It’s been exactly a year and two months since we moved to Iraq, and almost two years since my last depressing post.
I allowed myself to be compressed into a small corner, building multiple perceived protective layers of shells. I let fear of judgment, fear of acceptance, fear of indulgence, fear of unsettlement, fear of lack of understanding, fear of becoming a bad mother, fear of not blending in, and the fear of being different imprison me inside my own body. For a while the shells seemed impossible to crack, but rather than thinking I was encapsulated by them, I discovered I needed this time to be gentle to my inner self by accepting, embracing and facing those fears. The cracks are now visible in all shells and I now know I am a stronger person for it. I also know that talking about it helps, perhaps to loved ones more, but strangely enough talking to outsiders seems so liberating.
My fears described above are mostly my foodie fears, and the best way to describe it is by imagining every part of my body is moving at a pace of say 80 mphs. I come to Iraq and not only I had to break so fast my whole body was shocked, I also needed to reverse, go back, re-evaluate and perhaps at times be allowed to start moving at apace of 10 mph. Ok let me clarify exactly what I mean.
For a long time in Britain, I started eating more vegetarian, vegan and even raw meals. I started, like so many others, to follow the trend in eating more avocados, coconut products, quinoa and other gluten free trendy grains, raw and ridiculously expensive cocao products, vegan alternatives to dairy, expensive brands of health products and powders, super chia seeds, green kale/spincah smoothies, and basically the claims for the superfoods hitting the headlines. I felt better for it and felt I was doing the planet and my body a great favour. I started ‘running’ faster than my family and children could and would ever be able catch up with and I knew I was adding more stress to everyone by preparing separate meals for them and myself. (Notice the ‘them’ and ‘me’ here.)
Move forward to Iraq, and the shock of not finding almost any of my favourite ingredients was extremely difficult to bear. Armed with a terrible gas oven, I started over-eating on stuff I didn’t even like and I felt miserable for it. Being a nutritionist doesn’t immune you from over-eating, especially if it’s emotional, it just makes you more aware of the problems and makes you more astute to others experiencing emotional dilemmas with food. (Although, I must admit, it’s easier to get back to ‘healthier’ eating patterns once you get a wake up call!)
Secondly came the problem of the culture of excessive meat eating (according to the results I carried out for my MSc dissertation analysing a small Iraqi population eating patterns, in addition to two other sources (1,2)). If you travel to any Middle-eastern county you’ll realise meats and grills and thick stews are central to their cuisine and since I had turned to a conscious mostly vegetarian eater, I couldn’t cope with seeing battery hens, half featherless and thirsty, being slaughtered by the dozen in the streets. I couldn’t stomach the thought of putting any lamb near my lips after seeing the poor shepherds rummaging in dumpsites and people’s bins to feed their sheep and goats. Or the cows carried in small trucks, confused and thirsty, awaiting their destiny at the butchers. Nor could I get excited by seeing 30 fish crammed in small pools of water, gasping for air, being the next ‘fresh’ catch. (Please note, I certainly don’t mean any of the above to sound derogatory, nor am judging the way people find these practices normal – I’m simply quoting what I see).
I am not a vegetarian and I am not ashamed to say it, but I would rather occasionally eat an animal that is well looked after, or I’m not interested. You may think living in Iraq I would have access to lots of locally raised organic animals and crops. However, living in a large city, clueless of where things are and how to get them, poor access to transport and the expensive price these well looked after animals come with, it seems – currently – that it’s a difficult mission to accomplish.
Thirdly, and most importantly, came my few charitable visits to a few villages nearby and seeing what a different foodie world I had created for myself. When I realised some people were literally living to eat bread and a few vegetables, I started turning my focus on reality – the reality that should be affordable, nutritious, accessible and sustainable for everyone (3), and not the elite ones like me, following a healthy trend. I started reading more about food security and revised many of my valuable notes and lectures I had while back at university. I started embracing locality, availability and humble nutritious foods that have become unfashionable, boring to my opinion.
Then I acknowledged food is central for everyone – the common talking point for breaking the ice, whether in remote villages across the globe, refugee camps, large family gatherings, street-food venders, takeaway shops, restaurants, quaint cafes, trendy foodie hubs, posh hotels, all the way to the crème-de-le-crème Michelin star chefs and finest experts in foods. I realised and accepted that it’s ok to be excited about discovering new cafes in Paris, that I shouldn’t be ashamed of indulging in a vegan café in the beautiful streets of Edinburgh, that I would giggle like a little girl when invited to a posh restaurant, that I would be privileged to eat a meal from a Syrian refugee, and that I would be honoured to eat with warmhearted village people who go out of their way with their hospitality, creating an atmosphere that no high end restaurant could ever beat – humble soul food made with love.
They always say if you can’t beat them, join them. I will join at family gatherings, dinner invitations and food made with a lot of effort . But I can’t join them at the comfort of my own home, my inner self, my foodie identity – for I will run, not at 80 mph maybe, but at 40, where I can make food that brings me joy and not forced upon me. Food mostly sourced here in Iraq, with some cheat ingredients sneaked from my travels to Britian and other parts of the world.
I am now running, breaking the shells of fear I created for myself and I am not ashamed. For I must run and stamp my own identity. The identity that is mostly vegetarian either copied from culinary genuises, or created from my own humble experiments. Sugary treats will feature, although not as fancy as they used to be, since (you could say fortunately) many sources are not available here! I will never give up on the dream of travelling across Iraq to source hidden treasures of vegetarian recipes, once all the violence is over.
So, do I miss the abundant supply of all foodie related ingredients and gadgets back in Britain? Absolutely.
Do I miss using my favourite kamut, spelt, rye, gram, gluten-free and brilliant quality flour? So badly.
Do I miss my puy lentils, black beans, avocados, leeks, celery and the abundant supply of fresh herbs all year round? Terribly.
But I know I’ll survive without them and I will. In time I will learn to enjoy new ingredients, new adventures filled with trials and tribulations. To enjoy the simplicity of basic humble tools and ingredients.
Here’s what I’d like to eat when I’m not joining the crowd. It’s still warm in Iraq and I think I’ll wait a little before eating hearty warm soups or stews at home.
Green Courgette and Pea Rice – Serves 1 as a main dish or 2 for a side filling salad
Use whatever greens you fancy. The ingredients below is what was available.
- 1 courgette (zucchini), cubed
- Partner veg: 1 large handful ~ 70 g peas (I used frozen)
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- dash of ground cumin
- 1/2 – 3/4 cup ~ 50/60 g cooked wholemeal basmati rice ~ (you can use white or other mild grain)
- Zest and juice of half a lemon
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 spring onions, diced
- handfuls of fresh mint, basil and rocket (arugula), roughly chopped
- Topping extras: 3/4 teaspoon each cumin and nigella seeds, diced green chilli (for a heat kick)
- Protein Booster: Labneh, 1 fried egg or a small handful of chickpeas
If you don’t have cooked rice, start by cooking the rice according to the packet instructions. 1/4 cup dried rice is equivalent to 40 g, which should make 1/2 a cup cooked rice.
Heat olive oil in frying pan, medium heat. Add the courgette and peas, and brown for about 5 minutes. Add a dash of lemon juice, cumin, salt and pepper and water. The water helps soften the vegetables slightly, while retaining some crunch. Cover and cook for a few minutes until the water is evaporated.
Meanwhile mix the warm rice with olive oil, zest and juice of half a lemon, spring onions and once at room temperature, add the roughly chopped mint, basil and rocket leaves. Season with salt and pepper to your liking.
Dry roast the cumin and nigella seeds on a small saucepan until aromatic, about 3-4 minutes. Spread the rice mixture on a plate and top with seeds and diced green chilli if you like it hot! To boost the protein content of this meal you can either add labneh (or thick yoghurt) or a fried egg. For a vegan option add chickpeas, however the meal is substantial as it is with the addition of peas.
I certainly enjoy eating from a plate which gives me comfort, hope you like it.
I pray for peace and prosperity all over the world.
1. NASRALLAH, N. 2013. Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine, USA, Equinox Publishing.
2. KIPLE, K. F. & ORNELAS, K. C. 2000. The Cambridge World History of FoodPart 2, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000. Book DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521402156.