As a newly minted ESL instructor with my MA TESOL in hand, I had the honor of teaching many Iraqi students as some of my very first students. They were extremely bright, kind, and generous, and their love for their country shone through as we discussed Iraqi history, cuisine and culture over delicately scented cups of Arabic coffee. When I discovered “The Iraqi Table” on Instagram, I was immediately intrigued and thought of my Iraqi students, who would shop for imported Middle Eastern staples, improvise in makeshift dorm kitchens, and generously share the fruits of their labors with any guests who happened to stop by.
Winner of a Gourmand World Cookbook Award 2017, Baghdad native Raghad Al Safi’s “The Iraqi Table” collects over 100 recipes from the ethnic melting pot that is modern Iraq, rich with influences from Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian, Armenian, Yazidi, and Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Iraqis. After leaving Iraq at 28 and having lived in Baghdad, London, Amman, Vancouver, Baku and Dubai, cooking helped Al Safi transform “all of her houses into homes” and pass Iraqi culinary traditions down to her sons. “The Iraqi Table” connects the cuisine and culture of an ancient civilization and modern country in an approachable, delicious format that is made for sharing.
Divided into ten chapters (soups, appetizers and salads, street food, afternoon snacks, meat and fish, rice, kubba, stews and tashreeb, desserts and pastries, and halawa), you’ll find a range of dishes from homestyle cooking to street food, snacks, hearty stews, and more elaborate dishes commonly served at celebrations and holidays. Celebrations in Iraq (Eid, Ramadan, Christmas, weddings, or family events) include an abundance of food; during Ramadan, the daily fast is broken with a simple yogurt drink and dates, but after nightfall, the Iftar meal is a generous spread that includes several salads, soups, and sweets. Lent in Iraq sees falafel, tashreebayah and madgouga, while Christmas might feature dolma, kubba, pardapelaw and roasted chicken with bulgur. I found the discussion of Iraqi weddings fascinating; although most of my (male) students were married, we had never talked about the wedding ceremony itself.
Soups include lamb and herb soup (shorbat zain al abedeen), shorbat mash (mung beans with root vegetables; vegan option included), and kasham ashi (yogurt soup with bulgur dumplings), while the salads chapter will delight vegetarians in particular, from chopped beets dressed with yogurt and mint to a hearty lentil salad, barley and eggplant salad, watermelon with feta and mint, carrots with walnuts and raisins, a zesty boiled egg sandwich with pickled mango chutney. Other vegetarian-friendly options include imam bayildi, vegetarian makhlama, rice dishes, and fried dates with eggs. Street food also gets a starring role, from falafel, guss and lablabi to dishes that were new to me like turnips with dates, chilifry, liver in pomegranate syrup, and tashreeb bagella. Bread plays a large role at the Iraqi table, and you’ll find khubuz, semeat, chureck, stuffed flatbreads, and variations. Similarly, rice is a common accompaniment to meals, from perfect plain rice to Persian-inspired temman wa hikaka, broad bean rice, rice with pomegranate syrup, and delicately spiced pilafs.
Dishes, especially at celebrations, are served communal-style in the Middle East, so glorious platters of qouzi (stuffed lamb on rice), kababs, manti, maqlubat baitenjan, pardapelaw, poultry and seafood would make the perfect centerpiece at your table for your next gathering. Persian-inspired stews like margat spenagh and fasanjon and hearty bean-and-meat stews are a welcome addition to colder months.
Iraq, like much of the Middle East / Mediterranean, has a pronounced sweet tooth, and the desserts on offer here include tahini and walnut cookies, Iraqi shortbread with cardamom, kleitcha, hilalat, datli, date cake, luquom, zardat za’afaran, halawat fistiq, jellies, and spoon sweets.
Special mention should be given to the fact that “The Iraqi Table” is not only a joy to cook from due to the relatively short ingredient lists and readily available ingredients, but the graphic design is gorgeous as well, from the food photography by Murrindie Frew and styling by Fiona Archibold to the large, easy-to-read font and gorgeous ethnic tapestries that serve as backgrounds. The index includes recipe names in both transliterated Arabic and English, as well as grouping by ingredient.
For my review, I made several of the salads including the watermelon, feta and mint salad, lentil salad, and beet salad. All were delicious, with a minimum of fresh, seasonal ingredients and just the right amount of seasoning to accentuate without overpowering. As is common in the Middle East and Mediterranean, I prepared several dishes and served them together to be scooped with flatbread. I have flagged many other recipes from “The Iraqi Table,” and look forward to continuing to cook my way through this gorgeous tribute to Iraq’s diverse, delicious and healthful cuisine.
Anyone who is interested in Middle Eastern cuisine will want to add this gorgeous book to their collection.
Congratulations to Ms. Al Safi on a beautiful cookbook and on your Gourmand Award!
For more information on "The Iraqi Table," be sure to follow the author's IG account and website!