Food is a keystone of culture. Through the preparation and sharing of food traditions are preserved, information is shared, opinions aired and emotions expressed.
Cuisine was recently added to an extensive programme of events and The Mosaic Rooms, a cultural centre encouraging understanding by highlighting aspects of Arab society not often seen in the media.
Hosted by Lamees Ibrahim, a supper club to spark dialogue through Iraqi fare seemed the perfect medium to allow guests to take a little bit of Iraq home with them in their minds
The evening was a string of unfamiliar tastes and smells, all delicious and like rays of sunlight on a dark night. Sipping on a refreshing Hibiscus cordial made from flowers carefully transported back from the markets of Baghdad, the multi-national group of guests from as places as varied as Egypt, Australia and the Philippines brought a kaleidoscope of perspectives to the conversation.
Before dinner, Lamees demonstrated how to create the perfect Baqlawah: the sugary, nutty pastry so popular throughout the Middle East. As the trays of pastry entered the oven we received steaming hot bowls of Abb-Ghusht, a lamb, chickpea and white bean soup topped with blanched cherry tomatoes. This was the ideal dish to shake off the last of the outside cold. Warming and wholesome it was like central heating for the soul.
Sprinkled in between bites were anecdotes from Lamees’ childhood and of age-old traditions surrounding Iraqi food. She recounted how she and her siblings would sleep on the flat roof of their house to avoid the stifling heat of summer nights in Baghdad. Up there, they found themselves in close vicinity to huge trays of tomatoes puree and date syrup, laid out to dry and thicken in the sun – too close to resist temptation.
She will never forget the amazing taste of the forbidden sundried tomato puree and date syrup: ‘Like candy.’ With high-rises becoming more popular, this custom is becoming rarer in step with the disappearance of flat roofs.
Kubba was next on the menu; deep-fried rice shells filled with a spiced meat mixture. Combined with refreshing salads this was enough to make our transition to warmer climes complete.
Recalling Baghdad of the past, Lamees told us of cafes that used to line banks of the River Tigris allowing you to choose a freshly caught fish and watch it being cooked to perfection in front of you on a wood fire, smoked, then served. This was fresh food on your doorstep but sadly these cafes are long gone.
By the time the main course arrived our hunger was vanishing, yet this didn’t stop us. Fasanjoon, chicken breast with walnuts, pomegranate molasses and tahini is an exotic take on chicken stew with molasses and tahini not often encountered in European cooking. The pomegranate brought a delicate hint of fruit and the tahini a richness that made the dish very satisfying.
Although Lamees does not live in Iraq, her thoughts are often there. A couple of years ago, she started a charity; Empowering the Widows of Mesopotamia, granting micro-loans to widows to start a business of their choice. She is proud that 100% of the businesses supported so far have blossomed, including a curtain maker, a bakery and a confectionary shop. Lamees knows of no other charity in Iraq working with widows in this way and there is a huge demand. Help the Needy supports the UK administration of the project so if you want to find out more, see the link below.
All of a sudden, out of the oven came the sizzling Baqlawah. The hot pastry simply melted in your mouth, served with mint tea. There was a veritable smorgasbord of other sweet things to try out too: Halawat Jizar, little spiced balls of grated carrot, nuts and sesame, a date and walnut cake and balls of dates rolled in coconut. Needless to say it was a dried fruit lover’s heaven.
The Mosaic Rooms also plan to run other supper clubs to accompany exhibitions in the future – check their website for details.