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Naziha Adib: Iraq's unsung culinary queen

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 28/07/2017
Adib's book is less concerned with food scholarship than with cataloguing every contemporary dish imaginable [Nazli Tarzi/Al Jazeera] © Provided by Al Jazeera Adib's book is less concerned with food scholarship than with cataloguing every contemporary dish imaginable [Nazli Tarzi/Al Jazeera]

London - Tucked away in one of Surrey's verdant, leafy suburbs is the home of an Iraqi culinary icon, Naziha Adib, still famous for her half-century-old cookbook. 

After entering Adib's home, the conversation quickly turns to tales of an Iraq that exists only in memories. Adib nostalgically leafs through old family albums that show her rubbing shoulders with political giants, such as the country's former ministers of education and religious affairs.

Her previously out-of-print cookbook, which found its way into the nation's heart 52 years ago, went back into circulation this year for the 18th time, with just 400 copies printed and distributed. The first edition has been upgraded with glossy pages showcasing Iraq's time-tested recipes and dishes from the wider region. Adib and coauthor Firdous al-Mukhtar have been described as the first women to grant Iraqi cuisine its rightful place in history. 

Born in Ottoman Syria in 1925, four years before her family laid down roots in Iraq, Adib's mother - the daughter of a Kurdish Ottoman military officer - was one of Iraq's first women to open a primary school in Sulaimania.

Like her maternal family, Adib described her paternal side as Ottoman aristocrats. The Turkish influence, she told Al Jazeera, was evident from the dishes she grew up eating and from her mother's Iraqi dialect, with its smattering of Turkish. Turkish is one of three major culinary imprints Adib traces in Iraqi food, next to Iranian and Indian.

"The Iraqi kitchen is a blend of all three flavours," Adib said, "and when stripped of these components, it loses its richness." Syrian and Lebanese culinary influences crept into Iraq through intermarriage and commerce much later, she added.

At 14, Adib attended her first political rally "in support of Arab unity". She graduated 10 years later from the Baghdad College of Law. At 32, she started her first desk job as director of domestic arts at the Baghdad College of Fine Arts. Less than a decade later, she and Mukhtar wrote the modern gospel of Iraqi food.

At 92, she has republished the book for the 18th time. Adib spoke at length about Iraq's golden years and the society she knew as "modern, in not only infrastructural developments, but also in mindset".

Iraqi sociologist and food scholar Sami Zubaida told Al Jazeera that Indian food came to Basra and the Gulf largely through sea trade, while Iranian and Turkish remnants are age-old.  

"While everyone tends to think of certain dishes as their own, they are in fact a variation of existing themes and currents. It is in the context of interaction that people start to think what is theirs and not theirs," Zubaida said.

Rummaging through her personal archives, Adib pulls out a modern edition of Kitab al-Tabikh, a 13th century Arabic culinary manual.

"It was 1960; I was invited to write the introduction to Daoud al-Jalby's book, who investigates the recipes that form Kitab al-TabikhWhat caught my attention was the Abbasid roots of signature Iraqi dishes," she said. Shorba, red and boiled meat, grains, aubergine and spices - still popular in Iraq - were all key markers of the Abbasid kitchen.

The evolution of Iraqi food continued well into Ottoman rule, the legacy of which distinguishes Iraq's staples from its neighbours.

Iraq's signature dolma is a dish that emerged first in the 15th century. Before tomatoes, onions and peppers were used, the leaves were stuffed with apple, melon and turnip. The vegetables currently associated with dolma were introduced three centuries later.

Adib's book is less concerned with food scholarship than with cataloguing every contemporary dish imaginable, from the wildly popular to the more adventurous, in an accessible fashion. 

The book began its life as a radio show.

"During my time as director at the faculty of domestic arts, I received a call one day from [a radio station] asking me to host a 10-minute show called The Women's Corner. I presented Iraqi recipes as part of the programme, by collecting one from books and magazines each day, till I found myself with 160."

READ MORE: When Iraq was the bastion of a thriving cosmopolitan culture  

The programme was discontinued, but adamant not to let the recipes go to waste, Adib convinced her colleague, Mukhtar, to transform them into a cookbook. With the help of Mukhtar's brother-in-law, they printed the first 1,000 books in 1965, charging one dinar a copy. They sold like hotcakes.

Recognising their success, the women proceeded to sell another 5,000 after republishing with Irshad bookhouse. "The market was hungry for a book like this, distinctly Iraq," Adib recalls.

Fake copies have have also been discovered over the years, printed and published in Beirut and London. "Firdous would also call me from Baghdad, telling me, 'Dear, our book is being sold on the streets'," Adib says.

This year, it was demand that sent the book back into print - "countless online requests for copies", Adib says, looking surprised.

But bad experiences in the past discouraged her from going down the official book-publishing route. With the help of an Iraqi restaurant owner in Qatar, she produced additional copies: "Without his help, I would not have done it," she says.

Adib utilised her own transnational business network of family and friends - between  London, Dubai, Amman and Qatar - to move copies.

The latest publication bears testimony to Adib's ongoing relevance as the unsung queen of Iraqi cuisine.

She is not deterred by complex kitchen procedures, arguing that everyone who can read Arabic can recreate these culinary delights. "Nothing is too difficult," she says.

READ MORE: The teahouse that holds the history of Iraq's Erbil

Her book has played an unparalleled role in standardising patterns of preparation and consumption in households in and outside of Iraq.

But today's culinary ambassadors are younger, diaspora-raised Iraqis.

Philip Juma, the London-based, British-Iraqi chef and founder of Juma Kitchen, is currently a household name for Iraqi cuisine. Through his involvement in the London street food movement, he introduced Iraqi cuisine to the British public for the first time.

Born to a father from Mosul, Juma grew up surrounded by the tastes and scents of Iraq, learning through one-on-one training with his father, he told Al Jazeera.

The response Juma has received from Iraqis has exposed culinary divisions between a diaspora seeking to reinvent their cuisine and an older generation set on fixed traditions.

Juma is currently working on opening a restaurant serving an Iraqi-only menu, reminiscent of "when Iraq was cool and to rejuvenate the glories of its civilisational past".

Until recently, there has been comparatively little interest in Iraqi cuisine, and Iraqi names such as Naziha Adib are virtually unknown to non-Iraqis.

But even half a century on from her book's publication, its relevance remains timeless, the mainstay of every Iraqi household.

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