Some dishes remain bland until you taste the stories behind them first. And the flavour of the dish only improves over time, when your own personal stories serve as sequels to the stories narrated by others, the stories you had originally heard. Masgouf, the ancient smoked fish of Iraq, is one such dish.
My first memory of masgouf is from a naïve time six years ago. It was two for two; two of us petite friends confronted with two chunky kilos of a gargantuan fish. The fish was impeccably tender with a crisp caramelized top, but in retrospect, we ate it all wrong. We left the restaurant with a feeling that we had missed the point, with a sense that there was more to the fish than what we had tasted, with an unfulfilled desire to understand a dish as Iraqis might, and with a box full of a kilo and a half of leftovers.
Fast forward to the present, I have read every possible story of masgouf that I could lay my hands on. I have empathized with the wartime stories from 2003 that Annia Ciezaldo penned in her book, A Day of Honey. ‘There was a phrase Iraqis were always using: the flavour of freedom. For a lot of Baghdadis, that flavour was masgouf. It was more than just a fish, or a way of preparing it; the ritual of masgouf embodied a vanished place and time and way of life.’ Annia’s writing is so powerful that my heart still aches with nostalgia whenever I read her stories, even for this thirtieth time, even for a country that is not my own.
I have smiled with the stories of Nawal Nasrallah, an Iraqi culinary historian who dedicated two pages of context to this ‘barbecued fish,’ ‘simach masgouf,’ even before she touched on the recipe. She shares the account of two American twin sisters who savoured masguof in Baghdad with the British Ambassador in the 1930s. The twins ‘rolled up our sleeves, and with our fingers, we slid the tender meat off the backbones of the fish and scooped it up. Everyone had a lot of fun except the ambassador.’ The British Ambassador ate with his hat on and with his fish knife and fork, leading the twins to conclude that ‘we were afraid we would never achieve that admirable ability of the British to translate into their own terms everything that came their way.’
I have visualized the stories of Raghad Al Safi in her book The Iraqi Table, where she describes how ‘those fortunate enough to enjoy a twilight stroll among the outdoor restaurants lining the banks of the Tigris River will be tempted by the many eateries serving this fish dish. Noses are lured by the aroma of burning logs; eyes light up at the sight of dancing flames; ears listen intently at the crackling blaze; mouths salivate and hands gleefully rub together in anticipation of the delicious fish.’
It is the most inexplicable and overly sentimental thing to say – but masguof will never be bland for me again. I can never savour it the same way again, knowing that there are ancient Sumerian tablets that allude to a fish ‘touched by fire,’ an uncannily accurate description of how masguof is cooked around an open bonfire today.
I can never scoop up creamy flakes of the fish with my tanoor bread – red onions, tomatoes and aniseed-flavoured ‘rayhaan’ leaves within its folds – without mentally strolling ‘at twilight’ past the open-air restaurants along Abu Nawas street by the Tigris. I can never tear away the caramelized crust sealing this flayed fish with anything but my fingers, the only way to honour a fish that has been painstakingly sweating around the flames for forty-five minutes before it reached my table. How impersonal to slice it with a fork and knife.
Bait Al Baghdadi is the restaurant that gave me my own living stories of masguof, even though their original branch in Deira is now a story of the past itself, having burned down in the angry flames of a neighbourhood fire. They taught me how to transform the fish with dabs of ‘amba,’ sour mango pickle, and ‘hashwat as samak,’ a robust fish stuffing made with caramelized peppers, onions and tomatoes. They once brought out a very odd-smelling masguof to the table, one that lacked the charred, smoky aroma I had come to love of the fish. It turns out that their supplier had slit the fish all wrong.
Masguof is made with an oily bottom-feeding fish like carp or barbel; it must be slit along the backbone so that it can be flattened and speared around the fire. If you slit it along the underbelly, the backbone will hinder the fish from being fully flattened and evenly cooked against the flames. The smoke fails to fully cleanse the bottom-feeder of its unpleasant smells. The supplier was soon brought back into line and the masgouf returned to its original enticingly scented form.
Not all cultures know how to handle such a fish. Three years ago, a tourist on one of my food tours was shocked to see how the Iraqis smoked a bottom-feeder. Between mouthfuls of fish, bread and herbs, she recounted how back home in Australia, this fish was converted into ‘Charlie the Fertilizer.’ I once fed a journalist masguof. This journalist failed to show up on my tour on time and I left him behind. He finally caught up with our group, only to learn that we were serving the one thing he actively avoided – fish. Two hours later, with his fingers wiping down every last slender bone of the masguof we had ordered, I knew we had forever rewritten his own story of fish.
Even today when people ask me for a recommendation of masguof, they never just receive a list of restaurants: Bait Al Baghdadi in Sharjah, Samad and Bestood Samad in Dubai. No, they receive a lengthy response with excerpts of stories that make this dish meaningful. I do not urge them to read those stories, I demand it.
You may not be able to visit a place of conflict. You cannot transport its streets. But this is why it is imperative to narrate its stories – even if miles away. In fact, if only miles away, here in Dubai, because this city preserves stories in a way that the world can safely access. It may not be the same as in Baghdad, but I’d argue, Baghdad is not the same as Baghdad. So let us never forget the stories. Or as Annia Ciezaldo recounts a well-known regional saying, ‘qifa nabki.’ Halt, and let us weep.