iraq

Baklawa and Baghdad Dreaming

The Baghdad I know is a patchwork of memories and faded photographs belonging to my mother and father. It might just be the sepia tone, or perhaps it's the nostalgia that laces their stories, but to me it's a magical, ethereal place with towering palm trees lining long and dusty roads, cool kids with round sunglasses and flares perching on the bonnets of convertible cars (I'm looking at you, dad), and the Tigris and the Euphrates stretching as far as the eye can see. 

One of the many stories that add to the magic of Iraq is that of my great grandfather, Jawad. I like to think that although we never met, we would have had a fair bit in common, and could've had some pretty great conversations. In 1903, jido founded Shakarchi Sweets, formally known as Al-Haj Jawad Al-Shakarchi & Sons. It was one of the country's most famous and popular producers of baklawa and other typical Iraqi sweets like mann al sama (a nutty nougat smothered in flour - I used to ask anyone that went to Iraq to bring this back for me!) and zalabiya (sticky, chewy, sugary fritters). 

Shakarchi Sweets had outlets all over Baghdad and remained popular for decades. Sadly, it shut down in the early 1990s as a result of sanctions, which caused the price of sugar to skyrocket and made it impossible to keep the business afloat. If one thing is for sure, it’s that Iraq hasn’t been as sweet since.

Nobody in our family has yet taken on the task of bringing Shakarchi Sweets back to life. Maybe one day I can change that. I know I’ll most likely never have a stall in Mansour, or a food truck pitched up on the bank of the Tigris, but maybe my sweets will give this side of the world a glimpse of that magical image of Iraq that my parents passed down to me.

For now, I’ll leave you with my baklawa recipe, inspired by Jawad Al-Shakarchi, and an incredible photo of Shakarchi Sweets that I recently stumbled across, taken in 1954:

Posted by @IraqiPic on Twitter (original post  here )

Posted by @IraqiPic on Twitter (original post here)

As a foreward to the recipe, I will just say that baklawa comes in many different forms, but for the uninitiated, this is the most typical and the one to begin with. I really do encourage you to try making it. Baklawa has a reputation for being incredibly complicated, but in fact, it’s surprisingly simple. Working with filo pastry is always going to be fiddly, but the beauty is that it really doesn't have to be perfect, and once you've got the hang of layering the filo and the butter, you’re pretty much there.

You can also play around with fillings and flavours. The most traditional is a mixture of walnuts and pistachios, but pecans are my favourite so I decided to sneak them in too. If there is, however, just one piece of advice I’ll give you, it’s to leave your baklawa to soak in the syrup for at least 24 hours, or ideally even 48. The longer you leave it, the stickier, sweeter, and more delicious it will be. Just how jido would have liked it.

Recipe

Ingredients:

For the baklawa:
20 sheets filo pastry
200g butter, melted
270g shelled pistachios
250g pecans (or walnuts, cashews, or a mix of your preferred nuts)
50g caster sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom

For the syrup:

170g caster sugar
170g honey
170ml water
1 tbsp rosewater or orange blossom water (optional)

Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 170C, and lightly brush a large baking pan or casserole dish with melted butter.

2. Place the pistachios in a food processor and pulse until roughly chopped. Remove about 50g and set to one side to top your baklawa later on. Add the pecans, sugar, and spices to the mixer, and pulse a few times more until the nuts are chopped and all the ingredients are well integrated.

3. Carefully unroll your filo sheets onto a clean work surface. Whenever you're not using them, always cover the sheets with a damp (but not wet!) tea towel to keep them from drying out. If your filo sheets are too big for your pan, you can easily trim them down with some scissors.

4. Carefully place your first filo sheet into the buttered pan. Butter the top of the filo lightly with a pastry brush, making sure to go all the way to the edges. Repeat this process with another 7 sheets of filo, so you have 8 sheets of filo with butter brushed in between each. It doesn't matter if the pastry wrinkles or tears every now and again, you can always cover it up with the next layer!

5. Now add your first layer of filling. Scatter half of the spiced nut mixture over your top layer of filo, making sure it is evenly spread and goes all the way to the edges.

6. Place a filo sheet over the nuts and carefully brush with butter. Add another 4 sheets, brushing with butter between each.

7. Now add your second layer of filling. Spread the remaining nut mixture evenly over the 5th filo sheet, again going all the way to the edges.

8. Place another filo sheet over this second layer of filling, and brush carefully with butter. Repeat with another 7 sheets of filo, to total 8. Try to be extra careful with your top layer, trying not to wrinkle or tear it, but it doesn't really matter if you do.

9. Using a very sharp knife, carefully cut a series of evenly spaced diagonal lines from one side to the other to create the traditional diamond shapes. You can choose the number of lines you cut depending on how many baklawa you want to make. Bake the baklawa in the oven for about 40-45 minutes, or until the filo is golden brown all over.

11. Whilst the baklawa is baking, make the syrup. Place the sugar, honey, water and rosewater (if you’re using it) into a saucepan and warm over a medium heat. Bring to the boil and leave it to bubble for 10 minutes and until all the sugar is dissolved, being careful not to burn it. Remove from the heat and set aside.

12. Once the baklawa is ready, remove from the oven and carefully run a knife down the lines you cut earlier to make sure the pieces are separated. Pour the prepared syrup over the hot baklawa, making sure to cover the tops of each diamond and pouring between the lines too. 

13. Garnish each piece with the remaining chopped pistachios, and leave to soak for at least 6 hours, or ideally overnight, or even two days. The baklawa will keep well for about a week if stored in an airtight container.

 

Middle Eastern Summer Charity Dinner Party: 'My Baghdad Kitchen'

For those of us in the Middle Eastern diaspora, food is often the strongest connection we have to where we come from. We might not truly know where that is, but the smells and flavours that remind us of our grandmother's cooking are enough to trigger a confusing yet comforting nostalgia for home, regardless of whether we are Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, or from anywhere in that beautiful but endlessly tormented part of the world.

DSC_0585 4.jpg

That food is a particularly special part of the Middle East, not just because of its incredible flavours, but also because Middle Eastern cuisine unites the region's richly diverse countries. Whilst each nation has its own cuisine, there is so much crossover between them all that Middle Eastern food is an entity in itself, and it is the most amazing amalgam of dishes. It is a kind of language in its own right, contaminated (or enriched) by the idiosyncrasies of neighbouring nations, and spoken both in and far beyond the region, in English and Arab-speaking countries, and even in Israel and Iran. If only the Middle East could achieve that kind of union in other ways.

In fact, I myself often feel more Middle Eastern than Iraqi, perhaps due to my parents' Turkish, Iranian, and Kurdish roots, but also as a result of growing up in London with friends from all over the Middle East, who, as my brother would say, are as 'equally confused' as I am. Our food, however, continues to make perfect sense.

Last month, the AMAR foundation ran a campaign called 'My Baghdad Kitchen', which encouraged people to host fundraising dinner parties to feed Iraqi families during Ramadan. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to bring some friends together and test out my own cooking skills for a good cause. I didn't want to just cook Iraqi food, but rather a range of Middle Eastern food, to remind us that what's going on at the moment is a regional problem, and that we really are better together.

Using family recipes, I put together a menu with food from all over the Middle East, including traditionally Levantine starters like Tabbouleh and Fattoush, a less known but incredibly tasty Saudi Arabian rice dish known as Kapsa (which is actually probably my favourite Middle Eastern rice dish!), as well as dishes popular all over the region, like the za'atar flatbread Mana'eesh and of course, Hommous and Babaghanouj. 

With the help of my magical kitchen assistant brother, we served up traditional dishes with our own twists. My personal favourite was the Shorbat Addas (lentil soup), which I served chilled in small glasses, topped with baked Arabic bread croutons and a hint of paprika. They were the perfect way to start the meal off. Clearly all the gazpacho I ate whilst living in Madrid has had an influence on my own cooking

Of course for dessert I had to make my Almond Milk Mahalabiya, which was a light and refreshing way to end the meal. I also finally tried my hand at Baklawa, mixing the usual pistachios with pecans rather than the more common walnuts or cashews, and served them up with a cup of Iraqi Chai to keep us warm as the night got cooler.

With the great British summer time on our side, we set up in the garden for what ended up being an enjoyable, balmy, candle-lit evening. We had Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all sitting beside each other, enjoying the familiar flavours that remind us of home, and sharing all too similar stories. Although it truly felt a world away from what the Middle East is today, it gave me a glimmer of hope for what the future could look like. 

Thanks to the generosity of our guests, we managed to raise over £155 for the AMAR foundation's campaign, meaning that we could feed 6 Iraqi families for a week during Ramadan. 

Although their meals would be nothing like what we enjoyed that day, by holding events like this, raising awareness, and trying to give back to a region that has given us so much, maybe one day we can be hosting supper clubs like this in Baghdad or in Damascus, where all of this incredible food was first made.

JUMA Kitchen: Iraqi Supperclub with the AMAR Foundation

There’s a pretty limited menu when Iraq comes up in conversation these days. Perceptions of the country and its people are marred by the headlines, so much so that I now expect a routinely curious reaction when I reveal that I myself am Iraqi. Thankfully, London-based Iraqi chef Philip Juma has arrived on the scene to start shaking that all up, armed (sorry) with a refreshingly positive newsflash: there is so much more to Iraq than war.

Eager to attend one of his supper clubs, I jumped on board as soon as I heard he was collaborating with the AMAR foundation at the London Cooking Project recently to raise money for Iraq through their Escaping Darkness appeal. He has also joined forces with them again this month for their 'My Baghdad Kitchen' campaign, providing recipes for you to host your very own Iraqi Supper Club. 

 

I first heard about Juma last summer, and got a chance to try out his delicious food at ‘An Arm And A Leg’, an incredible evening of food, cocktails, and music organized by the Hands Up Foundation in aid of Syria. Juma has been heading up pop-up events like this all over London since 2012, when he traded in a career in the City for a life of foodie goodness by setting up JUMA Kitchen. He’s now on a mission to introduce Londoners to the wonderful and often forgotten world of Iraqi cuisine. 

Here's a little taster of what he had in store for us at his AMAR Supper Club.

With an open-plan kitchen and dining area, and Juma cooking his dolma as the guests arrived, the warm, friendly, and communal atmosphere was there from the start – just the right setting for a very homely cuisine that hasn’t often been exposed to the restaurant sphere.

We were in for an entire five course meal, so portion sizes were fitting. In traditional Arab style, we started off with mezza: smokey aubergine Moutabal dip (or babaganouj), a staple Falafel with a drizzle of tahini, and Juma’s take on Lamb Sambousek (pastry filled with spiced minced lamb).

For those of you who know me, you’ll be aware that lamb is my foodie downfall. I just don’t like the stuff, hence why Iraqi food has never been my first choice (Iraqis seriously love their lamb). Nevertheless, I went in with an open mind and gave Juma a chance to win me over - and the Sambousek managed to do just that. Not greasy at all, and with just the right amount of tender spiced meat enveloped in crumbly pastry, I could’ve had another.

Next up, we had Djaj Bilnarinj, crispy chicken thigh on a bed of potato served with a rich saffron sauce and caramelised onions, perhaps the less traditional but most beautiful dish of the night. This was followed by Kubbat Hamouth, an Iraqi household favourite: homemade dumplings filled with minced lamb, served in a rich tomato soup. If I showed you what this looks like at home, you would understand when I say that kubbat hamouth never looked this good.

Then came Juma’s star of the show, the Dolma – vegetables stuffed with spiced and marinated lamb mince and rice, which he served alongside a lamb chop and a more traditionally Lebanese Fattoush salad. An Iraqi dinner party would just not be complete without Dolma. It's also notoriously labour intensive to make, so hats off to Phil.

Of course, I was most looking forward to dessert, which could be none other than Knafa, a dessert popular all over the Middle East and usually made in one giant cake-like portion. Juma made his with shredded filo to top the traditional melted cheese filling, drenched it in blossom water syrup and topped it with pistachios. He also went for individual servings, which were right on trend - the Iraqi cupcake, perhaps?

Clearly, Juma is aiming to use his experience of working in Michelin-starred restaurants to refine Iraqi food and rightfully bring it into the twenty-first century. It’s without doubt a great way to ease those unfamiliar with the cuisine into it. For the Iraqi audience, however, who will forever compare it to mama and bibi’s home cooking, stepping into Juma’s kitchen requires being open to something new. For me, he gives these traditional dishes the modern kick that they need to appeal to the outside world, with impeccable contemporary presentation and without straying too far from the original taste.

Whilst it’s easy to get caught up in all of the food, it’s also important not to forget why we were really there: to raise money for the AMAR Foundation. AMAR is a charity working out in the Middle East, particularly at the moment with those affected by ISIS violence. Their Escaping Darkness Appeal, which Juma’s supper club was raising money for, aims to provide women in Northern Iraq with the psychological support they desperately need after fleeing ISIS. A leaflet at our table revealed the shocking facts they are working to change: there are only 17 psychiatrists in Northern Iraq, 80% of clinics are no longer functioning, and Daesh’s sex slaves can be as young as 9 years old.

Having grown up in London, and having never been to Iraq, it’s surreal to say that these statistics apply to the country my parents grew up in. It’s hard not to feel so far removed from the situation and so helpless, which is why it’s important that we recognise our responsibility to give back. By sharing Iraqi culture through food, we are raising awareness of and humanizing a nation and a people that have been reduced to statistics and stereotypes.

Juma’s food comes with a message, a reminder that Iraq was once a great nation, the home of civilization itself. Whilst our country might now be in ruins, our culture, our heritage, our warmth, and perhaps what best sums up all of the above, our food, will endure that greatness for generations.

To learn more about Juma and his delicious supper clubs, click here: www.jumakitchen.com

To find out more about the AMAR Foundation and how you can help, click here: www.amarfoundation.org 

To host your own 'Baghdad Kitchen' and raise money using Juma's delicious recipes, click here: http://www.amarfoundation.org/my-baghdad-kitchen/