International Meals – Iraq

Despite having NAMES that are only one letter off, Iraq and Iran are actually quite different countries.  They have different primary languages, for starters, and were actively at war as recently as the 1980s.

Iraq has an acknowledged national dish, masgouf. We are going to have to approximate this rather than making a fully accurate version, for a number of reasons.

Reason 1 – no access to apricot logs.
Reason 2 – no ability to (legally) set things on fire in downtown Vancouver.
Reason 3 – no access to carp.

In case you haven’t inferred it by now, masgouf is carp, grilled for 1-3 hours over apricot wood.  Traditionally, the carp would be harvested directly from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but given the amount of bloodshed in the country, combined with the fact that carp are bottom feeders, there’s actually now a fatwa in effect prohibiting the consumption of wild caught carp from much of Iraq.

Fortunately, carp are pretty easy to farm. Saddam Hussein had a private pond stocked, so he could indulge his masgouf craving.  Of course, locating this pond was part of the trail that lead to his capture, so maybe don’t do that if you’re a bloodthirsty dictator on the run from the authorities.

Possibly as a result of this advice, this type of carp are not easy to locate in Vancouver.  You can find grass carp, but that’s a different fish entirely. So we opted for tilapia, another mild, freshwater fish that is readily available in Asian markets.

Since I’ve been going to aforementioned Asian markets more often, I’ve gotten better about walking right up to the live fish tank and saying “please murder that one for me.”  The staff at these places is also great about scaling and filleting the fish if you ask, and they are MUCH better at it than I am.  However, I did encounter a bit of incomprehension at first when I asked for the fish to be butterflied, rather than simply gutted.  I’m not sure if the clerk truly didn’t understand me, or just didn’t WANT to understand me, since butterflying a fish is a lot more work, but he eventually agreed to do it, and I came home with this bad boy.

Butterflied Tilapia
Before I talk about what happened next with the fish, I need to talk about the salad.  We had picked out a simple sumac salad, consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, parsley, and a LOT of ground sumac.  This is an ingredient I am accustomed to adding by the teaspoon.  The recipe called for half a cup.

Salad ingredients

That’s a LOT of sumac.  That’s also an ENGLISH cucumber, but the Persian market I went to for the sumac didn’t have any other kind.  Neither did anyone else.  Supply chain issues?  Who knows.

But why did I need to divert here from our fish story? Well, because before putting the fish in a 500° F (!!!) oven, you’re supposed to squeeze some lemon juice and salt over it.  And that’s a lemon in the picture.  Right?  It must be a lemon.  It’s yellow, innit?

So I cut it in half and squeezed it over the fish, then gave the lemon carcass to Leigh, who likes to eat limes and lemons out of hand.

At which point we discovered there’s such a thing as a sweet Persian lime.

Sweet Persian limes aren’t all that sweet, but they definitely AREN’T sour, either, so the fish was hastily yanked back out of the oven and doused with some lemon juice out of a bottle.

OK, fish back in Hephaestus’s forge, it was time to make a topping. For this, we start with onions and garlic, because of course we do.  I’m not even going to include the picture – please see the other 50 entries on this blog that include a picture of onions and garlic cooking.  I’ve decided the absolute most unusual food practice in the world isn’t Sardinian maggot cheese or live crickets – it’s the Jainists in India who don’t eat onions and garlic, because my goodness everyone else does.

Also, Sardinian maggot cheese is a real thing.  We’re not making it.

Anyway, in addition to onions and garlic, we need to return to that big bag of dried limes we bought for Iran, and break them up for the black pulp inside.

Dried limes in a mortar

Smashy smashy!

The last thing we need is parsley, tomato paste, and curry powder.  Now, when a recipe only says “curry powder” it makes me sad, because there are a MILLION possible curry powders.  Fortunately, there are a bunch of recipes for Iraqi curry powder online.  Unfortunately, they are all the SAME recipe cut and pasted a bunch of times, and we absolutely could not determine the source or authenticity of the recipe.  Still, gotta use something.
Iraqi(?) curry powder

That’s coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and paprika.  Tasty, anyway.

All together, our fish topping now looks like this:
Fish topping being cooked

The fish cooks for a surprisingly long time, given the surface of Venus temperature.  The recipe calls for 20 minutes with just the fish, and then another 15 with the topping spread on top. I was REALLY concerned we’d set off the smoke detector as a result of this, but we got away with it, and this was the result:

Finished grilled fish

Trust us, there’s still a fish under all those onions.

For our sides, we had the salad, topped with an oil and vinegar dressing with another insane dollop of sumac powder, and vermicelli rice.  This is made by first crushing up a handful of noodles and frying them like we did for our Egyptian kushari.Frying noodles

The noodles are then added to rice which is carefully cooked on the stove.  No, who am I kidding – we used the rice cooker.  Authentic? No.  Do we care? Also no.

And here’s the final spread:
Iraqi meal
This was phenomenal.  WELL worth the risk of an appearance by the Vancouver Fire Department.  (And I’m sure if we’d given them some of the fish, they’d have agreed.) The topping was spicy and delicious, and the fish really benefited from its roasting in the depths of the inferno.  The buttery rice and sour salad also acted as the perfect balancers.

But we did not stop there – we also made dessert! Kleicha are rolled cookies made with a sweet date filling.  So first off, we needed dates.  The Persian market had dates.  Oh boy, did it have dates.  The clerk found me staring at a WALL of at least seven different kinds of dates with a dazed look on my face trying to Google “best kind of dates for cookies.” She pointed me to a box of Mazafati, and those seemed to work.

Once you have your dates, you pit them and cook them down into a filling along with cardamom, cinnamon, and a little salt and water.

Date filling
Then you make a soft dough with almond and rice flour, more cinnamon and cardamom, and some milk and coconut oil for fat. This gets rolled out.

Rolled out cookie dough.

The ruler is from a production I conducted of “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”  It’s… fine.  There are better shows.  The ruler is also fine, but it doesn’t have metric, sadly.

At any rate, the filling gets spread on the dough, and then rolled into a log, which is chopped into cookies, topped with sesame seeds, and then baked.

Iraqi cookies

They’re not perfect, but the spirals aren’t bad, either. And appearance aside, these are TASTY little suckers.  Would make again.  (Had better make again – still have half a box of dates.)

So, the cradle of civilization (well, one of them, anyway) turns out to have excellent food.  They’ve certainly had lots of time to work it out, and they seem to have put it to good use.

Next up, Ireland!

Masgouf (oven baked fish)
Vermicelli Rice
Sumac Salad
Iraqi Curry Powder
Kleicha (date cookies)


International Meals – Guyana

Since we did Iran last week, next up in alphabetical order is (checks notes) Guyana!  Wait, hang on.  Oh right, we’ve had a pin stuck in Guyana for over a year, because I have a coworker from there, and we wanted to have her over to judge our efforts.  And then, well – things just kept happening.  But the grand day has finally arrived, and we can share our efforts with you, our hypothetically existing readers.

First off, a bit of background.  Guyana is a country in South America that shares a border with Venezuela, Suriname, and Brazil.  While Brazil and Guyana seem to have a pretty firm agreement on where their border lies, the border with Venezuela has been disputed since before there even WAS a Venezuela, and the Suriname border has been contested for nearly as long.  The result of this is that more than half of the area marked “Guyana” on a map may or may not be part of the country.

Guyanese food is a mix of Caribbean, British, Indian, and indigenous influences.  A strong contender for the national dish is a stew called “pepperpot,” which is based on a difficult to source sauce called “Cassareep.”  Fortunately,  Saf, my Guyanese coworker, was able to provide us with a bottle.

Cassareep sauce

As indicated in the picture, cassareep is made from Cassava root.  It is dark brown in color, and simultaneously sweet and bitter.  If only we had some sort of word that combined sweet and bitter.  Oh well.

Pepperpot is a stew that can be made with whatever meat you have available.  We chose beef, as our guests keep halal, and headed back to the same butcher where I got the lamb last week.  You first steam the beef to make it easy to remove the fat, then it goes into a pot with the cassareep.

Cassareep going onto beef.

In addition, you also add cinnamon, orange peel, cloves, brown sugar, salt, and wiri wiri peppers.

Wait, WHAT was the last?  Not to be confused with piri piri peppers, which we had to hunt down for Benin, these are small, not dried, and incredibly fragrant.  These were also provided by Saf. Seriously, this meal wouldn’t have been possible without her generous contributions. You’ll see a picture of one of these things a bit later on.

Ingredients added, the stew just stews for as long as you can possibly let it.  We went for about three hours.

Pepperpot cooking.

Trust us, there’s beef in there.  After three hours of cooking, it had reduced to the point where you no longer have to trust us.

Reduced pepperpot.

The traditional accompaniment to pepperpot is a plaited, soft bread.  Never having made plaited bread before, our effort was… a bit of a chonky boi, compared to the longer, thinner shapes you see online.

Plaited bread
It was also a bit denser than it should have been, which is probably down to underkneading.  Seems it takes more than just WATCHING a million episodes of “Great British Bakeoff” to make one an accomplished baker.

For our other side dish, we made a channa fry. First, you boil some chickpeas, hopefully after remembering to soak them first, but if not, a pressure cooker is your best friend.  Then you fry them with this nice pile of stuff.  Upper right is the aforementioned wiri wiri pepper.

Channa fry ingredients

Also visible are toasted cumin seed, garlic, onion, paprika, black pepper, and salt.  Fried up together, you get a delicious, spicy dish.

For OUR final contribution, we also made limewash, which is perhaps an unsettling name, but is essentially just limeade with a little added seasoning, either “mixed essence”, which we didn’t have, or vanilla, which we did.  And we used fresh limes.

So. many. limes.


To finish the meal, Saf brought dessert – a delicious confection made from evaporated and condensed milks, agar-agar, and a little bit of food coloring.

Guyanese dessert

And here’s the final meal!  (We forgot to take a picture before we ate, so this is a slightly staged photo taken after dinner.)

Guyanese meal

First off, I’d like to add a confirmation that we rarely get with these meals – we actually seem to have done this one correctly. Saf confirmed that the pepperpot, channa, and limewash were all more or less bang on.  The bread was a bit dense, but still great for soaking up the sauce with.

So given that we got it RIGHT, how does it taste?  Delicious!  The sauce on the pepperpot is like really nothing else we’ve had so far on this project.  It’s an umami bomb, but also quite sweet and thick. Definitely perfect for soaking up with bread.  The channa was quite spicy, thanks to the peppers, and was a great compliment to the sweetness of the stew.  Vanilla makes a great addition to limeaid, which I will have to remember in the future, and the dessert made for a nice refreshing finish to the meal.

All in all, Guyana was DEFINITELY worth waiting for, and we’re very grateful to Saf and her friend for joining us, and for making the meal even possible in the first place!

Next up, we return to your regularly scheduled alphabetical order with Iraq, unless we decide to wander off and do the Marshall Islands or something else inexplicable like that…

Guyanese boil & fry channa
Guyanese plait bread