Iraqi Dolma in Diaspora

We learn how to cook from our families; we roast, boil, bake our way through our personal histories every day. This makes the food we eat a powerful measure of time and history and identity. The ways we cook in diaspora are different because we integrate new ingredients, cultures, methods. Within a generation our food becomes wholly different yet still part of the same thread within a narrative. 

When I say I'm Iraqi American it's only because I don't have the language to express how my complex identities create something new in me. My friend, Pedrum, was recently telling me how much he admires the Chicano Movement of the 1960s. That the term "Chicano" transforms how we look at identity, history, culture in and through migration. We have yet to give language to our own new identities as the children of Middle Eastern immigrants and yet we experience it. 

The work of my friend and Iraqi food blogger Yasemin of Fig Tree Roots resonates with me in this way. She, too, is an Iraqi in diaspora; and the ways in which her blog reflects this new identity -- merging recipes and methods and stories in migration; as well as, romanticizing those of our own migrational histories -- doesn't need explanation, you see it in the recipes themselves. A few weeks ago we inspired one another to each post on the same Iraqi recipe and write how it tells a story within our own families. And since Iraqi Dolma is, perhaps, the single most important Iraqi dish in the diaspora, we easily chose it. [You can find her Iraqi Dolma post HERE.

For me, Dolma has been a vital way in which I connect to my Iraqi heritage.

When we were children, my mother would labor all day, sometimes two or three days depending on her schedule, stuffing every vegetable: onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, grape leaves, cabbage leaves. She would even roll beef fat dolmas that my aunt calls fat rolls. She'd layer meat or fresh fava beans, then the stuffed vegetables by order of cooking time, with the longest cook times at the bottom of the pot. My favorite part of my mother's dolma is how sour it is, with lots of sumac and lemon. Her dolma is a mixture of both "clear" and "red" as the tomato paste from the meat and rice stuffing would turn the dolma red. My dad used to argue that his mother made hers even redder, and thus best -- everyone's mother's dolma is the best to them -- but my mother would always win because, after all, she was the one cooking and complaints can stay out the door. 

When I was maybe seven or eight, my mom decidedly took me and my two brothers to this beach we used to call the "142 Step Beach" because we counted 142 steps down from the parking lot to the beach. This beach was covered in these smooth, oval stones. One summer afternoon we were sent on mission to help her find the perfect Dolma Stone. We'd meticulously judge stones that we would bring to her for evaluation, either "too light" or "too round" until we found the perfect one. I don't remember who exactly found the one, it was probably her. My mother still uses that perfect stone to this day, placing it on top of a downward facing dinner plate atop the large pot of dolma sitting on the stove, its weight putting the desired pressure on the dolma to cook just right, on low, for what, as kids, felt like almost all day. 

Once it was finished cooking the time would come for the Dolma Flip. She had carefully picked out a specific Dolma Pot, Dolma Stone, and Dolma Serving Plate: important purchases in the diaspora. She'd place the large serving plate on top of the pot, grab both sides of the pot with towels, making sure to also hold down the plate, and then flip it towards her as we would cheer at how perfectly she'd do it all: the perfect mountain before it all came tumbling down and around. We, as kids, lived for that flip. 

And now, in my thirties, I have found my own way with dolma. I definitely do not make it nearly as delicious as my mother -- to have her dolma means visiting her, which, yes, I should do more often, because, obviously, my mother's dolma is the bestEven my baba requested a Dolma Cake rather than a traditional cake for his 70th birthday, in which we placed candles in the center of the mountain and sang. 

I personally make my dolma vegan and then top it with yogurt once it's plated. Cooking meat for me is an event, reserved for guests: I don't usually do it day to day. And I don't make nearly as much dolma my mother makes, feeding us for a week. But that is the point. 

In diaspora our recipes change; and that is such an inherently deep reflection of the intergenerational culinary transformations of immigration. 

It tells the story of Iraqis in Los Angeles when I stuff poblano peppers or use cilantro in the stuffing or that it's, yes, vegan. 

When Yasemin and I planned this project -- in which we both post the same recipe simultaneously on our blogs -- I thought I'd use my mother's recipe. Yet, if I were to tell the story of my own life it would have to reflect this new identity in the diaspora. 

Vegan Iraqi Dolma

Serves 4-8, depending on the company you keep 



  • 4 cups of white basmati rice, rinsed and soaked for at least 30 minutes

  • 8 roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped

  • 2 bunches of flat parsley, coarsely chopped

  • 3 cloves of garlic

  • 1 can of tomato paste (or more)

  • about 1/3 cup pomegranate molasses (or more, to taste)

  • about 1/2 cup lemon juice (i almost always have a jar of juiced lemons)

  • a dash of extra virgin olive oil

  • sumac, quite a bit

  • salt, to taste

  • (note: you'll need to reserve the inside of your cored vegetables, too. see below)

vegetables, to be stuffed: 

  • 2-3 onions

  • about 10-12 baby bell peppers

  • 2-3 small tomatoes

  • 4-6 baby eggplant

  • 4 small zucchini (I used Mexican squash in the photo

  • about 10-12 grape leaves


  • water + 1 1/2 cups of lemon juice, to barely cover the stuffed vegetables when pressed down with a plate



  1. Organization is key, so make sure you have a nice comfortable station whether on the counter or on a table. You'll need a big bowl for the stuffing mixture; a medium-large stock pot for cooking; and a bowl for usually discarded parts of the cored vegetables (you want to keep those).

  2. Soak the rice first so it'll be ready when you're done coring.

  3. ONIONS: Peel the onions. Make a slit length-wise less than halfway through -- don't go through the center. Place the onions in a microwave safe bowl, then in the microwave for no more than 2 minutes. This is the fastest, most efficient way. You can also boil the onions until just a bit tender. Then immediately rush them to a cold water bath. Then carefully take the first 4 or 5 layers off each onion. Those will be for stuffing. Save the rest of the onion for the stuffing in a discard bowl.

  4. BELL PEPPERS: Slice the tops off. Save tops if you want to cover the stuffed pepper for visual appeal but not necessary. All you have to do is rinse the inside to make sure there are no seeds.

  5. TOMATOES: Slice the tops off, save, tomatoes need their hats. Remove the inside of the tomatoes carefully. Save the insides in the discard bowl, along with the remaining onion.

  6. EGGPLANT AND ZUCCHINI: Slice the tops off. [Only If you couldn't find small enough vegetables, cut them in half, too, so they are manageable.] Save the insides in the discard bowl, along with the remaining tomatoes and onions.

  7. GRAPE LEAVES: Delicately handle. Separate and keep in a cool water bath to rinse.


  1. In a food processor, work the Roma tomatoes, parsley, garlic, and contents of the discard bowl.

  2. Drain the rice well.

  3. Add the mixture from the food processor into the rice and mix.

  4. Add the tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, and olive oil to the rice. Mix.

  5. Add generous amounts of sumac. Add salt to taste. Mix.


  1. At your station you should have the empty cooking pot to your left, a bowl with the stuffing in front of you, a bowl of cored vegetables to your right, and a small bowl of grape leaves.

  2. Add a thin layer of olive oil to the bottom of your cooking pot.

  3. Begin by stuffing the onions. Add them to the bottom of the pot.

  4. Then stuff the eggplants and zucchini, add to the pot.

  5. Then stuff the baby bell peppers, add to the pot.

  6. Then stuff the tomatoes, add to the pot.

  7. Then roll the grape leaves, add to the pot.

  8. Press everything firmly down.


  1. Take the Dolma Pot to the stove.

  2. Add a mixture of water and lemon juice to the pot so that ONLY when you press the vegetables down firmly does the water then barely cover the vegetables. The liquid from the vegetables will come out later so you don't want to add too much extra liquid.

  3. Place a dinner plate downwards on the vegetables. This helps put pressure on the vegetables.

  4. Cover with the pot lid.

  5. Bring to a boil for about 5 minutes. Then simmer on low for about 40 minutes.

  6. The onions will caramelize at the bottom so be careful not to burn them.

  7. Remove lid and plate.

  8. If there is still red liquid in the pot when it's done, carefully drain that liquid.

  9. OPTIONAL: Take the extra red liquid and cook it in a small sauce pot with garlic confit, to pour over the dolma once it's served -- so yummy!


  1. Place a really big serving plate on top of the pot and carefully flip the dolma onto the plate. Make sure to keep the pot on the plate until the plate is on the table so that it's safe!
    NOTE: I did not flip the dolma in the photos, because flipped dolma isn't always very photogenic!

  2. OPTIONAL: Top the plated dolma with yogurt, kefir, or labneh!


A Little Piece of Inspiration

Insta Kleicha Mold.jpg

A few months ago I designed an Iraqi-inspired meal-kit delivery box with Out of the Box Collective that delivered within and beyond the greater Los Angeles area. The goal was to introduce people to Iraqi food in the hopes that they might think about Iraq in a new context and what that might mean. I wondered if people would actually take my message into consideration when making the meals or if they would simply eat the food and go on with their lives. 

And then I received this incredible letter, which I'll leave you with. 

Apologies that this email took so long. I wanted you to know that our “Add a Little Lemon” Iraqi box was extra special. During each night of cooking and eating we talked about how the food was from a far away country named Iraq. We loved every bite of it, and especially fun was the drama of sizzling turmeric oil and serving on giant platters and the funny instructions like “don’t be lazy, tembal”Anyway, my 3 year old has recently taken a keen interest in maps and finding countries/states/etc. He showed me a doodle of a map he had drawn declaring, “This is Iraq!” So I just love love love that his first associations with Iraq - just as Sara was hoping - will not be violent or terrible, but delicious and wonderful instead.



Add a Little Lemon + Out of the Box: Meal Kit Delivery Collaboration!

Out of the Box is the single most original meal kit delivery service based in Los Angeles that delivers across Southern California from San Diego to Santa Barbara. It is the brain child founder Jennifer Piette who focuses on locally-sourced and sustainable, farm-to-table ingredients. This month Out of the Box teamed up with Add a Little Lemon to create a curated box full of Iraqi-inspired recipes. Each box contains the ingredients and recipes selected from five of my recipes, with Vegetarian ordering options. Be sure to order this box and support independent creators!  

About the Box

IRAQ is: Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, the Fertile Crescent, the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, the birthplace of Abraham, the site of the Garden of Eden, the supposed burial ground of Noah’s Ark, home to Gilgamesh. It has deep and powerful roots. And those roots are reflected in the cuisine.

The very first cookbook ever written was from Mesopotamia, on stone tablets.

Iraq’s rich history and glorious ethnic and cultural diversity means its food is complex. Iraqi cuisine is influenced by Levantine, Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Jewish, and Indian cuisine, among others, creating something wholly original and beautiful.

Alas Americans seem to know very little about Iraq other than war, destruction, and violence. It’s all we get to see. This limited view of such a beautiful country, which up until the sixties was known as “The Jewel of the Middle East,” continues an Orientalist tradition of pigeonholing the entire region as violent and destructive. We learn that the violence is somehow inherent and so we choose to ignore it, without considering the consequences.

Recently, more and more Iraqis are using social media to show us a different view of Iraq than the one portrayed in media. They are moving the camera lens an inch, to the parts we don’t usually see, the beauty and life that exists despite the violence, corrupt policies, and foreign meddling, the curses of such rich land and soil.

Snapchat recently featured a Day in the Life of Baghdad, in which Iraqi snaps of daily life were selected, surprising millions. We don’t think about carnivals, delicious food, beautiful landscapes, people laughing and enjoying life when we think about Iraq. And sadly unless we look for it we won’t see it.

The popular Instagram account @EveryDayIraq features a collection of photographs that depict daily life among its people, beyond the scope of violence. Only recent iPhone photographs are selected so that we get a more honest view of the country.

Yes, there is corruption and violence in Iraq – as there is here and anywhere. But there is so much more to Iraq. And given our active participation in the region, it is at the very least our responsibility to attempt to understand our shared humanities.

As it always is, food is a powerful cultural bridge. This box is more than just recipes and ingredients: it’s a positive social force! Enjoy!

Bil Afya | Bon Appetit

With love,

photo by  @ahmadmousa

photo by @ahmadmousa

Add a Little Lemon is Saveur Awards Finalist: Best New Voice 2017!

photo by  Zeb Smith

photo by Zeb Smith


When I started this blog it ended up being more of a vulnerability challenge than anything else really. I had been notoriously shy with my writing, afraid of revealing anything personal about myself and those close to me. Godfather status. Everything in my life was somehow a secret, always. And then that changed for me. I began learning how to be unapologetic about my own opinions and thoughts, something I labored over in a sort of self directed self-compassion training. I would practice saying what I believed in even if it often times upset others; and in a surprising effort to refrain from keeping the peace, I found that it wasn't actually so scary, after all. I was showing up for myself. Telling myself that it was okay, that I was safe, that I would take care of myself. 

That's when I started opening up here. 

It was uncomfortable, certainly. For a recovering people-pleaser most everything is uncomfortable. Yet being uncomfortable isn't so terrifying; and in fact, proves to be vital in the development of both integrity and authenticity. 

Whenever I posted, I would call my brother and my oldest friend in a panic, afraid that I did something too bold, too opinionated, too unpleasant. And each time they assured me that my fears didn't actually come across in my writing, that what comes across is my integrity, not the trouble maker I imagined myself to be. It's uneasy for recovering people-pleasers.

And then something happened. One day I stopped worrying. I stopped making those late night panicked calls. I felt stronger, bolder, and more self-assured. The practice of coming here and writing for all of you has changed me incredibly and given me not only an opportunity to be more authentic and confident, but has also taught me how to recognize the bravery of being, as Brene Brown says, face down in the arena.

You have all been so kind and generous and brave. I've received so many messages letting me know that you identify with and appreciate my stories, recipes, and photos. It's been especially moving to hear from other Iraqis in diaspora, like myself, who have been wanting a space like this. Something that speaks to those growing up in the diaspora and who have struggled with identity, like myself. Many have sent me messages telling me how this space has inspired them to share their own Iraqi recipes and stories, too. When I first started here there were no other Iraqi food blogs in English. I, like others my age, worshiped Nawal Nasrallah and her cookbook because she gave me the gift of something comprehensive that I could actually read; she gave me a way to connect to Iraq that I desperately needed. Add a Little Lemon was something I was hungry for; and so I thought I'd just do it myself, for myself, showing up for myself with self-compassion. And I am so grateful for what it has given me. My voice feels new if only because this space has allowed me to grow into it. 

Thank you all for your continued support! 

chai and breakfast.jpg

Bil Afya | Bon Appetit

Iraqi Shorbat Addas / Borders Are Not Real

1. The Womb / The Labor

I’ve been writing poetry these days.

It’s helping me process. 

I was a teenager when the War on Terror began in full force. That illusive rhetoric that consciously and unconsciously puts me on edge. Each and every day. Sometimes I forget that my body is so acutely aware of its surroundings, accustomed to its hyper-vigilance. Anxiety is just the socially acceptable term used since so few want to hear how your experience is different than their own.

These last few months have been triggering, to say the least. Even though the Muslim Ban – Muslim as a racializing term -- has been well underway for a very long time, that immigrants and children of immigrants are still made to feel somehow alien in this country, that it is not surprising to see such a ban:  it still shocks me; It is still shocking to me. When those who are new to the conversation, who are just seeing this fear-based prejudice for the first time, say But look how many people are marching in the streets!, [this, too, a tool of silencing], I think back to how many people marched in the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq fourteen years ago, and I think of all the youth today who have no idea there was ever such an invasion. That is: I have feelings about it.

And then today I hear this incredible speech by Sikh-American civil rights advocate Valarie Kaur. In it she says:

“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?… What if this is our nation’s great transition?” – Valarie Kaur

And this shift
in thinking,
This feels right.

2. Borders Are Not Real

Iraq is Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, the Fertile Crescent, the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, the birthplace of Abraham, the site of the Garden of Eden, the supposed burial ground of Noah’s Ark, home to Gilgamesh. It has deep and powerful roots. And those roots are reflected in the cuisine.

The very first cookbook ever written was from Mesopotamia, on stone tablets.

Iraq’s rich history and glorious ethnic and cultural diversity means its food is complex. Iraqi cuisine is influenced by Levantine, Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Jewish, and Indian cuisine, among others, creating something wholly original and beautiful.

Genocide is real. Invasion is real. Colonialism is real. Oppression is real. But borders? Borders are not real.

Photo: I forgot to top the Shorbat Addas with Fried Shallots for the photoshoot! Don't forget it when following the recipe! 

Photo: I forgot to top the Shorbat Addas with Fried Shallots for the photoshoot! Don't forget it when following the recipe! 

My Mother’s Very Comforting
& Very Nourishing
Shorbat Addas

serves 6-8

Shorbat Addas, literally lentil soup, is an Iraqi speciality often served during Ramadhan to break the fast. It reflects its history: lentils, turmeric, Vermicelli noodles. There are variations of this soup in Palestine, Turkey, Iran, India. Iraqis seems to be the only ones who use Vermicelli in the soup.  

There are so many takes on this soup, and every region and family makes it differently; but I am, of course, partial to my mother’s recipe. This is the recipe I grew up with, the one that makes me think of home. The one that connects me to my roots, both lived and imagined.


Olive oil
Shallots, 2 medium, quartered & sliced
Celery, 1 head finely chopped
Red lentils, 1 cup
Salt | Pepper, to taste
Turmeric powder, about a tablespoon
Water, about 3 cups
Parsley, 2 bunches finely chopped
Lemons, about 4, juiced
Vermicelli noodles, 1/2 cup (Sha'riyya in Arabic) 


1.    Brown the shallots in olive oil. To avoid burning, watch carefully. Add salt when done. Set aside to dry on a paper towel.
2.   In a large stock pot, sweat the chopped celery with some olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. About 5 minutes.
3.   Add the lentils. Coat with turmeric. Stir and let cook together about 2 minutes.
4.   Add enough water to cover an inch over the lentils. Add more salt for good measure. Feel it out. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. About 20 minutes until lentils are cooked down. The soup should look a bit yellow at this point.
5.    At this point I blend the soup with either a handheld or standing blender. No need to be a perfectionist about it.
6.   Taste the soup. Does it need more salt? Pepper? Add and stir.
7.   Add the lemon. I use a lot of lemon in this soup, more than 4 lemons, but if you prefer less then taste along the way. The lemon brings out the flavor of the soup.
8.   Add the finely chopped parsley, half the shallots, stir.
9.   Add the Vermicelli/ Sha’riyya. This cooks very fast.
10. Ladle the soup into bowls and top with more shallots. 

Bil 'Afya | Bon Appetit