Iraqi cuisine has developed over the course of a long and rich history. Modern day Iraq is, after all, on the site of ancient Sumer, the “Cradle of Civilisation” founded approximately 5300 BCE.
Pache, a veritable witch’s brew of sheep offal is celebrated as rare delicacy, having its origin in early Mesopotamian civilisation. Another charm that adds on to the wacky tinge of this adventure food is that is made with a Sheep’s (or goat’s or lamb’s) head, the stomach and its hooves (cleaned and processed under sanitary measures) boiled slowly, mashed up and served with khubz (flatbread) sunken in hot, watery and oily broth.
I am quite adventurous in tasting foods so I went for Pache. Prepared well, pache rewards the intrepid diner with a delicate meaty flavour that is never overshadowed by the rich patina of fat. This special delicacy could almost terrify anyone else from any other part of the world! If you can skip the notion of eating the head, it’s a must try for all the adventurist folks out there. The textures of the different parts combine, while the lemon and garlic (not to mention the obsessive cleaning) chase away any gaminess one might expect in such a dish.
KITCHENS OF MESOPOTAMIA
The Iraqi cooking as we know it today largely evolved from the cuisine of the glorious days of the Abbasid Caliphate (from eighth century to thirteenth century) when Baghdad was called the navel of the earth. The Iraqi kitchen reached its zenith. Besides the contributions of the native Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and ancient Persians who lived in what is now Iraq, the nation’s culture and cuisine have been coloured by its neighbours, including modern-day Iran, Turkey, and Syria, and to a lesser extent India and Greece. Of these, the Mesopotamian is the oldest and the first documented world cuisine, of which only three Babylonian cuneiform tablets are extant today (housed at the Babylonian Collection of Yale University).
According to Yale Babylonian Collection, the oldest known recipes in the world come from Iraq, and were inscribed on Babylonian tablets going back to ca. 1700 BCE. Archaeologists have found three small clay tablets inscribed with intricate cuneiform signs, although damaged to different degrees, which provide cooking instructions for more than thirty-five Akkadian dishes. The recipes are elaborate and often call for rare ingredients. They represent Mesopotamian haute cuisine meant for the royal palace or the temple and also a fairly accurate picture of the standard Mesopotamian diet.
Instructions call for most of the food to be prepared with water and fats, and to simmer for a long time in a covered pot. Ancient foodies seem to have preferred fowl and mutton. Babylonian chefs had easy access to meat, as Mesopotamian farmers had been raising sheep and chicken since prehistory. Meats included stag, gazelle, kid, lamb, mutton, squab and a bird called tarru (believed to mean fowls). Fish were eaten along with turtles and shellfish. Various grains, vegetables and fruits such as dates, apples, figs, pomegranates and grapes were integral to diet. Roots, bulbs, truffles and mushrooms were harvested for the table. Frequently mentioned seasonings included onions, garlic and leeks, while stews were often thickened with grains, milk, clarified butter, fats, beer or animal blood. Salt was sometimes mentioned. Scholars have not been able to identify all the ingredients.
The use of animal intestines is said to have been perfected by the Sumerians, who are credited with the invention of sausages about 4000 BCE. Babylonians made spicy sausages with minced meat, stuffing the mixture into animal intestines to act as skins in approximately 1500 BCE.
Many kinds of bread are mentioned in the texts from the lowliest barley bread used for workers’ rations to elaborate sweetened and spiced cakes baked in fancy, decorated moulds in palace kitchens. Beer (usually made of fermented barley mush) was the national beverage already in the third millennium BCE, while wine grown in northern Mesopotamia was expensive and only enjoyed by the royal household or the very rich.
The Mongols introduced the culinary traditions they learned in Baghdad to their new empire in Northern India. To this day, traces of these traditions can still be detected in the Indian cuisines.