THE FOODS OF IRAQ
Here are some typical foods you will encounter in this beautiful country.
IRAQ'S RICH CUISINE
Iraqis have a deep appreciation for their own cuisine. It is considered a very “rich” and refined cuisine, as expensive meat is eaten at nearly every meal. This meat can be sheep, lamb, chicken, beef, goat or fish. Iraqis view each part of the animal as healthy and nutritious, and make sure to cook all the organs, including the heart, kidneys and liver, brain, feet, eyes, and ears. The head, called pacha, of the sheep is considered to be a delicacy, very healthy and delicious in Iraq, and commonly eaten by men so they become strong. The only meat not commonly eaten in Iraq is pork, as it is forbidden for consumption by the Islamic religion.
MOST COMMON FOOD
The most common foods in Iraq are:
Kebab, which is grilled meat on a stick,
Dolma, stuffed spiced rice wrapped in grape leaves,
Biryani, cooked rice with spices and meat/ vegetables (Carrots) and/or beans and grilled nuts, and
Masgoulf (pronounced mezguuf), seasoned fresh carp skewered and cooked by barbecuing and grilling on an outside grill.
Alcohol is also forbidden to Muslims–however, many young Muslims do partake. Most common drink in Iraq is tea, drunk traditionally five times per day, up to ten times per day. Iraqi men specifically love tea, and there are shops in Baghdad that serve tea. Coffee is also drunk, but much less. Water is served cold in the summer, but served tepid during the other months.
Western soft drinks have become more common during the past decade. Iraqi-s don’t have access to natural or organic juices or alternatives yet. Health awareness is not common in Iraq yet, according to Western standards, at least.
For pre-recorded history, it was the people in modern day Iraq that influenced others in the culinary realm and not the other way around. Being surrounded by desert the neighboring people had little to offer the Iraqis that wasn't already present in the region.
This didn't change for thousands of years when transportation reached a point that people from as far as the Mediterranean and India arrived, bringing new foods and spices. Indian spices and dishes became more popular, Greek foods arrived with Alexander the Great, and Persian foods also arrived, but these influences only really added ingredients as the foods were still primarily boiled as a soup or stew.
Over time the influence from Iraq continued to grow as the influence from the west shifted from Greece to the Turks. These two neighbors altered much of the local diet in Iraq and even today many Iraqi foods are Persian or Turkish in origin. These people encouraged the heavier use of rice, fruit, lamb, chicken, and the greater use of dairy products, which the people had been using for years.
Additionally, Levantine foods from Syria and Lebanon have arrived, but primarily as additions to the diet as items like hummus and tabbouleh are more common, but not dominate foods as they are further west.
Under British influence and since Iraq has adopted additional ingredients from Europe and North America, but again most of these influences are simply additions to the diet as opposed to alterations to it. International "ethnic" foods haven't made much headway into Iraq; however this is primarily due to strained foreign relations and the recent wars.
Rice: timman rice is the favored type; served with most meals
Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes
Dolma: fruits, meats, and/or vegetables with rice stuffed in grape leaves, but sometimes also served in peppers or tomatoes
Kebab: numerous styles exist, but usually with a base of roasted lamb or chicken and vegetables in pita bread
Mezze: sampling of numerous dishes, generally including small plates up to grilled meats
When eating in Iraq there are a few etiquette rules you must know and follow. If you get invited to dine with the locals the first two rules you must follow are to dress conservatively (see our Iraq Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and towns, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is somewhat uncommon today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead. Due to this, don't bring a guest of the opposite sex to any meal unless you are specifically invited to do so. In many restaurants there is a "Men Only" section and a "Family Section," in which women and men can dine together (there is no "Women Only" section) so before any woman goes out to eat, be sure the restaurant or host is willing to allow women to eat with men.
If you dress appropriately and bring, or don't bring, the right guests you've already cleared two of the largest obstacles. Try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but be sure to greet every person individually and shake their hands (although some conservative Muslims don't believe men and women should touch so wait for locals to extend their hand first if they are of the opposite sex). Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive.
Once the food is served follow your host's lead as he or she may invite everyone to begin eating at the same time or may request that either you or the elders be served first. Try a bit of everything offered as turning down food is rude.
Eat as the locals eat; in most settings this means eating in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left); on some occasions and with some foods you may eat with your hand, but only touch your food with your right hand. Be sure to only take a small amount of food at first if served family style as you will certainly be offered a second helping. Turn down the first offer of a second helping, but on their insistence accept the offer. As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough and place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position.
If dining in a nice restaurant (if any can be found) be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Some restaurants may include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service charge is included a tip of about 10-15% in a nice restaurant is appropriate.
Advisory: For travelers from US, make sure you are eating on freshly cooked meat (preferably roasted chicken) and breads. Try to avoid local restaurants that aren’t reputable and used by westerners. Any meats that aren’t freshly cooked may cause stomach issues. Fruits, cheeses, olives are safe to eat. Take some snacks from the US (e.g. Ramen noodles, hot chocolate, protein bars, nuts, chocolate, etc.) for quick meals and supplements to local foods. It is advisable to carry medication for stomach issues (e.g. Diarrhea), to address issues right away, so that you lose valuable time. Hospital facilities may not be on par with the west or the right medications may not be available.
Iraq is a country between two rivers, a place where civilizations were born – and where the aroma of history blends with traditional Iraqi flavors to offer you distinctly delicious dishes, rich in taste, aroma and delight. Iraqi cuisine is an essence of the rich heritage of the country, complemented by the culinary influences of its geographic neighbors: Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Iraq is home to this smorgasbord of taste that combines the very best from each of these cultures to create a truly unique culinary experience.
Colors, flavors, shapes and sizes – Iraqi cuisine is a rich combination of all these things that make it delicious, tasty, and incomparably appetizing. Consider some of the core ingredients: coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron and mint. Add to this wheat, barley, rice and dates, you have the basics that will be found in any Iraqi kitchen. From kebbeh to kebabs, a truly traditional meal will be followed by a soup and then a main course of rice and meat – beef, fish or tashreeb chicken. Iraqi Biryani and Dolma or “samak masgouf”, the most famous traditional Iraqi dish are some of the other must-haves at the dinner table.
Lemon, mint, dill, parsley and coriander are key ingredients in many Iraqi dishes, and you’ll find them generously used to add that extra touch of taste to many of their dishes. While taste is important, nutrition is an essential factor in Iraqi food with vegetables like green bell pepper, tomatoes, zucchinis being common ingredients and usually accompanied by rice, meat and yogurt. And once a meal is complete, nothing washes it down better than strong, sugarless Arabic coffee or a suleimani (tea without milk). So remember these culinary tips the next time you sit down at an Iraqi table.