Iraqi culinary culture is largely defined through religion. With the majority of the population Muslim, the cuisine is held together through adherence to the Muslim diet. For the majority of Iraqis pork is forbidden, as is alcohol. Religious ceremonies, such as Ramadan, also dictate culinary traditions.
Wheat, barley, rice and dates (Iraq is the world’s largest producer of dates) are the staple foods of Iraq. A combination of meat and grain will form the basis for most dishes. Dishes vary from meat and bread dishes, meat porridge, or meat with a grain paste known as kubba.
A typical Iraqi meal will begin with an appetiser such as kabab (meat cut into chunks and cooked over charcoal on a skewer). A soup or broth may be served as the next course, served without a spoon, instead you drink directly from the bowl. The main meal may include rice and meat or fish. The Iraqi national dish is Samak masquf (or Simach mazguf as it is known in Southern dialects). The fish are gutted and then suspended around an open fire on stakes that are inserted into their back. When they are nearly cooked, and the flames have died down, the fish are placed on their back on the hot coals and sprinkled with flavouring including lemon, onions, tomatoes and spices.
Presenting a meal to guests is important in Iraq. The highest effort is made in ensuring the guests are comfortable and enjoying their meal. In fact, it is not uncommon for the guests to be served first and alone. The more you eat the more respectful you look, an Iraqi may feel they have not impressed if you don’t try a bit of everything, and as much as you possibly can!
Ramadan is held on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this fast no food or water is to be consumed between sunrise and sunset – daylight can last up to 16 hours. The pre-dawn meal is known as Suhoor and must be finished by dawn. During this period foods containing grains and seeds are highly sought after as they are considered to digest slowly. The evening’s meal is prepared in the hour leading up to the sunset prayer, where cooks may taste the dish, but can not swallow it. The fast is broken after the sun goes down with iftar a meal that is traditionally kicked off by eating a date. The meal will then generally progress through a meze (appetiser), soup, bread and fresh fruits.