Images of old Mesopotamia and Babylonia are evoked as one walks into the Iraqi restaurant, Al Adhamiyah, located in Souq Al-Waqif in Doha. Souq Al-Waqif is a renovated Arab marketplace frequented by nationals, expatriates, and tourists alike in the forward-looking Gulf nation of Qatar. The souq is abuzz most nights with people meandering along the maze of alleyways as vendors outside small shops brimming with spices, fabric, kitchenware, scarves, children’s toys, and so much more, call out to passersby to sample their wares. Al Adhamiya, located along a wide corridor of the souq, which houses restaurants with cuisines from the region and around the world, ranging from Lebanese, Moroccan, and Iranian to Thai, Italian, and Malaysian, is the only Iraqi restaurant I’ve seen in Doha.
Greeted warmly by the manager and waiters, alike, we are guided to our favorite table upstairs by a large window with French door adornments that open up to “souq life” swirling in the boulevard below. Along the way to our table we are treated to a “feast of the eyes,” as intricate wooden latticework, prevalent in Iraq, is found throughout the restaurant; encasing stain glass windows, outlining alcoves in cozy majlis-style corners, framing relics and old photos, and serving as exquisite accordion partitions for privacy. Colorful stained glass lanterns hang from the thatched ceiling, and over the sound system Nazem Al Ghazali, an Iraqi favorite, is singing, “Samraa Men Quom Esa,” a song of impossible inter-faith love. My husband, Bishara, explains to me that Al Ghazali’s reach extended to Jordan where Bishara lived as a child. He recalls the times his mother would listen to “Samraa” while sipping Turkish coffee against a backdrop of grape vines, roses, the odd olive tree, and occasional cackling of roosters in the backyard garden of their family home in Mafraq, Jordan.
While Iraqi music and famous singers are the stuff of more recent popular culture, Iraq has a rich history that stretches back to ancient times. Present day Iraq was once known as the “Cradle of Civilization,” where some of the first writing systems were developed and the potter’s wheel was invented. The Sumerians of Mesopotamia, who inhabited the region (of Iraq) around 3,500 BC, were responsible for creating the sexagesimal number system, which is the basis for the 360 degree circle, the 60 minute hour, and the 24 hour day. The Bronze Age in Mesopotamia saw the genesis of rudimentary mathematics and astronomy, which included the use of moon cycles in the development of the 12-month calendar.
Food and recipes also have a distinct place in the ancient history of Iraq, where the world’s first recipes were found on tablets in Babylonia 10,000 years ago. Fast forward to the present time, and on this night, as has happened on so many nights and afternoons before, we would be sampling the culinary delights of the Al Adhamiya Iraqi restaurant. The menu is extensive and varied and includes traditional Iraqi meals ranging from Maklouba, sometimes referred to as an “upside down” rice dish cooked with eggplant, onion, potatoes, tomatoes, and chicken with cinnamon and nutmeg to taste; to Kouzi, a lamb dish with tomatoes, onion and garlic, seasoned with baharat spice and turmeric, and served with long-grain (timn) rice, a staple of Iraqi cuisine. Soups and stews are quite popular in Iraq, as well, and Al Adhamiya serves up Tashreeb (or Tashrib), where Iraqi bread (nan) is broken into bits and placed in the bottom of a bowl with soup made of lamb, or chicken, and tomatoes poured on top. One of the familiar sights is Masgouf, translates to “impaled fish,” considered to be the national dish of Iraq, being grilled on wooden embers in a large glass enclosed case near the entrance of the restaurant.
My favorite dish, though, and I will admit I can sometimes get stuck in a rut and order the same thing over and over again, is shrimp biryani. Originating from Persia (Iran), traders introduced biryani to India, and it has since become popular in Iraq and Arab Gulf countries. I usually precede this delectable dish of fragrant basmati rice, shrimp and vegetables with mixed mezzah – the standard hummus, babaganoush, labne, mixed salad, turshi (picked vegetables), and the incomparable freshly baked Iraqi bread, or nan, served from beginning to end of the meal. Following our meals, Arab hospitality is on full display at Al Adhamiya as we are served endless cups of complimentary aromatic Iraqi red tea with cardamom. We are sent off with a bag full of piping hot Iraqi nan, hearty handshakes, and wishes for a good evening.
Kouzi Lamb Recipe
6 small lamb shanks
1 onion, diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon baharat spice
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 large tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup of water
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 dried lime
salt and pepper, to taste
1. Rinse the lamb shanks in cold water, dry and place in oven proof dish. In a pan, fry onions in olive oil until tender. Add garlic, baharat and turmeric. Fry for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, water, tomato paste, bay leaf, dried lime, salt and pepper.
2. Bring to a full boil then reduce to low for 5 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 F, pour sauce over shanks, cover with foil and cook in the oven for 3 hours (make sure liquid covers lamb, if not add more water).
Yields: 3-4 servings
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- Turkish Evening in Qatar (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)