Determined to pay tribute to the dynamic cuisine of her motherland, Raghad Al Safi spent seven years on a passion project that is now a cookbook entitled The Iraqi Table. She reflects on the journey to its completion with Samia Qaiyum
“I may not be a novelist, but I believe cookbooks are simply another way of telling a story. They are like great history books, educating readers on age-old techniques and cultures from a time gone by. They are like fantasy books, transporting people from their mundane eating rituals and encouraging them to try a new taste. They are like self-improvement books, arming the reader with practical skills to help them become better with food. And they are like memoirs, taking readers on the author's journey. For me, writing The Iraqi Table was all of these.”
Meet Raghad Al Safi, the passionate Iraqi woman behind these thought-provoking analogies and author of the recently released cookbook The Iraqi Table. A civil engineer who studied interior design, she eventually found her true calling in the documenting of her culinary heritage. It’s safe to say that a conversation with Raghad can be likened to a hearty bowl of Iraqi stew – comforting, complex in flavour and eye-opening to something new.
“When you think of Middle Eastern food, you think of Levantine staples like hummus and tabbouli, which are great, but Iraqi cuisine is virtually unknown beyond the Middle East. I wanted to shed light on something that is rich, unique and wins the hearts of everyone who tries it,” she says.
It is a true testament to the sheer diversity of Iraqi cuisine, owing to the presence of Turkmens, Arabs, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians and Kurds – and will undoubtedly incite a sense of nostalgia
Gap in the market
The author set out to write The Iraqi Table after realising there was an absence of contemporary Iraqi cookbooks, especially ones with illustrations. In the process, she unintentionally managed to show a different – and much needed – narrative of Iraq to the world. “I certainly hoped my book was able to challenge some of the stereotypes of Iraq, but it was never my intention to force this. I simply hoped that by sharing my recipes – and the experiences behind them – readers would be able to learn about the real Iraq in an organic way. My motherland has a story to tell, bigger and more beautiful than many realise,” she says wistfully.
A painstaking seven years of conducting research and collecting recipes went into the making of The Iraqi Table. A veritable passion project down to its very core, the cookbook is a celebration of all things Iraq. Raghad has seamlessly combined anecdotes about the country’s rich history with her memories of extended family gatherings alongside a range of authentic recipes. It is a true testament to the sheer diversity of Iraqi cuisine, owing to the presence of Turkmens, Arabs, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians and Kurds – and will undoubtedly incite a sense of nostalgia for the many Iraqis who have had to leave their homeland.
Born and raised in Baghdad, Raghad firsthand witnessed the diversity of Iraqi culture and fondly reminisces about the sense of harmony that existed at the time. “The Iraqi Table – my book and the piece of furniture that so many meals are eaten on – is much more than food,” she explains. “Both are symbols of what the Iraqi culture can serve the world – history, authenticity and a sense of unity among people of all backgrounds.”
Bringing family and friends together
Determined to give readers a little bit of background behind each recipe covered in her cookbook, Raghad spoke to friends and family members about life and mealtimes in Iraq. “I knew I would include a recipe of kasham ashi soup and wanted to know the story behind it, so I asked my friend’s aunt in Abu Dhabi for help. She was a beautiful old woman visiting from Kirkuk, the city in Iraq where most of the Turkmen live, and was full of stories. It was this process of meeting new people and discussing Iraqi recipes that I loved.”
Between the civil unrest and her husband’s business, she left her hometown at the age of 28, and has since lived in Amman, Baku, London and Vancouver. “Travelling has taught me that while culinary traditions may vary around the world, they are often the simplest, most beautiful ways to illustrate a country’s values,” she says.
Currently based in Dubai, Raghad takes a minute when asked about how she defines the word ‘home’, musing: “Home goes beyond the roof and walls that make up a place of residence, and it extends further than the people who live within it.
"Home is family, friends and neighbours from all backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and walks of life gathering in that one location to share their lives. Any place where we are seated at one table, sharing a meal cooked with care, and talking about our dreams and daily doings is home in my heart.”