The Beauty of Cooking Iraq's Massive Carp

Why you should care

The country’s unofficial national dish is delicious, and its preparation is a spectacle to behold.

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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.

Mazgouf

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.

Filleting the carp

Abu Seif washes the filleted carp before seasoning.

Source Photographs by Shawn Carrié for OZY

Abu Seif marinates the masgouf

The carp is marinated with tomato, salt and spices before cooking.

Hammering the spikes

An ax is used to hammer the spikes that allow the carp to be fully exposed to the smoke.

Adjusting the carp by the fire

Seif adjusts a carp so that it absorbs the smoke from the central fire.

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.

Masgouf slow cooks in front of an open flame. It takes 30-45 minutes to smoke these massive carp.

The fish slow-cooks in front of an open flame. It takes 30 to 45 minutes to smoke the massive carp.

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