A fire roars up in the center of a wall of silver scales. The massive carp, skewered on metal spears, slowly smokes. Nearby a weathered chef turns a fresh fish over in his hands, cleans it with salt and then rubs tomato into its flesh.
“Five minutes and you’re done,” Abu Seif says, “It’s simple.” The fire crackles in the background, while the Tigris flows calmly behind him. Seif is one of many men cooking these enormous freshwater fish at a small open-air market in Mosul, and he represents one arm of a tradition that can be traced back to ancient Sumer.
Masgouf is a classic comfort food in Iraq. An unofficial national dish, it’s served everywhere from lavish floating-boat restaurants in Baghdad to street vendors in Basra. It’s also served in palaces — Saddam Hussein reportedly liked masgouf so much that American soldiers were able to track him through his fish orders. But no matter where you go, “there is only one way to make it,” Seif says confidently.
As Seif demonstrates, the air fills with the delectable smell of smoked fish. He starts with large bottom-feeding whitefish like carp marinated in salt, pepper, spices and tomato, then places them in a circle around a fire where they will smoke for 30 to 45 minutes.
The result is a rich, moist, flaky fish that melts in your mouth with every bite. It is not to be missed. Next time you go to Iraq, try the fish.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.