Chai and Kleicha, without Geymar

I started baking Kleicha many years ago – way before I had met any Iraqi people in person. Kleicha are not as prettily shaped as Ma’amoul, and can be a bit cranky to handle, but as soon as you have your first taste of these cookies, you won’t be able to stop! The combination of yeasty, buttery, unsweetened pastry with cardamom-infused date paste is as comforting as having an Iraqi friend – generous, hospitable, helpful, and one of the hardiest peoples in the world.

Iraqi hospitality

If you have ever been lucky enough to be invited to an Iraqi household, and have tasted their hospitality alongside their chai (a sweeter, stronger and more strongly cardamom-flavoured version of the tea which is drunk in neighbouring countries) you, like me, will treasure forever those memories of being part of the family. You are treated not as a guest, but embraced as a brother or sister, whose company Iraqis really enjoy, as they know the true meaning of togetherness. “Even during the war times, when you could hear the sound of bombs exploding nearby, we would still try and keep smiling through it all, because we love life and appreciate it” says my friend Huda, one of the truest daughters of Iraq. She shows me a video of a granddad dancing with a broom on the street, a dance so full of enthusiasm and joy (in spite of the current wave of difficult times in Iraq) that it has gone viral. Others in the Gulf region call Iraqis ‘tough’, but, given recent events there, I would rather say ‘resilient’ – for there is certainly a severe drought of the fabled Mann al-sama (manna from heaven) in Baghdad right now.

Kahi and Geymar

Iraqi cuisine dates back 10,000 years, and I wish I could experience Baghdadi street food for real, not just based on my friend’s delicious memories. “What I miss the most about Iraq, apart from my family, of course, are the little shops on the streets selling sweet oranges and pomegranates, the ice-cream vendors, the sunflower seeds roasted before your eyes, and a proper cuppa from a tea trolley. As the colder winter days drew upon us, the streets would be filled with the aroma of lablabi – comfort food made from chickpeas and broth”. Huda shows me picture after picture of well-loved dishes, but one in particular fascinates me – the traditional Iraqi breakfast dish called Kahi and Geymar – indulgently buttery, flakey pastry, soaked in a light sugar syrup, and topped with clotted cream! To me, a nation’s breakfast of choice says a lot about their spirit!

Zarda – saffron-infused rice pudding

The more I listen to Huda’s food memories, the more I can actually smell and taste Iraq; savouring the sweetness of Zarda, as she recounts how her mother would make this almond and saffron-infused rice pudding (Zarda means ‘yellow’), stenciled with cinnamon powder, during the month of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain.

Masgouf – grilled freshwater fish

Smoky aromas waft through my mind as Huda describes to me her national dish Masgouf – a seasoned freshwater fish (usually carp), grilled over an open wood fire until most of the fat has been burnt off. This Friday favourite for Iraqis is all about the cooking technique. And this sums up Iraq for me – no fancy ingredients, just lots of time and effort dedicated to preparing dishes for loved ones.

Given the hard times Iraqis are facing right now, there may not always be Geymar to serve with their Kahi, but I am sure that the time for Hacha’a (Iraqi dancing) will soon come!

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