Iraqi cuisine with Lamees Ibrahim
and her recipe for dolma baghdadia

Iraq

Iraq

Repeatedly asked for recipes by anyone who would come over for dinner, Dr Lamees Ibrahim collected her favourite Iraqi dishes in two beautiful cookbooks. The flavours of Iraq are shown at their best in one of the cuisine’s most prized dishes: dolma Baghdadia, made by stuffing vegetables with meat, rice, herbs and spices.

What was it like to grow up in Iraq?
“Many memories revolve around food. I remember joining my brothers on trips to the local bakery to have our kleichas baked. Kleicha is pastry either wrapped around dates, or stuffed with nuts, sesame and sugar. It’s a must for Eid. Sometimes we would make so many kleichas that we were sent to the local bakery to have them baked. I always tagged along with the boys carrying the large trays to the bakery. The boys said: this is not for girls, let the boys do it, but I went anyway. At the bakeries, they would know which family we belonged to. They knew the whole area. It’s such an amazing memory for me because you would start eating the baked kleichas on the way back - as many as you could before you got home. There were plenty of them.

“I also remember the big Friday breakfasts we used to have. There would be tashreeb bagilla, which is soaked bread with dried beans and a fried egg on top. I consider myself lucky that I enjoyed Iraq. I lived there, I grew up there. I had neighbours, friends and relatives. I enjoyed the annual celebrations, religious or historic.”

What do you remember about your first cooking experience?
“I was 12 or 13 years old. My mother wasn’t well and awaiting an operation. My father was very fussy when it came to food - cleanliness was very important to him. We had maids working for my mum, but he would never eat unless my mother had cooked it. Who touched this, is this salad fresh, did she wash her hands? My mum was always supervising. One day, when my mother was ill and in bed, he said: just make one pot of rice and a stew of vegetables. My God, I ran to my mother’s bedroom at least a dozen times checking with her. I’ve done this, what do I do now? How long do I wait for this? I made a pot of rice and a pot of stew and that was the very first meal I prepared.

“My father said: Lamees, this is wonderful! This is so nice, this is so good! I believed it at the time, of course, and that gave me the encouragement to do more so my father would be happy with me. When my mum got better, I would volunteer in the kitchen and cook together with her. Eventually, I would ask my mum to give me the kitchen so I would cook by myself.”

Kleichas

"You would start eating the baked kleichas on the way back from the bakery - as many as you could before you got home. There were plenty of them."

Lamees Ibrahim

Eventually, you left Iraq to pursue a career in medical sciences in the UK. What was it like to move to a completely different country?
“It was the late ‘70s, and it was a very difficult time. Different, very different from what we now know London to be. We couldn’t find anything we wanted. I tried very hard to cook things that I knew, but I couldn’t find the ingredients I needed. I couldn’t even find lentils to make my favourite lentil soup! When we went out for dinner, there was nothing related to Middle Eastern cooking either. So we ended up having Italian… I like Italian, but I missed my own food. It took many years before I managed to cook what I know to be Iraqi.

“It was especially hard due to the lack of available spices back then. The spices are so important because it’s what gives the Iraqi flavour to the dishes. I started to have children, and wanted them to eat our dishes. They needed to understand what they’re eating, why we think this is such a typical Iraqi dinner or lunch.”

Did you plan on moving back to Iraq?
“I never left Iraq with the idea to stay in London. The idea was to get highly qualified, go back and work in Iraq, for our own country. That unfortunately didn’t happen. I managed to go back for three weeks in 1976, but after Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, I couldn’t go back. I was scared they would hold me in Iraq because of my medical degrees and feared I wouldn’t be able to see my children anymore.

“After the invasion of the Western forces in 2003, I went to visit my country together with my husband and eldest daughter Maysa. I could finally see Iraq again, and thought that we could maybe go back and settle with my children. But when I went there, it was destroyed. Baghdad was hardly there. There was a skeleton of Baghdad. The places, the streets that I knew were there, were gone. It was very sad to see how it had been bombed everywhere. There was destruction, the traffic was chaos. The telephone networks didn’t work. It was very sad.

Save Iraqi culture monument, Baghdad

rasoulali / Shutterstock.com

Save Iraqi culture monument, Baghdad

“All these years I had promised my children that we would go back when it’s a little better. I was promising them all these years that we would go back and live there. To where I come from. To where their father comes from. I wanted to go back, teach at the university and do good for the country. When I came back from that visit, one of my daughters asked: are we still going back to Iraq? For the first time ever I couldn’t say yes. I nearly cried and said to her: no, I don’t think we can.

“I was so depressed and kept saying: where is that Baghdad that I was promising you? Where is that Iraq that I was looking forward to going back to? Then my oldest daughter said to me: why don’t you write your memories down? But I’m a scientist. I don’t how to write anything artistic, literature, whatever. I started writing, bit by bit. Meanwhile, we were always having dinners in our house for families and friends. People would ask me for recipes, so slowly the first book [The Iraqi Cookbook] started revolving around the recipes and memories of Iraq. Most of my memories are around food and certain dishes, dinners or lunches. Bit by bit it became a cookbook. There are so many anecdotes in the book and I could’ve written more! The memories I have of Iraq are the best memories ever.”

It’s a book full of beautiful stories and recipes! Do you think it’s important to change the image people have of Iraq?
“Yes, I feel I need to revive some discussion about Iraq. Iraq has a bad reputation nowadays. Media will give you a lot of negativities. I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the people, I want to talk about the heritage, about how to get together! I don’t want to separate. You are from this religion, you are from that religion. I don’t like that. I like the togetherness. That’s how we grew up. My neighbours were Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Mandaeans… If you are celebrating, I’m celebrating!”

Kurdistan

I couldn’t agree more! About cooking then: in contrast with how it was when you first moved to London, most ingredients are now readily available in most countries. Which Iraqi ingredients do you hold dearest?
“Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and coriander are all very important to us. I grind the whole spices myself, use the powders and then grind some more. That way you get the best flavour from them.

“Something that I couldn’t find for a very long time is pennyroyal, a wild herb in the mint family. One day after I wrote my book, I found it in a spice shop. There was a bag of it on the ground and the woman said: I’ve had this for years and nobody ever asked for it! I was happy I found it because we used to ask people who travelled to bring some back for us. It’s delicious on yoghurt! It’s one of the unique Iraqi flavours, apart from the pomegranate molasses.

“Another ingredient is saffron! We use it for saffron rice, but we also use it for sweets. There’s a dessert called haleeb, which is a rice pudding cooked with milk and water. You can add some saffron to the water to make it a yellow pudding with a slightly different flavour. The vegan version with almond milk is even tastier than the original one with cow’s milk!”

Iraqi cuisine has a long history, right?
“Yes! Something I didn’t learn until I started writing the first book, is that the oldest cookbook in the world was written in the south of Iraq, around Uruk. It was written about 4000 years ago. It was found as four tablets, which are in the Yale Babylonian Collection. Nobody had looked at them until a French archaeologist translated them, and found out that they actually form a cuisine. Imagine the Sumerians were teaching you how to pluck a bird, how to open and clean the inside, how to cook and bake it in mud! The food and the cuisine is something that we Iraqis are very known for.”

I found this history so fascinating that I did a little extra research. They are known as the Yale culinary tablets. It’s a set of four small Mesopotamian clay slabs, dating back to 1700 B.C. They contain recipes for over two dozen dishes. Among them is a lamb stew, a poultry pie and something similar to a modern day borscht [beetroot soup]. A group of researchers cooked a few of those dishes, but with the recipes largely omitting any quantities, it’s difficult to guess how close the flavour is to the real deal.

Stews were often thickened with grains, milk, beer or animal blood. It’s rather unlikely the dishes in their original form would be appealing to our modern palate, as food was often soaked in fats and oils, and salt was rarely used. It is widely assumed that these are recipes for festive meals, not every-day Mesopotamian dinners as the Babylonian population, the cooks included, were illiterate.

Market in Baghdad

rasoulali / Shutterstock.com

So, back to modern day’s Iraqi cuisine then. Your second book is The Vegan Iraqi Cookbook. Is veganism a thing in Iraqi cuisine?
“Many Iraqi recipes are naturally vegan. We were eating vegan without knowing what vegan was! I didn’t realise what it was until one of my daughters became vegan a few years ago. She explained that she didn’t have meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk… and I thought: wow, you’re depriving yourself of a quite a lot to eat. But when I looked at what I ate, there were many, many weeks passing by without me having any meat. 

“I was never very fond of meat. Basturma, Iraqi lamb sausages with an egg cracked on top, is supposed to be a huge favourite of many people and an important part of the festive Friday breakfast. I’ve always thought that it smelled nice, but I just found it difficult to digest and never really liked it. The first book was full of my memories of Iraq and the traditional dishes we used to eat, including a lot of meat. This second book is a collection of vegan recipes, both naturally vegan and dishes adapted to be vegan.”

Dolma

© theiraqicookbook.com

The Dish

And dolma is a perfect example of a meaty dish that’s easy to turn vegan! What do you know about its history?
“Research has indicated that there is evidence that dolma was being cooked and enjoyed in Iraq as far back as the Assyrian Period (934BC-609BC), and has developed through time to the recipe we use today. It’s various vegetables stuffed with a delicious mixture of (vegan) minced meat, rice, herbs, spices and much more.

“It’s a dish that you can make any time, winter or summer. It’s a family dish. When you make it, you don’t need to make anything else. Serve it with pickles, yoghurt with some nigella seeds, sumac, za’atar… oh my God.”

What’s the beauty of dolma?
“You layer the pan with stuffed onions at the bottom so that they can crisp up, a layer of lamb ribs (optional), stuffed aubergines, peppers and courgettes. In between you have the vine leaves and beans, to fill all the gaps and make it solid. Then the stuffed tomato goes on top. You make sure the surface is level, and then you cook it. After cooking, you turn it over and it’ll come out as a cake made of all these different stuffed vegetables, with the crisped up onions at the top. That’s the beauty of dolma.”

The Ingredients

Filling
450 g
minced meat (vegan: Quorn)
225/350 g
rice
small bunch
fresh or 1 tbsp dried parsley
handful
chopped fresh or 1 tbsp dried mint
1
large onion, finely chopped
2
cloves of garlic, crushed
0.5 tsp
ground turmeric
0.5 tsp
ground cumin (optional)
5
small lamb's ribs (optional)
1 tbsp
garam masala
1 tbsp
sumac
110 g
chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp
pomegranate molasses
a handful
frozen or fresh broad beans (optional)
2 tbsp
tomato purée (optional but very tasty)
salt
to taste
pepper
to taste
50 ml
cooking oil
0.5
lemon, juiced
Shells
vine leaves
spinach or cabbage
small aubergines
courgettes or cucumbers
medium-sized onions
green peppers
tomatoes
Filling
1 lb
minced meat (vegan: Quorn)
8-12 oz
rice
small bunch
fresh or 1 tbsp dried parsley
handful
chopped fresh or 1 tbsp dried mint
1
large onion, finely chopped
2
cloves of garlic, crushed
0.5 tsp
ground turmeric
0.5 tsp
ground cumin (optional)
5
small lamb's ribs (optional)
1 tbsp
garam masala
1 tbsp
sumac
4 oz
chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp
pomegranate molasses
a handful
frozen or fresh broad beans (optional)
2 tbsp
tomato purée (optional but very tasty)
salt
to taste
pepper
to taste
2 fl. oz.
cooking oil
0.5
lemon, juiced
Shells
vine leaves
spinach or cabbage
small aubergines
courgettes or cucumbers
medium-sized onions
green peppers
tomatoes

The Recipe

Total preparation time: approx. 2 hours | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

Filling

  1. Mix all the ingredients (except for a few broad beans) in a large bowl.


Preparing the vegetables

  1. Core the courgettes and aubergine by scraping out the flesh so that a ‘shell’ remains.
  2. Cut the top of peppers across to form lids and remove the seeds. Do the same for the tomatoes.
  3. Finely chop the cored parts of the aubergines, courgettes and tomatoes and reserve to add to the large bowl of stuffing ingredients.
  4. Peel and trim the onions and make a vertical slit on one side of each onion into the centre. Drop the onions into boiling water for 2 minutes, to soften the layers. Separate the layers so that they are ready to stuff.
  5. If the vine leaves are fresh, soften them by soaking in boiling water for few minutes. If they are frozen, thaw them first. If they are tinned, rinse them in cold water before use.
  6. Use a large greased pan to cook the dolma. It should only be ¾ full before cooking to allow room for expansion of the rice when cooked.

Layering

  1. Firstly, stuff the onions and layer them on the bottom of the pan with a few broad beans in between (this will allow the onions to brown slightly when cooked). If you are using lamb ribs for flavour, put them at the bottom to brown them also. Follow with a mix of stuffed vine leaves in between stuffed vegetables like aubergine, courgettes, pepper and lastly the tomatoes, which must be at the top to protect them from being squashed.
  2. Make sure that the surface of the top layer is as level as possible.
    When all the ingredients have been used up, pour the oil around the inside rim of the pan and put the pan on a low heat for about 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the sauce by diluting the tomato purée with water (if tomato purée is used) and a dash of salt and pepper, and add to the pan so that the liquid covers the top layer of dolma by 1-2 cm.
  4. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the water has been absorbed. This will take about 30-40 minutes, depending on the intensity of the heat and the size of the pan.
  5. When ready, turn off the heat and leave to stand for 10 minutes.
    The pan can be turned over onto a large round plate, the browned onions, ribs and broad beans will be at the top looking extremely appetising.

Dolma is a full meal in its own right, usually served with yoghurt, salad, pickles and bread.

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