The New York Times article, "The Hot-Money Cowboys of Baghdad" this weekend got me thinking about how food can change a country. Right now we think of Iraq and we think of somewhere war torn, without any food scene so to speak. However, Iraq was on of the birthplaces of civilization, where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers joined to form Mesopotamia. Much of the country has been razed to the ground, but that blank chalkboard could be the basis for potential growth. Also known as the Fertile Crescent, this area of the Earth is great for farming and could be again. Marcus Samuelsson Group's Social Media Manager Mahir Hossein asked his Iraqi-born mother, Awatif Andersson about food in their native country.
Mahir Hossein: Right now there is no high cuisine, but there could be a food renaissance in Iraq. What do you think?
Awatif Andersson: If you thought of the restaurant scene in Baghdad before, then you thought of a street that goes along Tigris named after a poet Abu Nuwas. It was named after him because he used to like to drink and write his poetry there. In Arabic it is called Sharih mall Abu Nuwas, or Abu Nuwas Street.
MH: What was Abu Nuwas Street like?
AA: It runs the length of the whole Tigris River and it has restaurants and bars along the whole street. People used to go there with their families and dine, drink, and sit outside in the perfect weather (night time is perfect weather, during the day it is too warm) and listen to music.
MH: What did you eat there?
AA: We used to eat different sorts of food from mezze to a traditional fish that is called Masgouf, which is prepared by putting together a wood fire and having it next to the fire but not on it, just to get the warmth of the fire.
MH: What is Abu Nuwas like now?
AA: Some restaurants have returned on Abu Nuwas Street, but it's not as safe anymore, so people don't go as much but there are still people that go there.
MH: What about street food?
AA: You also used to walk on the street and vendors would sell lablabi, which are chickpeas that are boiled. Then you put chili and lime on the lablabi and eat it.
MH: Any fruit?
AA: There used to be over 50 sorts of dates before the draining of the marshes after the Gulf War. They grew in an area in the south of Iraq called Al-Ahwar, which means a place covered by water. The people that live in Al-Ahwar built their houses on the water and would visit each other in their own boathouses. They used to have date trees with dates growing on the branches.
MH: What happened?
AA: The south was against Saddam Hussein, so to find the people he drained the area and ruined the agriculture, which is why there's not as much variety of dates anymore.