A few months ago I was sitting at a family breakfast at my cousin's house in Philadelphia. My cousin Zainab had prepared this beautiful Iraqi breakfast spread for us that morning. At the center, Tashreeb Baghilla, broth-soaked bread topped with fava beans, a wild mint we call budhnij, piping hot oil, and scrambled eggs. A mountain of bureg, perfectly crisp meat-filled pastries rolled into cigar shapes and deep-fried; with each bite a softening, melting crunch. A platter of mini lahama b’ajeen (literally, meat with dough), discs of dough topped evenly with a meat, tomato, onion, parsley mixture, best served, in my opinion, with generous amounts of lemon juice. On the same large platter, Lebanese style fatayar, a savory pastry with a delicious density in the dough, shaped like starfish and stuffed with spinach and feta. There were bowls of dried, black olives; labneh with za’atar; lemon wedges; slices of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers with sprigs of fresh mint and wedges of sweet onions; various cheeses; hard boiled eggs; ‘umba, an Indian pickled mango that Iraqis are absolutely obsessed with and put on most anything.
Near the center was a dish I had never seen before. It was clearly a tashreeb, but it was unclear as to what kind of tashreeb. It tasted like sumac but looked like diced mushrooms! The texture was wonderfully chewy, but felt like it had to be more than just bread. I asked my aunt how she made it, and just before she could answer my uncle shouts, “Don’t tell her! She’ll post it on her blog and give away all our secrets!”
I mean, he has a point.
And, the thing is, I completely understand where he’s coming from. After posting our family recipes on my blog and Instagram for years now, I know the feeling that comes with each post: the strong fear of revealing our family secrets. I feel it each time I post a recipe. I’m feeling it right now. And then I think of my father, who has often told me that he thinks it’s wonderful that I share our recipes. Capitalism makes us forget that sharing is a good thing.
And that got me thinking... and what I found was:
Part of what makes Iraqi cuisine so special is that a family recipe can never fully be replicated.
Iraqi recipes are always verbal sketches, mere attempts at defining a dish; but Iraqis don’t cook that way. Iraqis don’t cook with measurements, they cook with their senses.
I can tell you to add a tablespoon of cumin, but I don’t really know how much cumin I’ve added. As I cook, I taste along the way, adding a bit of this here and a bit of that there, and I only know it’s right when it tastes right. The essence of my mother’s tastes and textures were passed to me because I grew up eating her food and watching her cook. There is no way to pigeonhole taste; there is no way to reveal the secrets of your mother’s taste.
And Iraqi food is just that; it is the food of your mother’s taste. And her taste is deeply rooted in Mesopotamian history.
It's a certain truth that Iraqis will argue all night about the 'correct' way to make dolma; and the answer always, always is: the way their mother makes it.
There is something deeply poetic about that, about Iraqi recipes. My grandmother’s dolma belongs with my grandmother, Allah yarhama. She passed her taste to her children, who grew into their own tastes given their unique set of experiences. And although everyone says Abla Nadia makes it closest to Nena, there is also an understanding that my grandmother’s dolma went with her. And there is something glorious in that.
So the Iraqi dishes no longer become “Dolma Recipe,” they become “Nena’s Dolma” or “My Mother’s Dolma."
And in order to have the real thing you have to go to the source and ask them to make it for you.
Isn’t that poetry?
In that way, even when I share them with you, these recipes forever remain secret to our family.
Nena’s Tashreeb Istanbuli
(as passed down to me by my father)
Tashreeb is the name for a type of dish with broth-soaked bread as the base. It can be soaked with meat or bean broth, depending on the dish. This particular tashreeb is very uncommon. Iraqis do not know this tashreeb if you ask them. Only the Iraqi Turkoman in Kirkuk made this tashreeb, and even then it was uncommon.
This may be the only place in the entire internet where this recipe exists. Behold.
The story goes that some Iraqi Turkoman traveled to Istanbul and had a dish, probably something like Patlicanli Kebap, and when he came home attempted to recreate the dish but made it all wrong. This dish became Tashreeb Istanbuli.
Nena says you can only call it Tashreeb Istanbuli if you also add a kebab on top of the dish. I didn’t do that here, so I often call this Tashreeb Kirkuk to keep the roots of the dish safe even though I'm doing it wrong. I’ve added a medium boiled egg to replace the kebab, for good measure. (I know Iraqis love meat, but boiled meat and kebab? -- that's just too much meat for my life).
My baba says he used to request this dish from his mother and then he’d invite all his friends over. In fact, my baba is the one who gave me this recipe. He told it to me off hand and then got worried and said, “Double check with your mom.” As she was walking by we asked her to sit down with us and she repeated the exact same recipe, almost word for word. My baba’s eyes lit up, “See! I was right!” And then, “Nawal, why don’t you make this anymore?”
You’ll need a large serving dish for this one.
And please read the directions before attempting.
- Cubes of meat, your choice of beef or lamb, enough for one layer on the serving dish; to be salted, seared, then boiled until it falls apart.
- Keep the warm beef or lamb broth.
- Iraqi Tanoor bread (or pita, or tandoori, or flat bread – I used Iranian sangak here because I live near many local Iranian bakeries), cut into pieces, about 2” squares
- 2-3 medium aubergines, sliced into rounds
- 8-10 medium sized tomatoes, cut in half only once
- 3-4 bell peppers, cut into strips
- 1 medium container of plain yogurt
- 1 cup grapeseed oil
- 1 T turmeric
- 4-5 scallions, chopped, to top
- 1 bunch of parsley, finely chopped, to top
- lemons wedges, to serve
- olive oil | salt | black pepper to taste along the way
- 6-8 medium boiled eggs (or more, depending on your preference)
1. Earlier in the morning, you’ll want to quickly sear and then boil your meat. This takes time, so you should do it first thing if you plan on making this dish. It was standard to always start the day boiling meat to be used in most dishes, the term for it translates to “hanging the meat.” [Options: A.) you can quickly boil the meat in a pressure cooker; OR B.) you can leave it in a slow cooker over night.]
2. Begin by taking out your tashreeb serving dish, as everything piles on.
3. In a skillet, add a little bit of olive oil and fry the tomatoes face down, covered, on low/medium heat until soft, about 20 min. Top with some salt midway.
4. Toss the bell peppers in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees until soft, about 20 min.
5. Toss the aubergines in olive oil, salt, and pepper and fry them in a pan. [
Option: roast in a separate tray with the bell peppers. It tastes better when you fry it, but it is easier when you roast it.]
6. When most of the vegetables are done, boil your eggs, cool, set aside. Peel before serving.
1. Cover your serving dish with the pieces of bread. There is need to pile it high, just cover it. 2. Pour the warm meat broth all over the bread. You want to soak the bread but you don’t want to create a soup bowl! Be careful.
3. Layer the eggplant
4. Layer the bell peppers.
5. Layer the meat.
6. Layer the tomatoes.
7. Add the yogurt to thinly cover, but let some of the tomatoes peak out because presentation is also important.
8. Quickly heat the grape seed oil in a small pot, and when it’s piping hot toss in the turmeric!
9. Pour the hot oil over the entire dish – this is fun to watch, so always do this around your guests (carefully).
10. Top with scallions and parsley. I use scallions, my grandmother uses thinly sliced onions. Your choice.
11. Serve it with a medium boiled egg!
Bil ‘Afya! | Bon Appetit!