Monday, November 15, 2010

Week #6: Iraq

Wow, no pressure, right?  I have to admit...I've spent the last 2 or 3 weeks trying to figure out how to approach the initial post for this week, and I'm not sure I've come up with anything truly brilliant, so I'm just going to let it play out and see how it goes.

Having never been to Iraq, I don't have any explicit memories from there. I'm pretty sure my dad was there once or twice during Desert Storm, and I know my aunt just came back from Baghdad a few months ago.  But aside from politics, military, and media reports, I'll be honest...I know next to nothing about this country that I'm supposed to be mad at.  I'm not even sure why I'm supposed to be mad at them, to be honest.

Do you know what their flag looks like?  Until like 10 minutes ago, I didn't.  Here:

Apparently, until 2008, it was this:

And until 2004, it was this:
Oh, and before 1991, it was this:
There were 3 other flags before that one (which started in 1963), but I just think it's my lifespan, this country has had 4 different flags flying.  The stuff between (and replacing) the stars mean "God is Great".  I know that there will be vastly differing opinions on this, and I'll leave it at one sentiment, but I just think it's interesting that, if a ruler has the power to change the flag willy nilly, and has the option to put his own handwriting on it, that he chose to write "God is Great".

Now.  Aside from politics and religion and fickle flagging, what else to we know about Iraq?

Iraq is known primarily for an instrument called the oud (similar to a lute) and a rebab (similar to a fiddle); its stars include Ahmed Mukhtar and the Syriac Munir Bashir. Until the fall of Saddam Hussein, the most popular radio station was the Voice of Youth. It played a mix of western rock, hip hop and pop music, all of which had to be imported via Jordan due to international economic sanctions. Iraq has also produced a major pan-Arab pop star-in-exile in Kathem Al Saher. The folk songs of Iraqi Turkmens are also well known, and Abdurrahman Kızılay is a leading name.
Early in the 20th century, many of the most prominent musicians in Iraq were Jewish.[121] In 1936, Iraq Radio was established with an ensemble made up entirely of Jews, with the exception of the percussion player. The nightclubs of Baghdad also featured almost entirely Jewish musicians. At these nightclubs, ensembles consisted of oud, qanun and two percussionists, while the same format with a ney and cello were used on the radio.[121]
One of the reasons for the predominance of Jewish instrumentalists in early 20th century Iraqi music was a prominent school for blind Jewish children, which was founded in the late 1920s. Many of the students became musicians, eventually forming the Arabic Music Ensemble Qol Yisraeli (Israel Radio).
Singers, on the other hand, were Muslim, Jewish and Christian. The most famous singer of the 1930s–1940s was perhaps the Jew Salima Pasha (later Salima Murad).[121][122] The respect and adoration for Pasha were unusual at the time, since public performance by women was considered shameful and most female singers were recruited from brothels.[121]

I feel like there's a punchline about today's pop starlets with that last line, but I just can't come up with it.  I guess I didn't realize music was such a big thing over there, but it makes is kind of soul speaking, so why wouldn't it be a big deal?

Football is the most popular sport in Iraq. Football is a considerable uniting factor in Iraq following years of war and unrest. Basketball, swimming, weightlifting, bodybuilding, boxing, kick boxing and tennis are also popular sports.

No big shock there.

Ok, ok...I know you all are just dying to know about the cuisine (duh, it's a cooking blog).

Iraqi cuisine has a long history going back some 10,000 years – to the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Ancient Persians.[123] Tablets found in ancient ruins in Iraq show recipes prepared in the temples during religious festivals – the first cookbooks in the world.

I'm just going to let that one sink in.  The. First. Cookbooks. In. The. World. Woah. 

It sort of blows my mind that what they thought was the most important thing to write down for posterity was how to make food.  Think about that for a second.  Writing, back then, was nontrivial.  You only wrote down what was absolutely necessary for the future of your civilization.  For them, that was food.

In that book I mentioned, they said that some of the folk stories people memorized and told were actually clever ways of memorizing fancy dishes, so you'd sound educated and "with it" when you were in high company.  Food, and the elaborate preparation thereof, was THAT big of a deal.  It sort of blows my mind (and makes me a little worried about the coming cooking endeavors this week).

Ancient Iraq, or Mesopotamia, was home to many sophisticated and highly advanced civilizations, in all fields of knowledge – including the culinary arts.[123] However, it was in the medieval era when Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate that the Iraqi kitchen reached its zenith.[123] Today, the cuisine of Iraq reflects this rich inheritance as well as strong influences from the culinary traditions of neighbouring Turkey, Iran and the Greater Syria area.[123]

Some characteristic ingredients of Iraqi cuisine include – vegetables such as aubergine, tomato, okra, onion, potato, courgette, garlic, peppers and chilli, cereals such as rice, bulghur wheat and barley, pulses and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and cannellini, fruits such as dates, raisins, apricots, figs, grapes, melon, pomegranate and citrus fruits, especially lemon and lime.[123]

Other Iraqi culinary essentials include butter, olive oil, olives, tamarind, vermicelli, tahini, pistachios, almonds, honey, date syrup, yogurt and rose water, cheeses such as baladi, feta and halloumi, and herbs and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, fenugreek, cumin, oregano, saffron, baharat, sumac and za'atar. Similarly with other countries of Western Asia, chicken and especially lamb are the favourite meats. Most dishes are served with rice – usually Basmati, grown in the marshes of southern Iraq.[123] Bulghur wheat is used in many dishes – having been a staple in the country since the days of the Ancient Assyrians.[123]

Meals begin with appetizers and salads – known as Mezze. Some popular dishes include Kebab (often marinated with garlic, lemon and spices, then grilled), Shawarma (grilled meat sandwich wrap, similar to Döner kebab), Bamia (lamb, okra and tomato stew), Quzi (lamb with rice, almonds, raisins and spices), Falafel (fried chickpea patties served with amba and salad in pita), Kibbeh (minced meat ground with bulghur or rice and spices), Masgouf (grilled fish with pepper and tamarind), and Maqluba (a rice, lamb, tomato and aubergine dish). Stuffed vegetable dishes such as Dolma and Mahshi are also popular.

Quick, small geek-out here...I'm sorry, but IRAQ is MESOPOTAMIA???  Like, where civilization STARTED?? WOAH.  If you already knew that, feel free to point and laugh.  It just never dawned on me that ancient Iraq == Mesopotamia.  It makes sense, looking at the map, but still.  Woah.

So there you have it.  Iraq, it turns out, isn't actually defined by the current media.  It's ANCIENT.  I can't wait to explore the meals here!

A lot of my recipes will come from this blog this week.  She actually has a physical cookbook available on Amazon, but I didn't find it until too late, so I'll just be using her blog. 

I'm not going to post recipes just yet, since I need to peruse that book before making any decisions.  I also need to find phyllo dough...argh.

Anyone taking the challenge this week?

1 comment:

  1. It would be cool if you could make one of those recipes from the first cookbook. I always loved ancient history. How awesome that you are expanding your tastes and learning about culture through food. Good luck. Can't wait to see what you come up with!