The oldest cuisine in the world 

Re-imagining Iraq through food, and 35 centuries of time

click to enlarge PHOTO: THE IRAQI FAMILY COOKBOOK AND KAY KARIM. - Maqloubi, or eggplant with red rice, from The Iraqi Family Cookbook. Maqloubi means "upside down," which is how this main course is served after inverting the pot's contents.
  • Photo: The Iraqi Family Cookbook and Kay Karim.
  • Maqloubi, or eggplant with red rice, from The Iraqi Family Cookbook. Maqloubi means "upside down," which is how this main course is served after inverting the pot's contents.

One month to Canada Day, the real start to summer, and I've been considering the many cuisines we have on offer.

The bannock and salmon from our First Nations. Poutine from Quebec, a carry-over from frites and all other things French — omelettes, croissants, cassoulets. The spirit of Jolly Olde England wrapped into pot roasts and mashed potatoes. A rainbow of pastas from Italy; burgers from America; bagels from everywhere. Sushi, chow mein, tacos, deeply delicious curries, savoury souvlakia, pierogi. Even the cinnamon-fragrant mujaddarah from Palestine we can now find.

The span of "local" food we take for granted in Canada is wide as the country and as fabulous. And all of it speaks to time: some cuisines springing up early in our culture; some woven in later as new immigrants arrive from other fascinating cultures. It all got me thinking, what's the oldest cuisine on earth?

It must have to do with the Middle East, better yet, Mesopotamia, as we were taught in Grade 5, the so-called breadbasket of the world, home to the earliest domestication of grain crops and irrigation, tucked between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In fact, "Mesopotamia" is a Greek work meaning "between the rivers."

On our modern maps, we can see how the Euphrates flows through Syria, that other seemingly forgotten nation suffering an epic tragedy that diminishes us all by dint of just knowing about it. But it's Iraq on the current geopolitical map that stands smack-dab where the heart of ancient Mesopotamia once stood. Poor beleaguered Iraq, also too often reduced to a headline that's as diminishing as it is trite.

But just in time for a pleasant summer read, maybe one that will broaden our blinkered view of who Iraqis might actually be and what might haunt their souls, comes a lovely book from University of Chicago Press based on what author Jean Bottéro describes as "the oldest known cuisine at present" — wisely leaving the door open for some later historical discovery.

Titled The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, it aspires not to be a cookbook per se. With only 50 known recipes remaining from Mesopotamia, how could anyone possibly fill the holes left by what Bottéro calls "35 centuries of erosion"? Nor does it try to be an historical account, but more an anthropological one. Bottéro, director emeritus of L'École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, says he's trying to "revive the image of the... gastronomic pleasures of those ancient, inventive, intelligent, hard-working people who brought so much to humanity and who knew so well, when they could, how to appreciate the world around them."

So what did Mesopotamians eat? And what do Iraqis eat today, for as multivalent as modern Canadian cuisine is, I've yet to stumble on a full-menu Iraqi restaurant (Somebody please point me in the right direction, if you can).

To start, given their hearths and cooking vessels (mostly pots and kettles), they were big on what's called indirect cooking, in this case using fatty broths. Most dishes — meats, vegetables and even "porridges" made of grains — would be cooked in broths made from things like salted meat; fat; onions, including one known as samidu; coriander; cumin; leek; garlic; and crushed dodder, a type of morning glory. Everything would be mixed into a pot of water, along with the centerpiece meat or veggie, and cooked until it was ready to serve.

But they were also big on roasting, grilling and baking, using techniques most of us would be familiar with; think "grilling," think "barbecue." A couple of aspects, though, might throw us modern ones off a bit — like the roasted meats offered to gods, and the inclination to eat all the animal's organs, especially the kidneys and heart.

Because the region was so hot, and this was long before refrigeration flourished, preserving raw food was important so any good cook knew about dehydrating food. One ancient announcement about the "meals of the king" shows that dried vegetables were served year-round. Fish, garlic, mutton, were also dried, while meat from animals like antelope was salt-cured. But don't be too quick to dismiss entirely the idea of refrigeration, for snow and ice were stored from winter, while hailstones were gathered and preserved in straw for cooling drinks.

Wine and beer were also important, to a degree that's impressively modern, with the guests of one banquet being served a hundred thousand litres of each!

While it's books like Bottéro's that make ancient people come to life for us, I can point you toward two books for re-imagining the Iraqi people of modern Mesopotamia. Kay Karim's The Iraqi Family Cookbook and Nawal Nasrallah's Delights from the Garden of Eden are both loaded with easy-to-follow, intriguing recipes gauged for North American shopping.

How about some candied pomelo peel, which is traditionally served in Iraq with Arabic coffee instead of a piece of candy? Or onions stuffed with sumac, that bright red, tart ground spice whose name is from the Syrian word "summaq" meaning "bright red" (Maybe we'll think of Syrians now whenever we see a sumac bush in our local forests).

You can also learn how to make a cup of potent Arabic coffee, served in a small espresso cup that's often turned upside down to let the deep black coffee residue coat the sides so someone can read your fortune.

Both cookbooks are filled with interesting "culture and custom" back stories, many of Karim's about her memoires of growing up in Iraq: her dad using a shopping basket of date palm leaves back in the 1940s; getting ice delivered in a piece of burlap cloth.

Nasrallah's cookbook, though, carries more of a sense of history and place, with hundreds of good anecdotes woven in amongst the recipes. But it's her opening "apology" that struck me, one recognizing that with all the hardships Iraq has suffered, some people might think it was not the right time to write about food.

She recounts the story of an Arab American writer, Naomi Shihab Nye, who was scolded and called a donkey for talking about vegetables when injustice remains in the world.

"Maybe it would make Naomi feel a little bit better if she knows that the donkey is the most patient and sensitive creature in the world," writes Nasrallah. "The sight of a bereaved mother donkey banging her head hard against the wall is the most touching sight that man can ever see."

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who has a soft spot for donkeys.

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