INTERVIEW: Mesopotamian heritage and Abbasid delights

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 26 Mar 2024

Iraqi-American culinary expert Nawal Nasrallah talks about the history of the recipes making up today’s Iraqi cuisine to Al-Ahram Weekly.


It was sometime in 1990 when Iraq was going through another wave of political and military turmoil under former president Saddam Hussein that Nawal Nasrallah, at the time a professor of English literature and linguistics, arrived on the East Coast of the United States.

Having a passion for the quality food that she had long enjoyed wherever she had lived in Iraq, Nasrallah, like many Arab expatriates, connected with her home country while abroad through its traditional recipes.

With the passing of time, Nasrallah’s cooking evolved from being a way to satisfy her homesickness to an incitement to do research about the history of these delightful meals, however, not just in terms of the evolution of the recipes, but also in terms of documenting the long history of Iraqi cuisine.

Eventually, she ended up being the translator of several ancient cookbooks, including classics from the 10th, 13th, and 14th centuries that offer a thorough insight into culinary culture, not just in Iraq but also in other countries that were once controlled by the mediaeval Abbasid Dynasty in Baghdad.

Published in 2003, another crucial moment in the modern history of Iraq, Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden introduced Iraqi cuisine in both its past and present guise to a world that may have known more about Saddam’s political and military adventures.

The title was the culmination of thorough research into the history of mediaeval Arab cuisine that had led Nasrallah to translate a 10th-century classic by Ibn Sayyar Al-Warraq called Kitab Al-Tabikh (Cookbook) that came out in English as Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens.

There were also her translations of the Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes from Al-Andalus and Al-Maghrib, a cookbook by the 13th-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Razin al-Tujibi, and the 14th-century Kenz Al-Fawaed fi Tanwia Al-Mawaed that came out under the English title of the Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook.

Nasrallah is keen to establish two facts about her work: first, that writing about the history of food is also a type of literature; and second, that a cookbook in the mediaeval context is not just a set of recipes but also includes nutritional facts, cooking techniques, and eating manners.

Through her work on the subject, Nasrallah said, it is not difficult to trace the uninterrupted thread of recipes from Mesopotamia, the Iraq of the Middle Ages, to modern Iraq today.

“This is, of course, while taking into consideration some obvious facts about the evolution of cooking techniques and the introduction of new crops including tomatoes that became essential to the cooking of everyday staple stews in modern Iraq,” she said.

However, “the stews were always there, as we learn from three Babylonian tablets that were discovered in the early decades of the 20th century.”

Through her work, Nasrallah said, it is easy to trace the evolution of modern dishes including kubbat hamud shalgam (stuffed rice dough simmered in cream of turnip and Swiss chard soup). In the recipe for this on her website, Nasrallah explains that shalgam is a turnip.

She shares a folk story in which Juha, a comic mediaeval character, goes to visit the sultan with a gift of buckthorn (nabak). Infuriated by the gift, the Sultan orders Juha to be stoned with these small fruits. Juha is grateful that he accepted the advice of his wife who told him to take buckthorn instead of turnips, as the latter would have been much more painful.

A recipe for sikbaj (an aubergine stew cooked with meat) is also associated with a folk tale. One of the Abbasid Caliphs was once in the southern Iraqi town of Basra, and, smelling a delicious meal being cooked, he sent a servant to get the dish. The servant found that the dish was sikbaj being made by a simple carpenter, but the Abbasid Caliph liked it so much that when he had eaten it he ordered the pan to be filled with gold coins and sent back to the carpenter


Nasrallah’s work reveals the ancient origins of some very popular dishes today including sambousak and falafel.

She explains that the long-established ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq has contributed to the diversity of dishes in Iraqi cuisine. Dishes of mashed chickpeas were consumed by Christians as a substitute for meat during Lent, and aubergine sandwiches called laffat (rolls) were popular among Iraqi Jews for Sabbath morning meals.

“Mediaeval people had sandwiches in which thin bread would be spread with vegetables and meat before being seasoned, rolled, sliced and served,” she said. In Mesopotamian times, there were around 300 types of bread. More types, some simpler and some more sophisticated, were introduced over the centuries. “Some are still baked today as they were centuries ago,” she said.

Khobz al-tanour, for example, which is baked in a clay-oven (tanour) has a very old history, Nasrallah said, adding that “tanour is actually an ancient Sumerian word.”

The diversity of Mesopotamian food was also very different from the generally simpler and more basic food that the Arabs, and thus the early Muslims, were accustomed to. This, she added, shows the incredible diversity of the food that the early Muslim dynasties acquired as a result of territorial expansion, allowing for the introduction of recipes from the Mashraq, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, the Maghreb, and eventually also Al-Andalus.

The changing lifestyles of the Muslim rulers were also a factor in this extension, as the caliphs gradually liberated themselves from the simple lifestyle choices of the early Muslim rulers and indulged more and more in culinary delights. The Abbasids were particularly known for their extravagant taste for food and palace banquets — and at times public banquets too — to which invitations were sent out in eloquent prose.

Nasrallah says that it is impossible to overlook the interest that Haroun Al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph, had in lavish banquets. These banquets, she said, were not just rich in the many types of dishes on offer, but they were also generously ornamented with flowers.

Some of the recipes that were offered at the palaces of the Abbasid caliphs could also be replicated more cheaply, perhaps using fewer and less high-quality ingredients, in the houses of ordinary people. A prime example, she said, would be tharid, a bread and rice dish served with meat.

“Here, we could for example be talking about the quantity and quality of the meat involved, but tharid was certainly a popular dish,” she said, adding that the broth used for making it was later a key element of Iraqi cooking for centuries.

“During the Middle Ages, and prior to the introduction of tomatoes in the 19th century, the broth used to be given colour by rice or chickpea flour, chard, celery, coriander or saffron, but then tomatoes took over,” she said.

“Al-maraq [broth] used to be called the ‘essence of food,’” she added. The most common way to consume it was as part of a dish of tharid. Prior to the introduction of rice, tharid was also bread-based, she noted.

Today, it is typical for a Muslim family in Iraq to cook tharid for Iftar during Ramadan along with lentil soup. “Hearty soups were introduced centuries ago, and they became an essential part of Iraqi cuisine especially after a daylong fast,” she said.

Moreover, many of today’s popular Ramadan desserts have an Abbasid origin, including rice pudding cooked with saffron. “Saffron is quite expensive today, so a rice pudding will generally be cooked without it,” she added.  

She noted that the history of Iraqi cuisine includes much earlier recipes for desserts prior to the introduction of sugar in which date syrup or honey were used to sweeten the dish.

It was also Abbasid times that saw the beginnings of today’s popular zalabiya (fried and sweetened mini donuts) and zonud al-sit (phyllo rolls filled with cream and sweetened with a sugar-based syrup scented with rose water) desserts.  


Abbasid cuisine was not just about main dishes and desserts, however, Nasrallah said. There were also many drinks. Obvious examples include a pomegranate drink and sabanjabil, a word that combines the Persian words for vinegar and honey.

“Sweet and sour combinations are not new to Iraqi cuisine… and they could actually be from some Babylonian recipes which tell of quite a sophisticated cuisine,” she said.

Meanwhile, Nasrallah said that fish, naturally abundant in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, was also common in Iraqi cuisine. It was cooked in different ways. “Small fish were also used to create a fermented sauce that was used to add flavour to certain dishes that is similar to soy sauce,” she added.
This sauce is called al-muri, and it is rarely used now as it has been gradually substituted for by tomatoes.

“It is interesting that when tomatoes were first introduced in Iraq, people were suspicious about them as they noticed that they could at times cause food poisoning,” Nasrallah said.

She explained that eventually it became clear that the problem was with the copper cooking pans that were being used, with these later being substituted with clay cooking pots.

According to Nasrallah, the different cooking pots are also an essential part of the history of Iraqi cuisine. “There too there was considerable evolution and many rules,” she said.

The classic cookbook of Ibn Al-Sayyar, she adds, has a lengthy section on the cleanliness of cooking pots, thought essential for the taste and quality of the dishes.

The pans changed over the centuries along with the cooking techniques. “For example, prior to the introduction of the Abrahamic religions in the region it was customary for mutton to be cooked in the blood of a sheep. This started to disappear with Judaism, and it was completely out with Islam. Of course, with Islam there were also different types of slaughtering that were introduced,” she said.

Islam, she added, had another interesting impact with the introduction of the sequenced-course meal. She explained that this sequence of courses was also Ramadan-specific, as people needed to move more slowly after a dawn-to-dusk fast.

Religion is one of many influences that left its mark on the evolution of Iraqi cuisine from Mesopotamian times to the Middle Ages, Nasrallah said. Other factors included the expansion of the Muslim dynasties and the subsequent inclusion of wider ethnic diversity.

There was also trade. “For example, Basra was one of the very early Iraqi cities to be introduced to the concept of different spices, given its place on the trade routes from the east. It was introduced to influences from Indian cuisine because traders coming from further east in Asia used to stay there,” she added.

She noted that availability is always a factor in every cuisine. “For example, in the north of Mesopotamia, where grains are planted on a larger scale, they are more present in the dishes. Hence, we have the famous kubbah of Mosul (a burghul and meat pie),” she said.

She added that while eating meat was especially common in the north, given the large pastures for animals, in Baghdad fish was more common.

Nasrallah says that the delicacies of Iraqi cuisine have still to gain their due attention internationally side by side with better-known Lebanese and Moroccan dishes. However, this has been happening owing to Iraqi migration over the past four decades.

But the process has been slow, she said, given the fact that for the most part Iraqis eat at home and not in restaurants. Meanwhile, she hopes that her books will continue to shed light on one of the oldest and most diverse cuisines in the region.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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