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August 26, 2006

Kebab: An Ancient Mesopotamian Treat by Nawal Nasrallah

Kebab: An Ancient Mesopotamian Treat by Nawal Nasrallah
Adapted from a previously published article in Radcliffe Culinary Times vol. xiii, no. 2, fall of 2003)       
Iraqi Cookbook website


    If ever you order kebab at an Iraqi restaurant, brace yourself for a surprise. Instead of the familiar marinated skewered lamb cubes, you will get laffat kebab (kebab wrapped in bread). It consists of an elongated ground meat patty, seasoned with salt and pepper; grilled on a brazier till succulent, speckled with tangy red sumac, and garnished with thinly sliced onion, chopped parsley, tomatoes and probably pickles. The whole mixture would be rolled in flatbread or stuffed in diamond-shaped bread called samoun.        

    Kebab to Iraqis is what hamburger is to Americans. Specialized restaurants are everywhere. There was a time in downtown Baghdad where two major kebab restaurants competed with each other, like McDonald's and Burger King in the States. The best kebab, however, was provided by the small carry-out restaurants at the roofed sug (marketplace) next to the holy shrine of Al-Imam- Al-Kadhum, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. As children, our eagerness to pay homage to that place was not motivated by our religious zeal as much as by a much more mundane desire to enjoy once again those delicious kebab sandwiches. They came with lots of greens, herbs, onion, pickles, and an ice-cold creamy yogurt drink. We devoured this treat picnic style, sitting on a spread blanket at one of the cool, breezy, roofed niches surrounding the huge yard of the shrine.        

    That was the kebab we knew growing up in Baghdad. To watch an actor in an Egyptian movie sinking his teeth into grilled rib chops or chunks of meat and call it kebab used to puzzle us. Why on earth were they calling that kebab? Surely that was tikka!  We also used to dance to an imported tune, Shish Kebab, twisting and twitching our `shoulders; we didn’t know that the kebab in the title was not the same as ours. The world outside is not as particular as Iraq in its kebab terminology. It is all kebab to them-- cubed chunks of meat, vegetables, even fruits, or patties of ground meat. To distinguish between the two types of grilled meat, sometimes the word kufta (ground meat patties)1 is used, as in the Turkish kufta shish kebabi as opposed to the Hindi tikka kebabi used to designate cubed chunks.       


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