A Taste for Sour: An Iraqi Spice Primer

Tahreer Putrus is not a foodie (see his story here). Yet, like everyone, he has a fondness for the food he grew up with. In Iraq, that often means fatty meat with some source of sourness to cut through.

Tahreer Putrus, the star-crossed spice man of the Mid-East Food Centre.

Tahreer Putrus, the star-crossed spice man of the Mid-East Food Centre.

A note on meat. “Kebab without sumac doesn’t go,” opines Tahreer. “Iraqi style kebab is not available here. I think the quality of meat is different. The Iraqi kebab have some high fat content so they’re always juicy. I try to make it here but the quality of sheep meat is different, it’s not the same. Probably here is because they control the kind of food they are feeding the sheep. In Iraq you can basically let the sheep go wherever it wants and so it’s basically wild.”

Hamuth tea. A simple concoction of dried lemons boiled in water.

Hamuth tea. A simple concoction of dried lemons boiled in water.

1. Sabaa baharat (seven spices) is a blend of allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and mahlab. Used as an all purpose spice, it can be found on meat, rice and anything else that happens to be lying around which requires a little Middle-Eastern twist.

2. “We have some popular dish in Iraq called tishreeb,” Tahreer says. “It’s basically, when you have any kind of stock, chicken or meat, you add dried lemons to it. I take two, make holes in them with a fork and just dip them in the stock for half an hour. It gives a very nice sour flavour. You then cut up the Iraqi style bread, similar to tandoori bread, and you put the stock on top of it. Another usage of the dried lemons is boiled and you drink the water. It’s called hamuth. It’s going to be yellow and taste like heaven. You add sugar to taste. Any guy who sells tea in the streets would have to sell this one too.”

Quintessential Iraqi spices.

Quintessential Iraqi spices.

3. A major breakfast food in Iraq is tishreeb Bagala, a fava bean stock with bread. “It’s flavoured with a spice kind of like catnip. I asked a friend to bring me some but sometimes I use dried mint instead. But it’s not the same."

4. “In Iraq, a tea without cardamom would be a mistake. For me, I’m not even finished eating and the tea is simmering.” If choosing to follow Tahreer’s tea suggestion, be warned: this stuff is addictive!

5. At the Mid-East Food Centre, the sumac is imported from Turkey. Like everything else, according to Tahreer, it’s not as good as Iraqi sumac. But, in a pinch, it does the trick.

6. Does lemon salt mean anything to you? How about citric acid? This chemical essence of sourness can’t be stocked fast enough in the local middle-eastern grocery. “This would be used in any kind of food. Like salad for example. Instead of lemon juice, you can add lemon salt. It’s a best seller here. I pack 25 kg per week.”

7. Along with some souring agent, black pepper is nearly always present when meat is on the table. And since meat is pretty much always on the table, black pepper is everpresent.

8. In Iraq, chicken and cinnamon sticks go together like charcoal and kebabs.