keep the eggs as one big omelet but I think that would have worked better if I were making a bigger serving; I folded mine over a bit so it would fit better on a smaller amount of beans and bread.

I dipped some pita bread pieces in the liquid left after cooking the beans, and put those on my plate. I topped them with the beans, then put my egg on top and garnished with some parsley.

This was okay, though I think the beans could have used more flavor. The egg omelet was the best part!

The recipe I used for this is from Measuring Cups Optional.

Kubba Hamuth (Meat Dumpling Soup)

Kubba Hamuth (Meat Dumpling Soup)

This is a popular dish consisting of meat-filled dumplings in a tangy tomato-based soup. There are often vegetables included too, such as turnip and Swiss chard.

I was wary about trying this after my kubba mosul failure, but these dumplings were quite different and they came out fine.

First, I made the filling by cooking some onions and ground beef, seasoned with parsley, paprika, allspice, salt, and pepper. While it cooled, I made the dumpling dough out of rice flour, ground beef, salt, and water.

Next I started sautéing some onions for the soup. Then I added paprika, water, tomato paste, salt, dried mint, lemon juice, and some rice flour mixed with water. I was meant to add citric acid but I used the lemon juice instead. I let the soup simmer while I made the dumplings.

Each dumpling was meant to be shaped a bit like a football. Mine were a little bigger since I found it hard to make them as small as indicated. I started with a ball of dough, then wrapped it around some of the meat mixture to enclose it.

Once the dumplings were ready, I added them to the soup and let them cook for about half an hour. Towards the end of the cooking time, I added some Swiss chard, which this particular recipe didn’t call for. I served with a little parsley sprinkled on top.

This tasted alright but I don’t think it’s my favorite flavor. The dumplings worked out pretty well though, and I like how the soup thickened with the rice flour. I’ve never used that for thickening before now.

If you would like to try this, the recipe I used is from Hilda’s Kitchen Blog.

  • Masgouf – a whole carp that is butterflied, seasoned, and grilled. This is often considered Iraq’s national dish.
  • Margat bami/margat bamya – an okra and mutton/lamb stew. There usually aren’t a lot of other ingredients, with the main seasonings being onion, tomato, and pomegranate molasses.
  • Tepsi baytinijan – a casserole of eggplant and potato slices baked with meatballs and tomato sauce.
  • Klecha – date-filled cookies that come in various shapes. They are commonly made for celebrations.

Final Thoughts

This was a pretty good week, though I wish the kubba mosul had turned out better. I did enjoy most of the food from Iraq, and the makhlama was my favorite.

Next week I will be cooking food from Ireland.

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