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Masgouf: A smoky Iraqi fish that dates back to ancient times

Masgouf is one of the most popular Iraqi dishes – traditionally cooked on the shores of the river Tigris, a seasoned butterflied carp cooked next to an open fire. Originating in the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, grilled fish has been around since the Babylonian times. It's one of those unique, exotic foods you just have to try in Baghdad.

Iraqi cuisine has a long history going back some 10,000 years – to the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Persians. When transportation reached a point that people from as far as the Mediterranean and India arrived, they brought new foods and spices with them. Iraqi kitchen reached its zenith during the Abbasid caliphate.

Although Iraq is not a coastal area, the population is used to consuming fish, however, freshwater fish is more common than saltwater fish. Masgouf is one of the most popular Iraqi dishes – traditionally cooked on the shores of the river Tigris, a seasoned butterflied carp cooked next to an open fire. Originating in the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, grilled fish has been around since the Babylonian times. Because of its popularity throughout the country, masgouf is, de facto, considered the national dish of Iraq and Baghdad prides itself of making the best of the Masgouf.

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Recently, I was treated with Masgouf on the bank of river Tigris. Thanks, Zaid. He took us for lunch after our visit to Al-Kadhimiya mosque.

Paradise restaurant, Kadhimiya, Baghdad, 2 Mar 2018.

Cooking of Masgouf takes long time sometimes more than 2 hours depending upon the size of the fish. Generally when ordered, the carp fish is taken out of the water tank and killed by a quick blow onto the forehead with a small rod. It is then partially scaled, slit up the back, cleaned the guts out and flattened the bodies. After sprinkling sea salt, tamarind and spices onto the fish, it is carried over to a fire pit and propped on their sides against iron stakes plunged into the ash to roast against the flames.

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By roasting the fish vertically with the open side facing the fire, the oil seeps into the ashes, leaving salted, seasoned fish meat. The fish is cooked until most of the fish’s fat is burnt out, as the carps are typically fatty. The fish is then served on a big tray garnished with lime, slices of onion, tomato and pickles after covering them by large khubz — flatbread to keep the fish hot. It’s really very tasty … Yummy!

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Masgouf – ready to eat

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While we were waiting for the masgouf to be served, we had a wonderful surprise from the chef, he served us a plate of fried fish roe. Excellent! I love fish roe.

Fish roe and fish sperm (milt)
Fish roe and fish sperm (milt)

Masgouf is mentioned in a tenth-century cookbook, Kitab Al-Tabih (The Book of Dishes) compiled by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. This is the earliest known Arabic cookbook. It contains over 600 recipes. Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, half-brother of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid said:

On a hot summer day, the cook brought us a dish of shabbut (carp). He brought it in looking like the sun, a radiant delight, redolent with aloe wood, musk, and amber.

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In the fall of 2003, Annia Ciezadlo spent her honeymoon in Baghdad. In her famous book, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, she penned:

There was a phrase Iraqis were always using: the flavour of freedom. For a lot of Baghdadis, that flavour was masgouf. It was more than just a fish, or a way of preparing it; the ritual of masgouf embodied a vanished place and time and way of life.

Masgouf is one of those unique, exotic foods you just have to try in Baghdad. It has gained a reputation as a healthy dish, too, because it is not fried and the long cooking time makes all the fat burn off. It may not be the most spectacular fish I have eaten over the decades, but it is definitely an experience that I would recommend to anyone visiting the city. I am loving it. 🙂

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