Kebabs of Iraq & India

Hey, foodies! Today I want to talk about one of my favorite dishes: kebabs. You might think you know what a kebab is, but did you know that there are many different types of kebabs in different cuisines? In this blog post, I will compare and contrast the kebabs of Iraq and India, two countries with rich and diverse culinary traditions.

Kebab is a term that encompasses various dishes of cooked meat, usually originating from Middle Eastern cuisine. The word kebab comes from the Arabic kabāb, which means “roasted meat”, and was adopted by other languages such as Hindi, Persian and Turkish. It is a general term that covers a variety of meat dishes that are cooked on a skewer over a fire, in a pan, or as a stew.

The history of kebab can be traced back to ancient times, when nomadic peoples in Central Asia would skewer pieces of meat over a fire. Roasting small chunks of meat is a process dating back to antiquity. Evidence of hominin use of fire and cooking in the Middle East dates back as far as 790,000 years, and prehistoric hearths, earth ovens, and burnt animal bones were spread across Europe and the Middle East by at least 250,000 years ago.

Middle Eastern nomads and later soldiers cooked meat over an open fire. Smaller pieces of meat need less fuel than large cuts, so cooking these chunks was practical in an area where wood and even brambles were in limited quantity, this cooking technique was also valuable when the time was also of the essence.

Later, in urban settings, kebab dishes evolved to include vegetables and sauces, and were served with bread or rice. Today, kebab is a popular and diverse food that can be found in many regions of the world, with different types, ingredients and preparations.

Iraqi Kebabs

First, let’s talk about the Iraqi kebabs. Iraqi cuisine has developed over the course of a long and rich history. Iraqis have a deep appreciation for their own cuisine. I am told that kebabs appear in a book from the southern Iraqi city of Basra called Kitab al-Bukhala (The Book of Misers). It was written by Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Basri (776–869 CE), nicknamed Al-Jahiz. He was a leading literary figure who lived during the early Abbasid era. The miser in this story is a courtly man who invites people to his garden. He tells the guests, “Here’s the stream, and here’s the fire. Catch your fish and make your kebab.”

The Iraqi cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes) by Mohammed ibn Al-Hasan Al Baghdadi, written in 1226 CE contained recipes using meatballs called kebab. 

In Iraq, kebabs are an integral part of the national cuisine and culture. They are served in special restaurants called kebab houses, where customers can choose from different types of meat, such as lamb, beef, chicken or fish. The most common type of kebab in Iraq is the shish kebab, which is made of skewered chunks of marinated meat that are grilled over natural wood charcoal. The meat is usually seasoned with sumac, cumin, paprika and other spices, and it is sprinkled with fresh parsley before serving. Shish kebab is often accompanied by grilled vegetables, such as tomatoes, onions and peppers, as well as bread, rice, salad and sauces.

Another type of kebab that is popular in Iraq is the tikka kebab, which is similar to shish kebab but uses smaller pieces of meat that are cut from specific parts of the animal, such as the ribs or the liver. Tikka kebab is also grilled over charcoal and served with the same sides as shish kebab.

Kebabs at a roadside eatery in Baghdad
Kebabs at an eatery in Baghdad

A third type of kebab that is unique to Iraq is the kubba halab kebab, which is made of minced meat mixed with bulgur wheat, onions, parsley and spices. The mixture is shaped into balls or cylinders and stuffed with cheese or nuts. Then it is deep-fried or baked and served with yogurt sauce.

Kebabs| Haji Hussein Restaurant, Baghdad
Kebabs, Haji Hussein Restaurant, Baghdad

The best part is that you can find these kebabs everywhere in Iraq, from street vendors to restaurants to home kitchens. They are usually served with flatbread called khubz, which is soft and fluffy and perfect for wrapping around the meat. You can also add some sauces or dips to enhance the flavor, such as hummus, tahini, yogurt or tomato sauce.  

I love the Iraqi kebab as the meat is tender and flavorful, and the amba adds a refreshing touch. Amba is a fermented mango condiment popular in Iraqi cuisine. It is a little sour, a little spicy, and (if fermented) a little funky.

Indian Kebabs

Kebabs in India are usually made of minced meat that is mixed with herbs, spices and other ingredients, such as yogurt, cheese, eggs or nuts. The mixture is then shaped into balls or patties and cooked on a skewer over a fire or in a tandoor oven. Kebabs are also a very popular dish that reflects the diversity and richness of the Indian cuisine.

Though spit- or skewer-cooked meat dishes are noted in an ancient Indian text, the Mahabharata, and an early 12th-century Sanskrit text Manasollasa (the Delights Of The Mind) composed by the Kalyani Chalukya king Bhulokamalla Someshvara III (reigned 1127–1138 CE). The title Manasollasa (मानसोल्लास) is a compound Sanskrit word, consisting of manas (मनस्) or “mind” and ullasa (उल्लास) or “delight”. The Manasollasa talks about bhaditrakam — a dish made by cutting lamb or goat into small pieces, stringing the pieces on iron skewers and cooking them on hot coals. There is a graphic description of cooking kebabs and the text is South Indian Hindu in origin, which shows no traces of Middle Eastern influences.

According to Ibn Battuta (1304-1369 CE), a Moroccan traveller, the kebab was served in the royal houses during the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526 CE), and even commoners would enjoy it for breakfast with naan.

Kebab sellers making bread and cooking meat on skewers, Patna, Bihar, India, circa 1830. (Credit: Bonhams)

The Indian kebabs are also made with lamb or beef, but sometimes also with chicken, fish, or vegetables. They are marinated in yogurt and spices like ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin, coriander, and garam masala. They are also shaped into various forms and skewered on metal or wooden sticks. Then they are cooked in a clay oven called a tandoor, which gives them a charred and tender texture. Indian kebabs are usually served with flatbread like naan or roti, rice, salad, chutney, and raita, a yogurt-based sauce with cucumber and mint.

Barbeque at home
Barbeque at home

Kebabs are also an integral part of Indian cuisine, and there is no shortage of delicious options to try. Whether you’re a meat lover or a vegetarian, there is a kebab dish to suit your taste buds.

Kebabs & Tikkas | Barbeque Nation, New Delhi
Kebabs & Tikkas, Barbeque Nation, New Delhi

The conventional wisdom is that modern-day kebabs travelled from the Middle East and came to the Indian kitchens in the medieval era long before the Mughals ventured in. If the pre-Mughal Kebab was more about marinade and meat-being more of rustic chewy chunks, char-grilled in open ovens, with Mughals it evolved into a delicacy, that was soft and succulent, made richer with aromatic Indian spices and dry fruits.

As you can see, both Iraqi and Indian kebabs have some similarities and differences. They both use meat as the main ingredient, but they differ in the way they season and cook it. They both use bread and rice as accompaniments, but they differ in the type of bread and the sauces they use. They both are delicious and satisfying dishes that reflect the culture and history of their respective regions.

Everybody loves kebabs, and it is hard to resist those scrumptious pieces of meat, cooked with a different style and spices, each with their own unique taste. If you ever get a chance, do try them and you won’t regret it!

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