If you’re into sticky, sweet and saffron-addled Middle Eastern food, then you need to try Iraqi cuisine.
With restaurants serving food from the region’s countries opening at breakneck speed across London – from Hoxton’s Imad’s Syrian Kitchen to grill house Berber & Q’s newish Shawarma Bar and Warren Street’s Honey and Co’s new opening, Honey and Smoke – the time is now to try this latest trend.
Introducing Iraqi food to the UK is city worker turned pop up restaurateur Philip Juma. “My dad is from Iraq, and the culture’s food is what I grew up loving,” he tells us.
“It’s a country packed with amazing recipes and a wonderful heritage. All the similar cuisines – Indian, Persian, Lebanese – are already popular, so it’s time it got some attention.”
Here’s Juma’s rundown of everything you need to know.
1. Iraqi food is somewhere between Indian and the food of the Levant
“You’ve got a lot of spices like cardamon, cumin, cloves, cinnamon and saffron alongside fragrant ingredients like rose petals, orange blossom water and pomegranate molasses,” says Juma. But you’ve also got sliced almonds, cashew nuts, pine nuts, sultanas, vine leaves, flat-leaf parsley and dill on the scene – so a unique combination.
2. Dolma are a signature dish
“That’s a big sharing platter of stuffed vine leaves and onions, filled with basmati rice and lamb mince that’s jazzed up with pomegranate molasses, cloves, cardamom and coriander,” Juma says, “I remember my aunties spending hours making these in the kitchen on special occasions. Granted, they’re a labour of love, but they’re worth the wait.”
3. There’s a lot of red meat
“There’s a big focus on lamb, but it’s cooked in so many different ways and worked into such a multitude of recipes, it never feels repetitive,” Juma says. Other than that, there’s a lot of lighter food, like salads of cos lettuce with radishes, cucumber, pepper, tomato and spring onion, dressed with with pomegranate molasses, malt vinegar and olive oil.
4. The quintessential taste is dried limes
Limes that have been left out in the heat until they go a dark brown colour, the aroma from these is incredible. “There’s an almost spicy depth to them,” says Juma. “You can grate them for an intense shot of flavour, use them as a dried spice, or do bigger chunks and work them through a dish for a milder effect. They’re so intense and unique.”
5. Iraqi bread is something special
Way more fun than another round of sourdough. “There’s samoon, which are moulded into diamond shapes, and are baked in stone ovens, like pizzas,” says Juma. “Then there’s khobz, which is similar to naan but a bit more dough-y and elastic. When you tear into that, it’s so soft – it’s beautiful.”