My three favorite activities are eating, talking, and learning about things, so when I found out about "Delights from the Garden of Eden,” an Iraqi food class and discussion today at the American Islamic Congress Center in Boston, I jumped at the chance to attend. To my surprise and delight the host, local culinary scholar and award-winning cookbook author Nawal Nasrallah, invited me to her home in Salem, New Hampshire to preview the night’s dishes.
Nawal was a professor of English and American literature in her native Iraq, so it should come as no surprise that her cookbook integrates the history of culture of Iraqi cuisine among its recipes. “The medieval cuisine is alive and cooking…it is not dead," she says. This is perfectly demonstrated in the first dish she shares with me, an untraditional (actually, historically accurate) hummus. Instead of garlic, parsley, and chickpeas Nawal uses pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, and caraway seeds to create a smooth, creamy spread whose brightness lingers in the mouth.
Nawal spent six years on Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and A History of Iraqi Cuisine, translating historical texts (some from actual tablets) to trace the cuisine through the time of the Babylonians through the modern day Mediterranean. She started the book in 1996, “There was no (Iraqi) cookbook at the time. I’d go to the library and look at books with beautiful stories. I wanted to make a cookbook with stories." She began reading texts from the tenth and thirteenth centuries and recognized them as recipes, “The spices were the same- they include murri (a fermented sauce, only not made with soybeans) to give umami, although of course they didn’t call it that." She tested each recipe at least three times. “I don’t like silent recipes," she says. You need “at least a few sentences" for context- who ate the food the recipe is instructing you to prepare? What are (or were) their lives like? What time of day should you eat this food? Everyday or special occasions?
Following the recipes through 8,000 years, she noticed the fermented products were eventually replaced by tomatoes, a practice which still persists in stews and sauces across the world. “The tomato gave the umami taste and added a beautiful color too. I can see why they chose it," Nawal adds.
Pomegranate juice or syrup was another common ingredient. It took a central role in the next dish Nawal prepares for us, an Iraqi curry of sorts (recipe posted tomorrow). While the umami agent may have changed through the centuries, the traditional khubuz al tannour(bread) has changed very little. Nawal makes it in a modern oven, rather than a traditional clay oven using hot coals, but it is virtually unchanged. A dusting of sesame and nigella seeds add just enough flavor to make the bread a perfect, all purpose accompaniment or snack. If you’ve ever had the crick-cracks at Sofra you’ve enjoyed the only modern alternative I can see improving on this bread.
The hummus, the bread, the stew, the basmati rice, the carrot pudding dessert- everything looks amazing, smells heavenly, and tastes perfect- it transports you. Nawal’s food is beautifully exotic yet entirely grounded. Seen in the context of the struggles of modern day Iraqi, this food could be considered a melancholy song for what was or a celebration of the beauty of a culture that persists through the spirit of its people. I sense for Nawal it is both. On her website she issues an apology regarding the publication of her cookbook, "Considering the hardships that Iraq and the Iraqi people have been going through since 1990, some might think this was not the right time to write about food. But as a wife, a mother, a woman, and a human being, I find in food and in memories of food my refuge, my comfort and consolation when things are not looking good, as they say here." She goes on to offer sympathies to a Palestinian writer Naomi Shihab Nye, who is called “a donkey" by a journalist in Dubai after hearing her speak about vegetables “when there was injustice in the world." "May be it would make Naomi feel a little bit better," Nawal writes, “if she knows that the donkey is the most patient and most sensitive creature in the world."
Nawal Nasrallah knows about injustice and patience. In 1990 her husband, now a professor at Boston University, received a government scholarship to pursue a doctorate in the United States, at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. On the day Nawal and their children planned to fly out of Iraqi and join him Iraq invaded Kuwait. It was weeks before they were finally able to take a bus to Jordan. When the family finally arrived in New York they were detained and questioned for hours.
"I couldn’t bring anything with me, just my clothes and my cuisine," she says. It was Nawal’s new life that lead her to those libraries, reading the stories that inspired her cookbook. Necessity drove her to perfect her khubuz al tannour receipe, which in Iraq she bought rather than having to make at home.
As the smell of raisins made plump with pomegranate syrup and spiced with coriander, cinnamon, and cardamon (bharrat) surround me the taste of rose water from her carrot pudding sinks to my skin. I feel deeply connected to this woman- we have been talking for hours, both aloud and through sharing her food. As the New Hampshire sky grows dark outside, Nawal’s husband draws the blinds and puts a kettle on for tea. “Food has a language of its own," she says.
Join Nawal and I today at the American Islamic Congress Center on Newbury Street, Boston. From 4:30-6:30 PM she will be discussing more of the history of Iraqi cuisine and giving a cooking demonstration- for more details or to buy tickets.