Iraqi cuisine has developed over the course of a long and rich history. Iraqis have a deep appreciation for their own cuisine. They view each part of the animal as healthy and nutritious, and make sure to cook all the organs, including the heart, kidneys and liver, brain, feet, eyes, and ears. The head, called pache, of the sheep is considered to be a delicacy, very healthy and delicious in Iraq, and commonly eaten by men so they become strong.

Pache (pronounced as pah-chay), 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.

The oldest known recipes in the world come from the ancient city of Babylon. It’s a set of cracked tablets engraved by an early civilization’s version of a master chef going back to 1700 BCE. It’s hard to compare modern Middle Eastern cuisine with its ancient predecessors — for one, the Babylonians appear to have been fond of pork, which is forbidden by Islam and virtually nonexistent in Iraq.

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). 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). From the thousands of tablets recording deliveries and shipments of foodstuff, from vocabulary lists of various kinds of food and from records of payments to workers and soldiers we can get a fairly accurate picture of the standard Mesopotamian diet.

YBC 4644 from the Old Babylonian Period, c. 1750 BC
YBC 4644 from the Old Babylonian Period, c. 1750 BCE: This tablet includes 25 recipes for stews, 21 are meat stews and 4 are vegetable stews. The recipes list the ingredients and the order in which they should be added, but does not give measures or cooking time – they were clearly meant only for experienced chefs. (Image Source: Yale University Library)

The dishes mentioned in these tablets were probably not the kind of food that was commonly consumed by the average ancient Mesopotamian. This is due to the fact that the ingredients required for the dishes were not easily obtained by the ordinary person. Moreover, the instructions for the preparation of these dishes are quite elaborate. Therefore, it is likely that it was the elites of Mesopotamian society who savored these dishes, perhaps on some festive occasion.

The Banquet Scene’ relief panel, 645-635BCE (Source: The British Museum)

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. Cuneiform was at first written in the Sumerian language. 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. The ancient cookbooks contain recipes for 21 types of meat dishes and 4 kinds of vegetable ones, almost all of which involved combinations of meat, fowl, vegetables, or grain cooked in broth, which had first been flavored with onions, garlic, and leeks. The dishes were slow-cooked in a covered pot to make the food extra tasty.

YBC 8958 Old Babylonian Period, c. 1750 BC.
YBC 8958 Old Babylonian Period, c. 1750 BCE: This tablet has seven recipes which are very detailed. The text is broken in several places and the name of the second recipe is missing, but it is a dish with small birds, maybe partridges. (Image source: Yale University Library)

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.

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.

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