Talking turkey in Baghdad
In wartime Iraq, cultures collide in a culinary conundrum
BACK when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, most foreign visitors were required to stay at the Hotel al-rasheed, a concrete-and-glass monstrosity in central Baghdad.
It was once a fine establishment, with marble floors and crystal chandeliers, but by the eve of George W. Bush’s war the modern facade belied an intolerable interior. You had to bribe the housekeeper for a roll of toilet paper or a bar of soap. The televisions offered three channels: Baathist agitprop, Iraqi sport and bad 1970s movies dubbed into Arabic. The in-room surveillance cameras had long since broken, but nobody knew that then, so female guests took to changing with the shower curtain drawn.
But the biggest vexation was the daily breakfast scam. The buffet was atrocious: stale bread, cold omelettes floating in grease, eggs boiled so long the yolks had turned grey, rotting fruit covered with flies.
After two mornings of this horror, for which I had the pleasure of paying 60,000 dinars a day (about $US30 at the exchange rate back then), I told the front desk I no longer wanted to eat breakfast, at least not in their restaurant.
‘ ‘ I’m sorry, sir, but we must charge you for the breakfast,’’ the manager informed me.
‘ ‘ But I’m not eating protested. It did no good. ‘‘It is the rules,’’ he said. Then he leaned towards me and let me in on the secret. The $Us50-a-night room charge went directly to Saddam’s treasury. The only way for the hotel to pay its employees was by gouging us.
Without breakfast, he said sotto voce, ‘‘we cannot survive’’.
I tried to stomach the buffet, but after another two mornings I concluded that there was no way I’d survive in Baghdad with that breakfast.
In those days, food was hard to come by. Most families subsisted on government-issued rations of wheat, sugar and rice. The few res-
I taurants that catered to foreigners served only lunch and dinner. My driver, Khalid, said he’d make some inquiries, but he made no promises.
A few days later, he beckoned me toward his car and said, ‘‘Mr Rajiv, let’s go for a drive.’’ We headed west towards Mansur, the neighbourhood filled with imposing mansions inhabited by Saddam’s apparatchiks. He pulled off near a small row of shops. The sign read al-malik Market. ‘‘Go in there,’’ he said. ‘ ‘ You will find what you need.’’
Malik was a culinary smuggler’s dream. Heinz ketchup, Kellogg’s cornflakes, Campbell’s soup, Ritz crackers. Several items even had Safeway price tags. I later learned that the owner’s son travelled to Jordan once a week, where he filled up three taxis with a few of everything off the shelves at the Safeway in Amman. In 12 hours, after a couple of wellplaced bribes to border customs inspectors, the food was for sale in Baghdad. Chilled, smoked Norwegian salmon? Yup. Philly cream cheese and a bottle of capers? Sure. I even saw a Butterball turkey in the freezer. ‘‘ Aliseesh,’’ the owner said, teaching me the Arabic word for it.
I shopped like a glutton. Brie, fruit preserves, muesli, mango juice — more than I could fit in the mini-fridge in my room.
Soon after US troops arrived in Baghdad, I headed back to Malik. But like so much else in Baghdad at the time, it had been gutted by looters. Everything had been taken, even the freezer case and the turkey.
I despaired for a moment, and then it came to me: I’ll just do what the owner’s son did. I had a colleague visit a supermarket in Amman and fill up a GMC Suburban. The result, unfortunately, was tuna and two cases of CheezIts. There was, thankfully, also a case of pinot grigio, and the realisation that with a proper shopping list we could sustain ourselves without Malik.
Soon the need for shipments became less acute. The end of dictatorship meant we could move into a hotel with a decent kitchen, and then into a comfortable house a block from the Tigris River. I hired a chef named Munther, who scoured the markets for ingredients to indulge his experiments with Western cooking. One day we got a Waldorf salad. There was creme brulee for dessert, albeit a little too sweet and runny.
I put on nearly 7kg that first summer. Munther served up a three-course feast every night, donning a white j acket as he brought his creations into the dining room. He spoke little English, so every conversation required an intermediary. Every interaction was transactional: What do you want for dinner tomorrow? Can I buy a new meat grinder? My efforts to engage always seemed to fall flat.
I was able to wrest only the most meagre details about his life. He had grown up in the overwhelmingly Shia south and when he was in his late teens he was torn between his desire to train as a cook and his desire to rebel at the oppression of his fellow Shiites by Saddam’s regime. His religious activism soon landed him in prison, where he was tortured so brutally he lost hearing in one ear.
When he was finally released a few years before the war, he landed a job as an apprentice in a Baghdad restaurant. When it closed after the invasion, the owner sent him my way. That’s all I got.
In mid-december , US forces found Saddam hiding in a hole, and any hopes of spending Christmas with my family in California were shot as quickly as the celebratory gunfire that lit up the Baghdad sky. I decided to host a secular Christmas Eve dinner at our house. The essential ingredient, of course, was an aliseesh.
I asked Munther whether he had ever cooked an aliseesh. ‘‘Never,’’ he said. So I did what I always do when in a culinary fix: I called my mother — on a costly satellite phone — and asked her to email me her turkey recipe.
On December 23, we got word from the market: Come get your turkey, and Munther showed up early the next morning to prepare the feast, which would also include roast beef, potatoes au gratin, sauteed peas and carrots, fried zucchini, rice and a fattoush salad. Anhour later, there was a knock on my door. It was one of my interpreters and a grave-faced Munther.
‘‘Munther cannot cook your turkey,’’ the interpreter said. ‘‘The recipe calls for wine. He cannot touch any alcohol.’’
‘‘It’s just for the broth and to baste the turkey,’’ I said. ‘‘All the alcohol will evaporate in the heat.’’ But Munther was adamant. He wasn’t going to touch the turkey or the broth.
‘ ‘ Fine,’’ I huffed, ‘ ‘ I’ll do it myself.’’ As I assembled the ingredients, Munther came back with the interpreter. He cracked a smile. He noted that I had thrown a large party for the Iraqi staff and their families a month earlier to celebrate Eid al- Fitr after the month-long Ramadan fast. Because of that, and because the recipe was from my mother, and because I promised the alcohol would evaporate, he would cook the turkey: ‘‘You respected our traditions, so I will respect yours.’’
It was the sort of grudging, uneasy accommodation that came to define the American presence in Iraq. The rest of my staff were like the exiles who sought power in the early days: unabashedly pro-western and modern, eager to please and happy to change. But Munther was the real Iraq: strong, proud, conservative, tradition-bound, and more than a little bit stubborn. There was common ground to be had, but it wasn’t going to be achieved easily. Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported from Baghdad for The Washington Post. This is an edited extract from Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar, edited by Matt Mcallester (Inbooks and University of California Press, $39.95).