by Mina Al-Droubi
The famous cookbook shop, Books for Cooks, is located just off London’s Portobello Road. Last Thursday, in collaboration with the Arab British Centre, the store hosted an evening with Iraqi author Lamees Ibrahim, coinciding with the launch of the paperback edition of her highly successful The Iraqi Cookbook. The evening—in conjunction with this year’s London based Nour Festival of Arts—included a three course feast consisting of authentic Iraqi dishes made from the book’s own recipes.
Ibrahim’s cookbook, originally published in 2009, was she says “targeted mainly at this young generation of Iraqis who have not had the opportunity to visit or live in their homelands.”
Ibrahim was born in Baghdad and is now living in London with her four children, who inspired her to write the best-seller. “After my visit to Iraq in 2004 I was so devastated by the state of the country. I felt as though my beautiful country was ruined” she tells The Majalla. “When I [came] back to London, I couldn’t stop talking and complaining about how my country had fallen apart, so my daughter said to me, ‘why you don’t start writing about your memories of Iraq and its culture?’” This is when Ibrahim had the idea of compiling a collection of recipes that not only inform readers about Iraqi cuisine but also about its history, culture and development through the ages. Coming from a medical background, Ibrahim found it a challenge at first to shift from writing in a scientific style to storytelling “I tried my best to do what I can to get my message across to the world” she says.
There were two main points that Ibrahim felt she needed to emphasize in her book: “I really want to preserve the names of each Iraqi dish, so that the new generation of Iraqi Diasporas are aware of our culture,” she says. “Secondly, I really wanted to show the world what Iraq is really about. I wanted to present them with an aspect that has not been discussed or acknowledged in the media. I had spent nearly all my life in the UK studying and working so I wanted to do something for my country, to present it with a gift”.
During the evening at Books for Cooks, Ibrahim’s recipes were thoroughly put to the test. The dishes were rustled up in the shop’s kitchen, which is sandwiched between the bookshelves, and were carefully selected to coincide with Eid Al-Adha (the second of the two religious holidays celebrated annually by Muslims). The evening started with Kleicha filled with dates—a traditional Iraqi biscuit that is only made during the celebrations of Eid in Iraq. Guests were also given a taste of lentil soup accompanied by Iraq’s most exclusive Kibbeh Halab—a shell of crushed rice and minced meat, stuffed with minced meat and onion—-named after the Syrian city Aleppo. The main course was Lamb Tashreeb (lamb stew). Guests were then served a variety of Iraqi sweets and teas.
Despite coming from an Iraqi background myself, I had never been inclined to taste Kleicha or Lamb Tashreeb before as I had no interest in the delicacies—until that Thursday evening when I realized how much I had been missing out. This is exactly what Ibrahim aimed to achieve when writing the book, “I wanted this book to be a sentimental element for Iraqis, to bring back memories that are now lost” she says. “I want to show the world how advanced Iraq was especially at the time of the Sumerians, a time in which writing was invented. They have led the world in so many ways, they were so advanced.”
What makes Ibrahim’s recipes unique is her method of using alternative spices and ingredients that are available to individuals from outside the Middle East. Containing 200 recipes, the book’s main purpose was to capture in written form the traditions of Iraqi cooking that have been handed down throughout the generations. “Documentation is not our way of life,” Says Ibrahim. “The techniques of cooking [across] the generations were handed down through word-of-mouth”. Ibrahim felt that it was necessary to capture the essence of Iraqi culture through its cuisine, before that withered away along with the rest of the country.
When it was first published in 2009 the book sold out in the United States and UK. The following year the book had to be reprinted as it was in popular demand. “There were no cook books for Iraqi cuisine in Europe and none that have been translated into English” she says. “This was my chance to make a difference so people can see what Iraq is really about. I wrote this book in order to share the benefits and secrets of the Iraqi cooking with the world.”