Here is a list of Michaela Yule’s favorite Iraqi dishes, mentioned in her guest post on food, hospitality and eating in Amman.
One of my favorite dishes is a classic in the Middle Eastern and also boasts a version in a number of East Asian countries: biryani. Um Osama made it with a base of yellow rice (seasoned with cumin or turmeric generally), chicken that had been boiled and then pan-fried, and a garnish of peanuts and raisins that had been pan-fried. It was spectacular.
Abu Osama’s (the husband of Um Osama) favorite dish is very simple but amazingly delicious, called lubia. You boil black-eyed peas (or a bean that looks almost identical—I am still wondering about this) and when they are cooked, you tear up pita bread and soak it in the leftover water. The bread is used as a base on a tray, the cooked beans are loaded over it, and the final touches are pouring hot oil and lemon juice on top. It is garnished with quartered raw onions. You eat it with your hands, using either the soaked bread or slices of the onions as a tool to pick up the beans. I tried to replicate this one on my own, since it seemed one of the most simple, but wound up with a rather tasteless mush of beans that I wound up converting into a bean soup (which was great in the end).
For one of my first meals with Um Osama she made a dish, called dolma, that had a base of rice with stuffed vegetables on top. She had cored eggplants, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes, and filled them with rice and seasonings, and then cooked the whole business in a huge pot filled with rice and water.
Another dish is made by layering on the bottom of a pot eggplant, potatoes, and tomatoes, (are you starting to get a feel for the staple ingredients?) and then filling the top with rice and special biryani spices. You fill it with water and let it cook slowly for hours, and by the end everything has cooked through and the rice has expanded beautifully. This is a fun one to watch being made because as a last step, the chef takes this huge pot, puts the large metal tray on top of it, and flips them over together. When she removes the pot, if everything worked out, then you have a gorgeous cylindrical creation on the tray with all the vegetables right on top.
There is a soup that I have had a few times now that I just love. The base is water and tomatoes, with potatoes and turnips and a green leafy vegetable just like spinach. Then, you add delicious balls that have ground beef on the inside surrounded by a coating of bulgur cracked-wheat. They are essentially a combination dumpling meatball. The soup is delicious and they say very good for your health.
Another classic Middle Eastern dish is called bamia, named after its key ingredient: okra. It has a soupy base of water and tomatoes, which is mixed with boiled okra and chicken, and seasoned with copious amounts of garlic and lemon. I made a somewhat recognizable bamia and was proud that at least I had turned this strange vegetable, fresh okra (if you haven’t ever cut one open, try it—they are filled with slime) into something edible and even yummy.
One thing I have learned from all these culinary adventures is that however delicious the dish, and however simple the chef swears it is to make, it’s never that simple. I’m convinced there’s a special Iraqi je ne sais quoi, and I’m determined to discover it.