When your kids grow up and live their own lives, you find yourself reminiscing about your own childhood; which brings me to these memories of Iraq.
My dad,a man not inclined to vacationing, had decided to take us to Iraq; he had lived there as a bachelor, and had worked as a chief engineer in Baghdad on projects such as the Baghdad museum and parliament building; his fair Croatian good looks as well as his knowledge of Arabic hadgarnered him affection and lifelong friendships. He loved Iraq. It was through these friends that we were able to visit an area of Iraq known as the Marsh Lands, a very remote and unique area in the South of Iraq, known since the beginning of times as the Garden of Eden.
People there lived on water; you could not access this area by road; you had to travel by canoe, the same long and slender canoes that were depicted in 5000 year-old cylinder seals, cutting through the reed here and there, passing by water buffaloes and staring at wild birds and fowl in the sky.
We slept in one of those reed houses (fighting off cockroaches at night) and one night were treated to a feast organized by the sheikh of the tribe. Sitting on rugs we enjoyed huge platters of a rice biryani, roasted wild ducks hunted that day, this stuffed potato dish, and masgouf , the famous Iraqi dish of grilled fish, eating all with bread (no utensils), from communal platters.
We met people who had the innocence and generosity one only encounters in those who live precarious lives of extreme poverty. One of the boys, Ali, wanted to show us his treasure: He produced a small dinged up transistor radio with a cassette player and soon, in the middle of the Marshes, hundreds of kilometers from Baghdad, we were listening to Rock’n’Roll music with some merry Marsh Arab boys.
Did we know at the time that their life and lifestyle were in mortal danger? That a few years later they would be decimated? It just did not seem possible that a people who lived such a primitive existence, so far from modern civilization, could be considered a threat to anyone.
OK. What about this Iraqi dish?
It consists of potatoes, cooked and mashed and stuffed with a minced meat (or bean) mixture, with tomatoes and onions.
- 2 pounds starchy potatoes
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup of cornstarch or flour
- salt, white pepper
- oil for frying or olive oil or butter for baking
- extra flour if frying
- 1 large onion
- 1 pound ground beef
- spices: black pepper, cinnamon, ground coriander, pinch of cloves, nutmeg, paprika and cardamom
- 1 cup of peeled and diced tomatoes
- 1/4 cup of chopped parsley
- salt, to taste
- olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 can of black beans
- 1 cup of tomatoes, peeled and diced
- Spices: 2 garlic cloves, a few sprigs of parsley, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg.
- 2 Tablespoons of hot red pepper paste
- Boil and cook the potatoes; mash then blend with the egg, salt, pepper and cornstarch.
- Heat some oil and fry the onion till translucent; add the minced meat, spices and cook for 15 minutes until browned; add the tomatoes, cook 10 minutes longer, stir in the parsley. Set aside.
- Place in the palm of your hand about 1/4 cup of potato, flatten it and place on top of it a couple of teaspoons of meat or vegetable filling; enclose completely. (I used the globe molds to save time and effort)
- If frying, heat the oil to 375F and dip the potatoes in flour right before frying; if baking, brush with some olive oil or melted butter and bake for 15 minutes in a 375F oven. Serve hot, piled on a plate.
Recipe from The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos
If interested in the Marsh Arabs, check out SirWilfred Thesiger, a British explorer, who lived amongst them and wrote a book about it.
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