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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Iraq

WARNING: Iraq is currently unstable, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

The famed Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent are located in modern day Iraq as the region was home to perhaps the world's earliest organized farmers. These farmers had a substantial advantage over others in the region in that the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were extremely fertile and could grow numerous crops. Among the other advantages the region had were that both wheat and sheep were native to this region, giving the people two substantial food sources.

More than just wheat and sheep though, the people had other native foods and as other people arrived, with them came outside foods that could be cultivated in the region. These foods include pistachios, leeks, onions, garlic, and numerous spices including mint, cumin, and coriander. It was all of these local foods that made the region rise to prominence early in history, and it was these foods that made up the local diet as the people generally relied on soups and stews to cook these foods and incorporate their flavors.

Culinary Influences

For pre-recorded history, it was the people in modern day Iraq that influenced others in the culinary realm and not the other way around. Being surrounded by desert the neighboring people had little to offer the Iraqis that wasn't already present in the region.

This didn't change for thousands of years when transportation reached a point that people from as far as the Mediterranean and India arrived, bringing new foods and spices. Indian spices and dishes became more popular, Greek foods arrived with Alexander the Great, and Persian foods also arrived, but these influences only really added ingredients as the foods were still primarily boiled as a soup or stew.

Over time the influence from Iraq continued to grow as the influence from the west shifted from Greece to the Turks. These two neighbors altered much of the local diet in Iraq and even today many Iraqi foods are Persian or Turkish in origin. These people encouraged the heavier use of rice, fruit, lamb, chicken, and the greater use of dairy products, which the people had been using for years.

Additionally, Levantine foods from Syria and Lebanon have arrived, but primarily as additions to the diet as items like hummus and tabbouleh are more common, but not dominate foods as they are further west.

Under British influence and since Iraq has adopted additional ingredients from Europe and North America, but again most of these influences are simply additions to the diet as opposed to alterations to it. International "ethnic" foods haven't made much headway into Iraq; however this is primarily due to strained foreign relations and the recent wars.

Staple Foods

Rice: timman rice is the favored type; served with most meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Dolma: fruits, meats, and/or vegetables with rice stuffed in grape leaves, but sometimes also served in peppers or tomatoes
Kebab: numerous styles exist, but usually with a base of roasted lamb or chicken and vegetables in pita bread
Mezze: sampling of numerous dishes, generally including small plates up to grilled meats

Dining Etiquette

When eating in Iraq there are a few etiquette rules you must know and follow. If you get invited to dine with the locals the first two rules you must follow are to dress conservatively (see our Iraq Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and towns, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is somewhat uncommon today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead. Due to this, don't bring a guest of the opposite sex to any meal unless you are specifically invited to do so. In many restaurants there is a "Men Only" section and a "Family Section," in which women and men can dine together (there is no "Women Only" section) so before any woman goes out to eat, be sure the restaurant or host is willing to allow women to eat with men.

If you dress appropriately and bring, or don't bring, the right guests you've already cleared two of the largest obstacles. Try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but be sure to greet every person individually and shake their hands (although some conservative Muslims don't believe men and women should touch so wait for locals to extend their hand first if they are of the opposite sex). Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive.

Once the food is served follow your host's lead as he or she may invite everyone to begin eating at the same time or may request that either you or the elders be served first. Try a bit of everything offered as turning down food is rude.

Eat as the locals eat; in most settings this means eating in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left); on some occasions and with some foods you may eat with your hand, but only touch your food with your right hand. Be sure to only take a small amount of food at first if served family style as you will certainly be offered a second helping. Turn down the first offer of a second helping, but on their insistence accept the offer. As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough and place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position.

If dining in a nice restaurant (if any can be found) be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Some restaurants may include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service charge is included a tip of about 10-15% in a nice restaurant is appropriate.

Celebrations & Events

Most holidays in Iraq were traditionally celebrated in the same way: with the sacrifice of a lamb or goat. Today few celebrations are large enough to justify the slaughter, although at some weddings and other large events it does still take place. For the most part these events today are still celebrated with the serving of a meat to symbolize the past traditions, but this meat is not necessarily lamb or goat, but can also be chicken or any other meat.

Among more specific celebrations, Eid al Fitr is an event filled with numerous foods, which differ from family to family and region to region, but generally consist of various meats as a base with other grains and vegetables on the side. This celebration occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days.

Another major religious celebration is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

Iraq has a large number of beverages available, including most of the international favorites, like soft drinks, juices, tea, coffee, and milk. Coffee and tea are very popular and can be found nearly everywhere, however if you are looking for something more unique seek out sharbat, a sweetened fruit or flower drink or shinena, a yogurt-based drink with mint.

As a primarily Muslim country, Iraq has little alcohol available, although technically it is legal. Obtaining alcohol is difficult and religious radicals have been known to target alcohol vendors and consumers. Due to this and the fact that drinking can be offensive to the local people, it should not be consumed or transported to the country, although some minority religious groups do drink.

The tap water in Iraq should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: March, 2013