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Iraqi Traditional Foods: 7 Dishes You Must Try

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The cradle of civilisation has been home to countless cultures and empires. From the Sumerians to the Kurds to the Jews of Baghdad, each have left their own distinct mark on Iraqi cuisine.

Iraqi cuisine is so much more than chicken and rice! One of my favorite things about going back to Iraq every year is eating!

Here are 10 must-try traditional Iraqi foods every visitor to Iraq should try. You won’t be left disappointed.

1. Masgouf

No dish epitomises the Iraqi story as much as masgouf. The legend goes that the recipes and practice of eating masgouf date back to Sumerian times, with mentions to masgouf in early pre-modern texts like the Babylonian Talmud.

Masgouf is made from filleted fresh carp, which are put in individual grills and placed in a circle around a fire to be slow cooked. The fish is both crispy and soft and sitting around with a group of friends sharing a masgouf is the ultimate Iraqi experience.

You will want to make sure you try masgouf in a few places across the country. In the Marshlands and southern Iraq, it tends to be served without any spices, rather plain and maybe with a little bit of salt. In Mosul and Kurdistan, you can often find it generously spiced (my preference!).

Best place to try masgouf

Baghdad

The fish market by al-samek saed hamem is Baghdad’s version of Tsukiji market. You literally watch the entire process unfold before your eyes. From the fire pits of masgouf fish slowly-grilling, to the stalls selling the freshest masgouf in Baghdad.

Mesopotamian Marshlands

Does it get any more Iraqi than sitting in a mudif (Marshlands home) and eating fresh masgouf?

The fish here tend to be smaller as they caught nearby, rather than from fish farms. You can also expect it to be only slightly spiced (usually with no more than a bit of salt).

Mosul

If you are visiting Mosul (and you definitely should), you will want to stop by Abo Jana Seafood Restaurant. This no-nonsense, Mosuli-style masgouf restaurant offers one of the most elaborately spiced masgouf options in the country. You can expect a heavy heaping of sumac and an elaborate mix of other spices I can’t put my finger on.

Don’t forget to take a look around the side at the fire pits of grilled fish!

Sulaymaniyah

It comes as no surprise that Kurdistan does masgouf differently, and Dabashan Fish Restaurant is easily one of the best masgouf restaurants in Kurdistan.

2. Kebab

I may be vegetarian but I know when my friends are enjoying a meal. Iraq is famous for both variations of lamb and chicken kebabs.

Walking the streets of Iraq, you won’t have to venture for too long before smelling the distinct smokey whiff of chargrilled meats. Most Iraqi restaurants will offer some variation of tikka kebab (whole pieces of chicken or meat, usually spiced) and sheesh kebab (ground beef, lamb or chicken).

Best place to try kebab in Iraq

Nasiriyah

I would probably go as far as calling Turath Dhiqar the best restaurant in Nasiriyah. Turath Dhiqar combines Iraqi and Syrian cuisines to offer some of the most famous kebabs in the region, with a strong showing of chicken, lamb and various spices (the tikka is unquestionably the crowd favorite).

Erbil

If you are feeling a little adventurous, I would recommend visiting Iskan Street, Erbil’s famous food street. Honestly, one of my favorite things to do in Erbil is to spend an evening hopping between the food vendors on Iskan.

If you are in the search for a unique kebab, the stalls here leave nothing to the imagination with offerings of heart, liver and even sheep testicle kebab.

3. Maqloube

Maqloube might be one of the most famous Levantine dishes outside of the Middle East. Best popularized by Instagram chefs and Jordanian tourist performances, this iconic dish consists of flipping over huge bowls of slow cooked rice, vegetables and meat.

Maqloube is a staple in any Jordanian, Syrian or Palestinian kitchen. However, in Iraq maqloube is made a little different and it’s certainly worth your time seeking out the unique flavors of Mesopotamian maqloube. With a slightly yellower rice (could it be saffron?) and thin rice noodles, the maqloube in Iraq may just be pulling a little further away from the Levant and a bit closer to neighboring Persia.

Best place to try maqloube in Iraq

Baghdad

Bestoon Samad Restaurant is one of Baghdad’s most upscale restaurants. This is truly an excellent place to try many dishes on this list, but I am very much a fan of their maqloube (the eggplant is particularly crispy).

For readers in the United Arab Emirates, or anyone passing through Dubai, Bestoon Samad have an outpost in Al Rigga.

4. Kubba Saray and Kubba Mosuli

If you are familiar with Syrian or Lebanese food, you will know about kubba, a round patty of ground meat covered in a light dough which is then boiled or fried.

As you can probably tell by now, Iraq tends to do things a little differently with two unique kubbe options:

kubba saraykubba boiled in a rich tomatoey broth/soup
kubba mosuliflattened kubba, breadcrumbed and fried

Best place to try kubba in Iraq

Baghdad

You only need to mention kubba saray in the streets of Baghdad and you will likely be pointed to this small hole-in-the-wall on the corner of the main market and Al-Mutannabi street and just across from the majestic Shabandar Café. This little joint is full of vintage photos and local market-goers grabbing a quick bite.

There’s nothing more quintessentially Baghdad than pointing to the large bubbling pot, pulling up a chair and watching the market streets of Baghdad move before your eyes.

Mosul

Where better to try kubba mosuli than in its birthplace: the slowly-recovering city of Mosul. You want to head towards Hadba Kibbeh (كبة الحدباء)) (not far from the historic Al-Nouri Mosque). This restaurant doesn’t have seating, but you can usually take your plate to the teahouse next door.

Located on a newly reconstructed street, this teahouse is an excellent place to try limon chai basrawi, one of the most unique Iraqi drinks.

Erbil

After Mosul fell to ISIS, many Mosulis and Iraqi Christians moved to the secure city of Erbil. Today, you will find many Mosulis running little stalls around Erbil’s main square and bazaar.

5. Amba

You will find amba on the table at every fast food establishment across Iraq. This slightly tangy, fermented mango sauce is used on everything from falafel to grilled meat. Beyond the sour acquired taste, this sauce has a very unique history!

According to Iraqi legend, amba was first brought to Iraq by the legendary Sassoon family – Baghdadi Jewish traders who went between Iraq, India and East Asia in the 1800s. In order to best preserve mangos from India, the story goes, they tried pickling them; and voila, amba was born!

Reflecting this history, today, amba is a standard condiment at all major fast food establishments in two countries in the world: Iraq and Israel, the home to the largest Iraqi diaspora!

If condiments are your thing, you will usually find amba accompanied by Iraqi BBQ sauce made from dates and pomegranate molasses. I’d always recommend trying both!

Best place to try amba in Iraq

Any fast food restaurant in Iraq!

6. Karrada Chips 

Yes, I am including potato chips on my list of must-eat foods in Iraq.

Karrada chips are an Iraqi institution. Driving the streets of Baghdad you will see little stalls with huge bags of bright yellow, uber oily potato chips. They generally come in four flavors: cheese, chicken, plain or vinegar.

Best place to try karrada chips in Iraq

Literally anywhere in Baghdad. Outside Baghdad you will usually find copycat versions which are just as good.

7. Daheen

With a sweet and fudge-like consistency, daheen is one of the most unique and traditional Iraqi desserts. Originally from the holy city of Najaf, daheen is made from milk, churned butter, date syrup, lots of sugar and all topped with shaved coconut.  

You can generally find daheen with a variety of add-on optional extras, like cream filled. My personal favorite is the walnut topping.

Local tip: You want to make sure you buy daheen from a stall which serves it hot – trust me on this one.

Best place to try daheen in Iraq

You can find daheen literally anywhere in Najaf, with most market stalls offering the sweet dessert.

You may also see daheen in nearby cities, like Karbala. However, I warn you: do not ruin this experience for yourself. You want the Najaf original experience.

So you want to know more about Iraqi cuisine…

This crash-course through Iraqi traditional foods only covers a handful of the most famous dishes in Iraqi cuisine. If you are planning a trip to Iraq, you will want to make sure you also dedicate a few mornings to exploring Iraq’s unique breakfast dishes.

Another great joy of traveling in the Middle East is the ever-present cup of tea. One of my favorite things about Iraq is all the unique drinks on offer. Lucky for you, we have prepared an ultimate guide to Iraqi drinks.


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