Delights from the Garden of Eden
I've had the honor of teaching numerous Iraqi students over the last several years, and they were always eager to share their culture and food with me. I was interested in learning more about Iraqi cuisine, so I was overjoyed to finally receive my copy of the beautiful second edition of Delights from the Garden of Eden. This new edition, which has been several years in the making, features over 300 color photos, the historical and cultural material got a considerable make-over and updates, and measurements are now listed in metric as well as Imperial so readers worldwide can savor the joys of Iraqi cuisine. This beautiful tome is part textbook, part cookbook and covers Iraqi cuisine from the Mesopotamian diet to early Babylonian recipes, cookbooks of the Abbasid Era, and modern interpretations, lavishly illustrated throughout with a combination of calligraphy, manuscripts, photographs, and sketches and paintings by modern Iraqi artists that illustrate every aspect of Iraqi food and its preparation. The first 70+ pages are devoted to illuminating the ancient foodways from which modern Iraqi cuisine descends. In each chapter, there are poems, quotes, and street vendor songs reflecting the importance of various staples in everyday life. Beginning most appropriately with bread, in addition to a basic recipe (and variations) for Iraqi flatbread, you'll find sammoun, Arabic bread (pita), lawash, filled pastries, sweet yeast bread and other delights. There is a whole chapter devoted to vegetarian appetizers and salads, which include familiar staples such as hummus, baba ghannouj, and tabboula alongside Iraqi omelets and flavorful salads (the spicy orange juice salad dressing has become my new standby!), among them a wonderful beet salad dressed with walnuts and yogurt. Many of the recipes are a little lighter and more health-conscious than their original versions (you'll still find plenty of fried recipes if you are so inclined). For the more adventurous, you will find dishes like pacha (head, tripe and trotters), bastirma (stuffed intestines), and beef tongue sandwich.
I loved the baked French beans, which are blanched then cooked in a savory custard topped with cheeses and breadcrumbs. These seemingly simple ingredients blossomed when combined to create a delicious savory side dish (or snack). My only recommendation is to use a larger baking dish than called for; the recipe calls for an 8 x 6 inch dish, but the included photo uses a 9 x 13 casserole (I used myEmile Henry 10-1/2-Inch Oval Au Gratin Azure Blue and it was a perfect fit). In the rice chapter, the green rice with fresh fava beans and rice with mung beans made wonderful vegetarian main courses. The chapter on stuffed foods yielded delicate dolmas and kubba, while the port city of Basra offers several excellent shrimp recipes (and I can't wait to try the sweet and sour fish simmered in almond prune sauce!). I was particularly interested in the chapters on savory pastries and desserts, and tried making the olive and cheese bread (pita), apricot balls and lawzeena (almond candy). The olive and cheese bread was a moist, springy dough enriched with yogurt and olive oil and studded with olives, mint, and parsley, making for addictive snacking. The herbs stayed a vibrant green even after being baked into the pita, which makes for a beautiful presentation when sliced into bars as suggested. The apricot balls take only moments to throw together in a food processor, but be sure to use sweetened coconut (snip with kitchen scissors or pulse in the food processor before adding the apricots). My testers said that using unsweetened desiccated coconut, while having the same appearance, resulted in the rosewater being overpowering rather than balancing out the sugar in the coconut. For the almond candy, I tried using both domestic canned almond paste (Solo Almond Paste 8oz) and imported almond paste in a tube (Odense Almond Paste). I found that even with kneading, the canned almond paste was too dry and brittle and cracked, allowing the filling to leak out. I had much better luck on my second attempt with the almond paste in a tube, although note that it is 7 oz. instead of 8 oz., so you will want to make a smaller rectangle. Also, make sure that your dough for the almond candy is at least ¼" thick; the first time I tried to bake this, I rolled it too thinly and the filling punched through and leaked all over the pan! (and the pistachio - confectioner's sugar- rosewater filling makes an addictive candy on its own rolled into balls and chilled!) The recipes have been modified somewhat to fit Western home kitchens; ingredients are given in Imperial and metric measurements, and some substitutions (particularly for cheese) have been made. I wrote the author about the choices of cheeses recommended in the recipes (including mozzarella and cheddar), and she kindly wrote back with the following: "Regarding Iraqi cheeses, as I mention in my chapter on dairy products, we have three major cheeses...In my recipes I use feta because it is the closest and most available in the US general stores. However, you might find these days some white Mexican cheeses which might also be used, or if you have access to Middle Eastern stores, you can use Halloom cheese or Akkawi. In my recipes I try to use what's most easily available without compromising authenticity as much as possible." As with any international cookbook, you will be making or using many different spice blends, including baharat and za'tar. Recipes for the spice blends are given in the glossary. Some recipes also call for noomi Basra (dried lime), amba (pickled mango), and tamarind. There is a very thorough list of scholarly works cited, and not one but several indices as well as a name and subject index. The book itself is very high quality, with heavy matte paper, beautiful photography, and a teal blue ribbon to hold your place. At well over 500 pages, it is a large volume, but lays flat neatly, making it easy to cook from any section. You'll also find a wide variety of sample menus for various occasions, including seasonal menus (among them an Iftar menu for Ramadan), ladies' tea parties, and mezze. "Delights from the Garden of Eden" is truly a journey; you'll learn about table manners, dining protocol, how the etymology of Arabic food words can be traced back to their earlier roots, the culinary riches and ingenious recipes of medieval Iraqi cooks, and how ancient Mesopotamian customs can be traced to the present. It is a labor of love that illuminates the deep connections between food and culture, past and present, and above all, shows us how much we have in common. Highly recommended; this should be in every cookbook collection if you are interested in Middle Eastern cuisine! If you already own the original first edition, it is WELL worth purchasing the updated and revised second edition.
(Many thanks to author Nawal Nasrallah for answering my questions and Equinox for the review copy!)