Delights from the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah

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.

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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.

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  1. Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    what uplifting images and what an uplifting book :) thanks for sharing this – I am most interested and will look for it locally – Cheers,

  2. Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    This is a book I would be very interesting in reading, because it would help to dispel the very misconceptions that you mentioned at the beginning of your post. Food memories are, I think, the best kind of memories.


  3. Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like this is a book I would like. The recipe for dessert using soda does not seem that ancient though :)

  4. samir
    Posted October 25, 2011 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    another great review..thank you..have you tried any recipes yet,are they accurate and kitchen tested ? the stuffed carrot recipe coming up?

  5. Posted October 25, 2011 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    My father was born in Baghdad and I have grown up loving Iraqi food. Sounds like a wonderful cookbook.
    *kisses* HH

  6. Posted October 25, 2011 at 2:53 am | Permalink

    I envy you for having had a chance to visit Iraq in better times. I am really drawn to these countries, theis history and their culture. It is horrible that they should be synonyms for war zone today. The book sounds really great.

  7. Posted October 25, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    Sounds like a fascinating book and thanks for sharing your memories with us too!

  8. Joumana
    Posted October 25, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    @Samir: I have quite a few recipes from her book on schedule to be tried and hopefully posted about! Funny you should ask about the carrots, I just bought 5 pounds of organic carrots and I am planning to do that next! :)

  9. Posted October 25, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Hi There,
    My Google has just alerted me to your beautiful website, reviewing my Delights from the Garden of Eden. I am so glad you liked the book. It was indeed a labor of love on many levels.
    I just want to remark on the negatives you pointed out in the review. The book is in the process of being published by Equinox Publishing (scheduled release March 2012) and it is going to be beautifully designed with lots of color photos. As for the cakes, I am a great lover of baking, and all the pastries I mention in the book I used to prepare when I was still in Iraq and they used to bring lots of joy to family and friends. However, the soda cake I used to make with plain 7-UP and used real cream. But in my book I thought of giving it an American twist.

    I am sure my Equinox publisher would love your comment on the cakes. In the second edition, she decided to keep just a few and the cherry 7-UP cake to be sure is not going to be on e of them.

    Enjoy cooking from the book!

    Thanks again

  10. Joumana
    Posted October 25, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    @Nawal Nasrallah: This is very exciting news and I will be getting your new cookbook version as well! I thought the cookbook was a GEM, as is; of course, the photos will be icing on the cake so to speak! About the cakes, I was simply trying to be fair, a lot of people prefer a cookbook with lots of color photos. I thought the 7-up cake recipe was funny in the context of your scholarly work. I am getting ready to make some of your recipes! Joumana

    @Nadji: pas a ma connaissance, mais tu peux toujours demander a l’auteur.

  11. Posted October 25, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I shall look for this in 2012. I welcome a glimpse into a country with time-honored art, literature and cuisine. The photos are stunning. I was there for a minute.

  12. Posted October 26, 2011 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful experiences during a previous trip to Iraq – personal messages like yours and books like Nawal Nasrallah’s will hopefully share with the world the real Iraq: a beautiful, flavorful, interesting, historical place with amazingly hospitable people.

  13. Posted October 26, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    It was so interesting to read about your travel in Iraq as a teenager. Hopefully, we’ll see a few recipes from the book in the future. How nice that the author stopped to comment!

  14. Posted October 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Je l’aurai lu avec plaisir mais existe-t-il en français?
    A très bientôt

  15. Posted October 28, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    It is such a tragedy that an amazing, ancient country is now so associated with war and death! You are lucky to have seen it before all that.

  16. Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    I love Nasrallah’s cookbook and use it often, especially for kubba and chicken recipes. She also writes a blog which might interest you with tasty recipes and history.

  17. Posted October 31, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I am delighted to announce that the new edition of my Delights from the Garden of Eden is already released. Have a look at it in my website

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