The Country She Knew Had Gone, So She Recaptured It Through Food

London-based Lamees Ibrahim turned to food writing after a trip to Iraq left her shocked at the devastation she witnessed. “I sat down to write my memories of Iraq,” she says. “It always came back to food.”
February 3, 2021, 12:29pm
Kubbat jireesh, a recipe that features in food writer Lamees Ibrahim's new cookbook. All photos courtesy Safia Shakarchi

“We are vegan, we’re not carnivores,” says Lamees Ibrahim about Iraqis. I raise an eyebrow. As an Iraqi, I find this controversial. In fact, Arabs in general will probably contest this statement. Meat is a big feature of Middle Eastern cuisine, and an even bigger feature of our cultural need to show off at dinner parties and gatherings. A banquet of food is often served with the star of the show front and centre, almost always a dish of roasted or stuffed animals.

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But Ibrahim makes a strong case for veganism as a rich facet of Iraqi cuisine and its culinary history – so much so, she wrote a cookbook about it. Published this week, The Vegan Iraqi Cookbook is the follow-up to her 2009 collection of recipes, The Iraqi Cookbook, which was the first of its kind in English to document Iraqi recipes handed down through generations. 

“There is a new generation between that book and now,” explains Ibrahim. “They’re a growing group of people who are embracing veganism.”

Dolma - Vegan Iraqi Cookbook .jpg

Dolma, stuffed vine leaves, feature in 'The Vegan Iraqi Cookbook'. All photos courtesy Safia Shakarchi

The London-based author is a medical scientist by day but turned to food writing after a trip to Iraq that left her shocked at the devastation she witnessed. “The country I knew was gone,” she says. “I sat down to write my memories of Iraq, and it always came back to food.” Rather than jumping on the now well established vegan trend, Ibrahim started this second book because it reflected her culinary tastes. 

“I never liked meat myself,” she says. “I wasn’t fond of lamb. I didn’t like the look or smell of the animal fat and I was always experimenting with plant-based cooking. We don’t know the word ‘vegan’ in our culture, but I was practicing veganism before I knew such a word. The idea developed that I need to bring our healthy, plant-based cuisine to the forefront.”

In her book, Ibrahim shares a selection of recipes – some adjusted to replace or remove meat and dairy, some that are her own creations and many that are unaltered – all using what she identifies as “unique Iraqi flavours”. These are the bedrock of Iraqi cooking, and all are plant-based, including pomegranate, from which we make molasses to infuse a tanginess into stews and bread; dried limes known as noomi basrah, which also offer a sour kick; and dried herbs and fruits such as za’atar and sumac, often sprinkled onto salads and yoghurts to add a citrusy and peppery punch. 

With the prevalence of Middle Eastern grocery shops, many of these ingredients are widely available in the UK, but Ibrahim also offers variations for harder to find products, particularly for non-Arab readers. And she’s refreshingly specific about their use. She explains: “More foods are imported and available, but people see these ingredients [in shops] and they don’t know what to do with them. I wanted to bring Iraqi food to audiences in the West, including younger generations of Arabs, and what helps them is to know exactly what to put where, when and how much.”

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I can relate. For the third-generation Arab diaspora, our parents aren’t concerned with pesky details as measurements or step-by-step recipes. They do everything by memory. We’ve had to rely on our mums’ vague instructions to “add a bit of salt” and “put some water”. Ibrahim offers a solution, while appealing to our desire to preserve and explore our culinary heritage in a healthier and environmentally conscious way. “[This generation] knows and appreciates the benefits of veganism, and that’s why they want to make their dishes nourishing.” With her recipes, Ibrahim says she would like to “reach vegans everywhere” and show them “my culture, history and cuisine and bring it to their tables.”

The misconception that Middle Eastern food is meat-heavy is, argues Ibrahim, tied to old traditions of hospitality. How did Arabs show their hospitality to guests? They slaughtered a sheep. Ibrahim and I share a laugh at how extra Arabs have always been when it comes to welcoming guests. “Hospitality is at the heart of our values.” She points to groups such as the Bedouins, who famously slaughtered their best camels in the name of being a good host. “We slaughter for hospitality but that doesn’t mean the Bedouins are sitting down and eating camel meat every day,” she says. Now, Arabs are still obsessed with treating guests like royalty, but it’s about bringing people together, Ibrahim continues. “You want to give people some aspect of your identity through your food,” as she is doing with the vegan dishes in her book.

Maqloobat bathinjan, a traditional Iraqi dish made with aubergine.

Maqloobat bathinjan, a traditional Iraqi dish made with aubergine.

Flicking through it, I’m surprised at how many traditional Iraqi dishes that I’ve grown up with are vegan or hardly require tweaking, including personal favourites such as bamia (okra stew), maqloobat bathinjan (aubergine turnover) and tashreeb (pitta or flatbread soaked in sauces such as pomegranate molasses). These distinct flavours of Iraq, packaged for a plant-based lifestyle, augment my awareness of the richly vegan facet of Iraqi cuisine – we just didn’t know to call it that.

I stop on another favourite: sheikh mahshi, which loosely translates to “the king’s dish” and is made of stuffed vegetables (commonly courgettes and aubergines, similar to dolma). The rice filling is infused with a rich blend of herbs and spices including cumin, turmeric, parsley and coriander, and softly cooked into a tangy, tomato-based sauce. “The flavour, the smell, the combination of these herbs and spices – it reminds me of Iraq,” says Ibrahim.

Her ambition is that The Vegan Iraqi Cookbook is an enduring reminder of Iraq, via its culinary traditions, heritage and Ibrahim’s memories and anecdotes that are peppered through its pages – served to food lovers globally through nourishing and versatile vegan meals. It’s working: pre-orders have come in from Australia, the US and across Europe. 

“I want people to talk about Iraq in a different sense than war and destruction,” Ibrahim says. “This is my contribution from my country to the world. When people try these recipes, they’ll have the flavour, the smell and the spirit of Iraq in their homes.”