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3 Unique Middle Eastern Drinks You Can Only Find in Iraq

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2 months ago

Over millennia, countless empires, culture and ethnic groups have called Iraq home. It’s no surprise that in Iraq you can find dishes and drinks that are nowhere else on earth.

After visiting every country, I certainly find comfort amid the chaos and shisha smoke of a good Middle Eastern teahouse. I love the refreshing first sip of fresh pomegranate juice on the streets of Cairo or Amman. While all these Middle Eastern staples can be found on the streets of Iraq, I was pleasantly surprised to also find some completely unique drinks in Iraq!

man pushing fresh pomegranate into juicer in iraq baghdad
Fresh pomegranate juice on Baghdad’s iconic Al-Mutannabi Street

For three of the most unique drinking experiences in the Middle East, you will need to put Iraq on your bucket list!

1. Caramel Coffee

I need to be honest: I’m always confused about what to call this drink. The only way I can describe it is caramel coffee. Think a thick mixture of caramel, coffee and condensed milk, topped with fresh chocolate crumbs, walnuts and pistachio.

caramel coffee cups two with pistachio and chocolate crumbs on top in Iraq silver plate underneath and green plastic spoons

Caramel coffee is usually sold in little decorated stalls, where you can ask fi qahwe chiocolatti? (which apparently doesn’t mean chocolate!)

neon coffee stall in basra iraq wooden with teapots iraqi
Caramel coffee is usually sold in lit-up neon roadside stalls like this one in Basra

Not all caramel coffees are created equal. The key to a good cup of caramel is the consistency: too runny and it tastes like milky coffee; too thick and it tastes like pure caramel. You want your caramel coffee to taste like one step before the caramel becomes the caramel that we know and love . You will also want to make sure your caramel coffee stall has good toppings. My favorite is Oreo crumbs.

Best place to try Caramel Coffee in Iraq

Basra

Bayet 8 on the Basra Cornice is the place to go. You can find them most late afternoons at this location (but be warned: the cart can sometimes move a little further up and down!). After trying caramel coffee in every city in Federal Iraq and Kurdistan, Bayet 8 is undoubtedly my favorite. The consistency is spot on and they offer a mixed topping of walnuts, hazelnuts and chocolate crumbs!

cup of caramel coffee with crushed pistachio and chocolate  - one of the most unique middle eastern drinks

Walking along Basra corniche with a cup of caramel coffee may just be the ultimate Basra experience.

shanasheel architecture of basra - one of the best cities for architecture in the middle east
Basra’s World Heritage shanasheel architecture makes it one of our favorite cities for architecture in the Middle East

Baghdad

The small cart diagonally across the road from the iconic Palestine Hotel and the statue of the magic carpet is where I recommend for caramel coffee in Baghdad. Besides making an excellent caramel coffee, I love this stall for its location. You can sit on the little stools and watch the sunset over the Tigris river against the backdrop of Baghdad’s horrific rush hour traffic.

2. Limon Chai Basrawi

This isn’t your ordinary glass of chai with an overabundance of sugar. Limon chai basrawi is made from dried Persian limes (similar to calamansi) which are then cut in half and rehydrated in the tea. The flavor is incredibly powerful and many people squirm from the sourness of their first cup.

chai in arabic style glasses on plastic table in mosul - a staple of middle eastern drinks
Limon chai basrawi is best tried in small teahouses and road-side stalls across Iraq

I can’t say I loved this from my first sip, but I can say that this drink really grew on me. It’s worth trying the tea at a few different locations, as teahouses will often vary in quality and strength. I would probably recommend a teaspoon of sugar to balance the sourness of the lemon!

iraq man in market sewing machine

Best place to try Limon Chai Basrawi in Iraq

Baghdad

Make your way to Al Tatanji Café. This historic café is filled with men smoking shisha, a beautiful décor of model shanasheel architecture, and portraits of legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz and Jewish-Iraqi singer Salima Mourad.

old men at tatanji cafe in baghdad - they are drinking middle eastern drinks
Baghdad’s iconic Tatanji Cafe

Al Tatanji probably had the strongest cup of limon chai basrawi that I have ever had in Iraq. You have been warned!

cup of tea limon - unique middle eastern drinks in baghdad

Mosul

The limon chai basrawi in Mosul tends to be a little lighter (and more palatable). For the best cup in Mosul, you’re looking for a little teahouse (right next door to Hadba Kibbeh (كبة الحدباء)). And best of all, it’s right next door to one of the best places to try Kubba Mosul!

cups of tea (limon chai basrawi) which is one of the most unique middle eastern drinks and a plate of mosul kubba
The ultimate Mosul experience: Lemon chai basrawi and a plate of Mosul kubba

3. Raisin Juice

Raisin Juice isn’t technically that popular across Iraq. But if you only visit one spot on this list, I would highly recommend it being Haji Zbala Juice Store (مرطبات الحاج زبالة) in Baghdad.

potrait man iraq with ottoman style hat

Dating back to 1900, this juice store specializes in raisin juice and has an interesting history. As you walk in, look behind the doorway and you will see the portraits of Iraq’s rulers, from the first king of Iraq to Saddam Hussein – everyone who is anyone in Iraqi history has come to pay their respect to this shop.

photos of Iraq former rulers in hajj zbala juice shop
Photos of Iraq’s former rulers adorn the walls of Hajj Zbala (Source: Kurdistan24)

The famous story goes that Saddam Hussein was once driving down the street with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, when they decided to stop for a juice. After Mubarak exclaimed how much he enjoyed the juice, Saddam made it a point of taking every visiting dignitary to Haji Zbala juice store for raisin juice. As you step into the small shop, you can easily picture everyone from Yasser Arafat to Muammar Gaddafi sitting on the stools and sipping away their raisin juice.

Al Mutanabbi booksellers street in baghdad
Haji Zbala juice store is just around the corner from the famous booksellers of Al Mutannabi street in Baghdad

And while we’re on the topic of Haji Zbala juice store, the little sponge cakes they sell are an excellent side snack when exploring the streets of Baghdad!

Arabic coffee cups copper in iraq - a staple of middle eastern drinks

So there you have it: from Baghdad to Basra to Mosul, three of the most unique drinks in the Middle East!

If you are planning on visiting Iraq in 2024, don’t forget to read our comprehensive guide to everything you need to know before visiting Iraq!


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Greg

Monday 26th of February 2024

The caramel coffee and lime tea in Baghdad are both awesome! 👏