I am aware that for a lot of people the word Iraq conjures violent images of blown-up vehicles, death and destruction. When I think of Iraq however, I am still starry-eyed and try my hardest to blot out these dark and tragic images.
The Iraq I saw (years ago) was magical. Imagine being led in a minivan full of teenagers singing happily from Baghdad down south into the Marsh Lands. Discovering what was described as the Garden of Eden on canoe, crossing through entire swathes of reed, seeing wild birds and water buffaloes all around.
Imagine looking out into the desert and seeing golden minarets and the tall mosque of Samarra.
image credit: art.com
Imagine eating the best grilled fish of your life, called masgoof, sitting in a restaurant by the banks of the Tigris river. Waking up in the morning to a breakfast of ashta (clotted cream) and huge eggs with an orange-colored yolk.
These are but a few of my memories of Iraq and when I got a hold of Mrs. Nawal Nasrallah’s book Delights from the Garden of Eden, no one could have been happier than I to discover this gem.
What I liked about the book:
- 637 pages, which took Mrs. Nasrallah six years of work, are packed with information, recipes, historical narratives, anecdotal tit bits. Mrs. Nasrallah is a scholar yet her book is easily read by any layman. The book explains the cuisine practiced in Ancient Mesopotamia through the discovery of Akkadian cuneiform tablets dating back to 1700 B.C. (lots of stews!) as well as during and after the Abbasid period. The research that went into this book is very impressive.
- The book explores the cuisine of the Abbasids (762 AD) who made Baghdad renowned (“paradise on earth”). Mrs. Nasrallah describes grocery shopping in medieval Baghdad, the court cuisine of the Caliphate and some of the cookbooks of that era (translated by Rodinson and Perry notably). Surprisingly, the recommendations in these cookbooks sound extremely contemporary, for instance, “exercise before a meal, but avoid it after a heavy meal”. There is also a list of foods that are aphrodisiacs as well as a diet regimen for women (based on yogurt).
- This book includes (in the last chapter) suggested menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner as well as menus for formal occasions or during Ramadan; a glossary with explanations for each spice and pantry item. A list of Assyrian cuneiform tablets is transcribed noting the medicinal properties of each food or herb. For example, lentils as a soup was a cold remedy, thyme was used as a drug for the lungs, sumac to excite the appetite and chamomile as a stomach medicine.
- This book is not limited to medieval cuisine but provides contemporary traditional Iraqi recipes for all of the well-known dishes. Hundreds of recipes are provided for eggplant dishes, lamb stews, stuffed vegetables or biryani-type rice dishes. The book is divided into 21 chapters, including desserts, beverages and breads.
What I did not like about the book:
- This book does not contain many photographs and the ones included are in black and white.
- The dessert section includes some incongruously picked cake recipes such as 7-up cake (the author uses cherry-flavored 7-up) iced with cool-whip.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the ancient history of the Middle-East as well as its cuisine. I have only skimmed the surface of what this book contains, as every page of its 600 pages is filled with interesting and well-researched information.
I applaud Nawal Nasrallah for an outstanding effort and wonder why this book did not bring her more notoriety.