Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine
By Nawal Nasrallah
With Iraq so often in the headlines these past years, it is easy to forget that the country is considered the cradle of civilisation.
With civilisation, of course, comes the development of a culinary culture, as opposed to food eaten just for sustenance. Iraqi cuisine has been evolving for thousands of years and is influenced by the many groups of people who have lived there.
In this book, Nawal Nasrallah writes about growing up in Baghdad, with neighbours who were Jewish, Kurdish, Armenian, Assyrian-Christian, Indian and Palestinian. Although they didn't always understand each other's culture or language, they did share their food.
From the Indian neighbours, for example, they tasted chapatis; from the Assyrian-Christians they had fruitcake (although the brandy used to soak the dried fruit caused problems with Nasrallah's religious grandmother). After consuming the food, custom dictated that they must never return a dish empty, so they filled it with one of their own family specialities such as - in Nasrallah's case - mtabbag simach (browned slices of fish with rice and raisins).
The book's introduction runs for 72 pages, and includes information on agricultural products, the Mesopotamian menu, culinary techniques in medieval Baghdad cuisine, and the kitchens of the Ottoman and Abbasid dynasties.
The recipe chapters start off with that most basic of foods - bread - before going on to cover dairy products; soups; snacks, sandwiches and side dishes (both meaty and vegetarian); rice, grains and beans; meat and fish; savoury pastries; and desserts.
Nasrallah also provides information on menus and manners, including an essay on how to prepare a post-Ramadan feast, and suggestions on what to cook for a dinner buffet.
The recipes are varied and include home-made yogurt; shish kebab; grilled liver, heart, lung and kidneys; falafel (both fried and baked); eggplant casserole; stuffed rice dough simmered in turnip soup; spinach rolls; and yeast cake drenched in syrup.