Iraqi cuisine (Arabic: المطبخ العراقي) or Mesopotamian cuisine has its origins from Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Kurds, ancient Persians, Mesopotamian Arabs, and the other ethnic groups of the region.
Tablets found in ancient ruins in Iraq show recipes prepared in the temples during religious festivals—the first cookbooks in the world. Ancient Iraq, or Mesopotamia, was home to a sophisticated and highly advanced civilization, in all fields of knowledge, including the culinary arts.
However, it was in the Islamic Golden Age when Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 AD) that the Iraqi kitchen reached its zenith. Today, the cuisine of Iraq reflects this rich inheritance as well as strong influences from the culinary traditions of neighbouring Iran (aka Persia), Turkey, and the Caucasus region.
Mesopotamian cuisine varies across the country. The cooking of Northern Iraq is known for adding pomegranate to the dolma juice prominently to give it a unique taste. In Southern Iraq, fish is used extensively. While in the middle region, in Baghdad and the surrounding cities is known for its variety of rice dishes and sweets.
Contemporary Iraq reflects the same natural division as ancient Mesopotamia, which consisted of Assyria in the arid northern uplands and Babylonia in the alluvial plain. Upper Mesopotamia grows wheat and crops requiring winter chill such as apples and stone fruits. Lower Mesopotamia grows rice and barley, citrus fruits, and is responsible for Iraq's position as the world's largest producer of dates.
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Archaeologists have found evidence from excavations at Jarmo in northeastern Iraq, that pistachio nuts were a common food as early as 6750 BC. Among the ancient texts discovered in Mesopotamia is a Sumerian-Akkadian bilingual dictionary, recorded in cuneiform script on 24 stone tablets about 1900 BC. It lists terms in the two ancient Iraqi languages for over 800 different items of food and drink. Included are 20 different kinds of cheese, over 100 varieties of soup and 300 types of bread, each with different ingredients, filling, shape or size.
The world's oldest recipes are found in Mesopotamia of modern-day ancient Iraq, written in cuneiform tablets. One of three excavated cuneiform clay tablets written in 1700 BC in Babylon, 50 miles south of present-day Baghdad, contains 24 recipes for stew cooked with meat and vegetables, enhanced and seasoned with leeks, onion, garlic, and spices and herbs like cassia, cumin, coriander, mint, and dill. Stew has remained a mainstay in the cuisine. Extant medieval Iraqi recipes and modern Iraqi cuisine attest to this.
Iraqi cuisine/Mesopotamian cuisine
Some characteristic ingredients of Iraqi cuisine include:
- Vegetables such as eggplant, tomato, turnips, beans, shallots, okra, onion, lentils, cress, potato, cabbage, courgette (zucchini), spinach, lettuce, leeks, artichokes, garlic, peppers and chilli peppers.
- Cereals including rice, bulghur wheat and barley.
- Pulses and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, green beans, green grams, and cannellini beans.
- Fruits including olives, dates, raisins, apricots, plums, figs, grapes, melons, pomegranates, apples, cherries, quinces, and citrus fruits—oranges, lemons and limes.
- Cheeses such as baladi, feta and halloumi.
- Herbs and spices including cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, cumin, oregano, mint, tarragon, thyme, saffron, dried lime, cassia, dill, turmeric, baharat, advieh, sumac and za'atar.
- Nuts and seeds such as sesame, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and pine nuts.
Lamb is the favorite meat, but chicken, beef, goat and fish are also eaten. Most dishes are served with rice—usually timman anbar, a yellowish, very aromatic, long-grain rice grown in the Middle Euphrates region.
Bulghur wheat is used in many dishes, having been a staple in the country since the days of the ancient Assyrians. Flatbread is a staple that is served with a variety of dips, cheeses, olives, and jams, at every meal.
Meals begin with appetizers and salads, known as mezza. Mezza is a selection of appetizers or small dishes often served with a beverage, like anise-flavored liqueurs such as arak, ouzo, rakı, sambuca, pastis, or various wines, similar to the tapas of Spain, or finger food.
Mezza may include:
- Iraqi sumac salad, is a typical raqi salad with the addition of sumac berries.
- Baytinijan maqli, a dish often served cold, consisting of fried aubergine (eggplant) with tahini, lettuce, parsley and tomatoes, garnished with sumac and served on pita bread or sliced bread, often grilled or toasted. Variations include bell peppers, or a garlic-lemon vinaigrette.
- Fattoush, a salad made from several garden vegetables and toasted or fried pieces of pita bread.
- Tabbouleh, a salad dish, often used as part of a mezze. Its primary ingredients are finely chopped parsley, bulgur, mint, tomato, scallion, and other herbs with lemon juice, olive oil and various seasonings, generally including black pepper and sometimes cinnamon and allspice.
- Turshi, pickled vegetables in the cuisine of many Balkan and Middle East countries. It is a traditional appetizer, mezze for rakı, ouzo, tsipouro and rakia.
- Baba ghanoush, a dish of baked aubergine (eggplant) mashed and mixed with various seasonings.
- Hummus, a dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic.
- Muhammara, a hot pepper dip originally from Aleppo, Syria.
- Tzatziki, an appetizer of Ottoman cuisine origin, also used as a sauce for souvlaki and gyros.
- Tzatziki is made of strained yogurt (usually sheep's milk or goat's milk in Greece and Turkey) with cucumbers, garlic, salt, usually olive oil, pepper, dill, sometimes lemon juice and parsley, or mint added. The cucumbers are either puréed and strained, or seeded and finely diced. Olive oil, olives, and herbs are often used as garnishes.
Soups and stews
- Fasolia yabsa (Iraqi white bean stew), made up of tender lamb or veal, white kidney beans (also called cannellini beans), tomato sauce and served over rice.
- Fasoulia, a soup of dry white beans, olive oil, and vegetables.
- Fesenjān, a thick, tart stew made from pomegranate syrup and ground walnuts (see bazha), traditionally made with poultry (duck or chicken).
- Harissa, similar to keşkek, a porridge made of stewed and boned chicken and coarsely ground soaked wheat.
- Kebabs, a dish consisting of grilled or broiled meats on a skewer or stick. The most common kebabs include lamb and beef, although others use chicken or fish.
- Lentil soup, may be vegetarian or include meat, and may use brown, red, yellow or black lentils, with or without the husk.
- Maqluba, an upside-down rice and aubergine (eggplant) casserole, hence the name which means "upside-down". It is sometimes made with fried cauliflower instead of aubergine and usually includes meat—often braised lamb.
- Margat bamia or simply bamia, a stew made with okra and lamb or beef cubes in a tomato sauce.
- Margat baytinijan, an aubergine-based dish of the Balkans and the Middle East. All versions are based primarily on sautéed aubergine (eggplant) and tomato, usually with minced meat.
- Masgouf, a traditional Mesopotamian dish made with fish from the Tigris. It is an open-cut freshwater fish roasted for hours after being marinated with olive oil, salt, curcuma and tamarind while keeping the skin on. Traditional garnishes for the masgouf include lemon, chopped onions and tomatoes, as well as the clay-oven flatbreads common to Iraq and much of the Middle East.
- Pomegranate soup, called shorbat rumman in Iraq. It is made from pomegranate juice and seeds, yellow split peas, ground beef, mint leaves, spices, and other ingredients.
- Qeema, a minced meat, tomato and chickpea stew, served with rice. Traditionally prepared at the annual Ashura commemorations in southern Iraq. The name qeema is an ancient Akkadian word meaning "finely chopped".
- Quzi, stuffed roasted lamb.
- Tahdig is a thin crust of slightly browned rice at the bottom of the cooking pot.
- Tashrib, a soup made with either lamb or chicken with or without tomatoes eaten with Iraqi nan; the bread is broken into pieces and the soup is poured over in a big bowl.
- Tepsi baytinijan, an Iraqi casserole. The main ingredient of the dish is aubergine (eggplant), which is sliced and fried before placing in a baking dish, accompanied with chunks of lamb/beef/veal and/or meatballs, plus tomatoes, onions and garlic.
- Potato slices are placed on top of the mixture, and the dish is baked. Like many other Iraqi dishes it is usually served with rice, along with salad and pickles.
Dumplings and meatballs
- Dolma (sarma), a family of stuffed vegetable dishes. The grape-leaf dolma is common. Courgette (zucchini), aubergine (eggplant), tomato and pepper are commonly used as fillings. The stuffing may or may not include meat.
- Falafel, a fried ball or patty made from spiced chickpeas or fava beans. Originally from Egypt, falafel is a form of fast food in the Middle East, where it is also served as a mezze.
- Kofta, a family of meatball or meatloaf dishes in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Balkan cuisines. In the simplest form, koftas consist of balls of minced or ground meat—usually beef or lamb—mixed with spices or onions.
- Kubba, a dish made of burghul, chopped meat, and spices. There are many varierities. The best-known variety is a torpedo-shaped burghul shell stuffed with chopped meat and fried. Other varieties are baked, poached, or even served raw. They may be shaped into balls, patties, or flat.
- Manti, a type of dumpling stuffed with meat and vegetables.
- Samosa, a small fried or baked pasty, which may be either half-moon shaped or triangular.
- Pastırma, a highly seasoned, air-dried cured beef in the cuisines of the former Ottoman countries.
- Sujuk, a dry, spicy sausage eaten from the Balkans to the Middle East and Central Asia.
Iraqi rice cooking is similar to the method used for Iranian chelow, a multistep process intended to produce just-tender, fluffy grains. A prominent aspect of Iraqi rice cooking is the hikakeh, a crisp bottom crust. It differs slightly from the Iranian tahdig, which is a single thick piece; the hikakeh contains some loose rice as well. Before serving, the hikakeh is broken into pieces so that everyone is provided with some along with the fluffy rice.
- Dolma (sarma), vine leaves stuffed with a mixture of ground lamb or beef with rice cooked with many fillings in the same pot, with pomegranate juice prominently added by North Iraqis to give it a unique taste.
- The Assyrians of Iraq may either call it dolma or yaprekh which is the Syriac term for stuffed grape leaves.
- Iraqis usually serve dolma without yoghurt. Often chicken or beef ribs are added to the cooking pot, and sometimes served with the dolma instead of masta or khalwah. Iraqi dolma is usually cooked and served in a tomato-based sauce.
- dolma is very popular in Iraq. In Mosul they include courgettes (zucchini), tomatoes, onions, peppers and grape leaves. They are occasionally smoked.
- Biryani, several rice-based foods made with spices, rice (usually basmati), and meat/vegetable, collectively popular in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and among Muslims in Sri Lanka.
- Khichdi, a food of Indian origin made from rice and lentils. Khichdi is considered to be a comfort food and was the inspiration for the Anglo-Indian dish of kedgeree.
- Mutabbaq samak (Arabic: مطبق سمك), fried fish served over stocked rice.
- Pilaf, similar to that of Iran.
- Quzi, a rice-based dish served with very slow-cooked lamb and roasted nuts and raisins.
- Tibeat, a Jewish-Iraqi dish made for Shabbat, slow-cooked chicken stuffed with rice, tomatoes, dried apricots and raisins, with a strong cardamom flavor.
Sandwiches and wraps
- Shawarma, a Middle-Eastern Arabic-style sandwich-like wrap usually composed of shaved lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, beef, or a mixture of meats. Shawarma is a popular dish and fast-food staple across the Middle East and North Africa.
- Baladi cheese, a soft, white cheese originating from the Middle East, with a mild yet rich flavor.
- Geimar, a creamy dairy product, similar to clotted cream, made in the Balkans, Turkey, Iran and Central Asia. It is made from water buffalo's milk in the East, or cow's milk in the West.
- Jameed, hard dry labneh (strained yogurt) made from sheep's milk.
- Jibneh Arabieh, a simple cheese found all over the Middle East, particularly popular in the Persian Gulf area, with an open texture and a mild taste similar to feta, but less salty.
- Labneh, yogurt which has been strained in a cloth or paper bag or filter, traditionally made of muslin, to remove the whey, giving a consistency between that of yogurt and cheese, while preserving yogurt's distinctive sour taste.
Breads and pastries
- Burek, a type of baked or fried filled pastry. It is made of a thin flaky dough known as phyllo dough (or yufka dough), and are filled with salty cheese (often feta), minced meat, potatoes or other vegetables.
- Ka'ak, refer to several different types of baked goods produced throughout the Arab world and the Near East.
- Kadaif, a very fine vermicelli-like pastry used to make sweet pastries and desserts.
- Kahy, layers of thin dough phyllo usually consumed warm for breakfast by adding creamy kaymak and light sugar syrup.
- Khubz Iraqi, an Arabic flatbread that is part of the local diet in many countries of Western Asia.
- Laffa (an Iraqi pita or naan bread).
- Lahmacun, a thin pizza topped with minced meat and herbs.
- Lavash, a soft, thin flatbread.
- Manakish, a pizza consisting of dough topped with thyme, cheese, or ground meat.
- Markook, a type of flatbread common in the countries of the Levant. It is baked on a domed or convex metal griddle, known as saj. It is usually sizable, about 2 feet, thin, almost transparent.
- Pita, a family of yeast-leavened round flatbreads baked from wheat flour.
- Samoon, a flat and round bread, similar in texture and taste to the Italian ciabatta.
- Sfiha, a pizza-like dish traditionally made with ground mutton rather than the more modern addition of lamb or beef in Brazil. They are open-faced meat pies with no top dough.
- Sfiha are much like dolma, ground lamb, lightly spiced, wrapped in brined grape leaves.
Condiments, sauces and spices
- Amba, a tangy mango pickle condiment from Pakistan and India. Commonly eaten as a side dish and sometimes as a sandwich topping.
- Baharat, a spice mixture. Typical ingredients include allspice, black pepper corns, cardamom seeds, cassia bark, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, nutmeg, dried red chili peppers or paprika.
- Dibis, a thick, very sweet date syrup. Often mixed with tahini to create a dip.
- Jallab, a type of syrup popular in the Middle East made from dates, grape molasses and rose water.
- Mahleb, an aromatic spice made from the seeds of the St Lucie Cherry (Prunus mahaleb).
- Rose water (Mayy wared), used in various Middle-Eastern dishes, especially in sweets.
- Tahini (t'heena), a paste of ground sesame seeds used in cooking. Middle-Eastern tahini is made of hulled, lightly roasted seeds.
- Za'atar, a mixture of herbs and spices used as a condiment.
The earliest known recipe for cake comes from ancient Mesopotamia. Believed to be primarily for consumption at the palace or temple, the cake was made from fat, white cheese, dates and raisins. Another recipe dating to the reign of Hammurabi (1792 BCE–1750 BCE) includes similar basic ingredients with the addition of grape syrup, figs and apples.
The traditional Iraqi kleicha cookies are believed to have their roots in Mesopotamian qullupu—date filled pastries baked in a wood-fired oven called tannour. In modern times, other types of cookies (biskit) and cakes (ka'ak) are made at home, usually flavored with cardamom or rose water. Some variations include the disc-shaped khfefiyyat, half-moon shaped kleichat joz made with nuts, and date-filled kleichat tamur.
Cookbooks dating to the Abbasid Caliphate between the 10th and 13th centuries include recipes for hundreds of desserts. The tradition continues into the modern day, but the rich, syrupy desserts like baklava are usually prepared for special occasions or religious celebrations, as most daily meals are usually followed by a simple course of seasonal fruit, especially dates, figs, cantaloupes, nectarines, apricots, pomegranates, peaches, mulberries, grapes or watermelons.
- Halva, popular in the Balkans, Poland, Middle East, and other areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The primary ingredients in this confection are sesame butter or paste (tahini), and sugar, glucose or honey.
- Kanafeh, a pastry made with layers of semolina, white cheese and a sugary syrup sprinkled with rose water.
- Luzina, a candy similar to Turkish lukum, made from ground fruits.
- Mann al-samaʼ, an Iranian nougat originated in Isfahan.
- Qatayef, an Arab dessert reserved for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, a sort of sweet crêpe filled with cheese or nuts. It was traditionally prepared by street vendors as well as households in the Levant and more recently has spread to Egypt.
Alcoholic beverages in Iraq are widely available everywhere with certain exceptions in Karbala and Najaf for religious reasons. Iraqis are great consumers of all kinds of alcohol expect for those who follow the religious code.
- Arak, a clear, colourless, unsweetened anise-flavoured distilled alcoholic drink. Arak is usually not consumed straight, but is mixed in approximately ⅓︎ arak to ⅔︎ water, and ice is then added.
- Beer, a drink that originated in ancient Assyria and Babylon over 6,000 years ago.
- Coffee, a drink that has a strong and bitter taste, a popular beverage in Iraq.
- Sharbat, a chilled, sweet drink prepared from fruit juice or flower petals.
- Shinēna, a cold beverage of yogurt mixed with cold water, sometimes with a pinch of salt or dried mint added.
- Tea, also known as chai, is widely consumed throughout the day, especially in the mornings, after meals, and during social settings. It is prepared in a special way involving boiling tea in hot water, then placing it over a second tea pot with boiling water to let the tea infuse.
- Armenian cuisine
- Assyrian cuisine
- Azerbaijani cuisine
- Caucasian cuisine
- Central Asian cuisine
- Iranian cuisine
- Levantine cuisine
- Mediterranean cuisine
- Middle Eastern cuisine
- Turkish cuisine
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