Masgouf is the national dish of a country that sits upon the land known as the Cradle of Civilization.
This Fertile Crescent is home to writing, astronomy, mathematics, and many more advances that seem unimaginable to have existed so many thousands of years ago.
But this land, steeped in history and invention, is plagued with conflict and pain now. Perhaps through food we can build a bridge to the people of Iraq and understand more about their culture through their recipes.
Masgouf: Mesopotamia, the Travels of Tomatoes, and a Country in Crisis
Close your eyes and allow your mind to wander to the Middle East. What do you see? Is it vast stretches of desert and sand, baking in the heat of a golden sun?
Now imagine two rivers cutting their way across this desert. Small streams and tributaries wind their way through the vast expanse to meet the rivers as they flow towards the Persian Gulf.
All around this vast water system are crop fields, and life. This is the Fertile Crescent.
Mesopotamia: from the Fertile Crescent to the Cradle of Civilization
The land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, which flow from modern day Turkey across Syria and Iraq, is Mesopotamia.
It was so named by the ancient Greeks, who we revere for their mythology and democracy. But we should really praise them for their on-the-nose geographical naming skills. Mesopotamia literally means “between two rivers.”
Thousands of years before this land was divided into modern day nation states, the fertile land gave birth to the world’s first great civilizations.
We know this because in the fourth millennium BCE the Sumerians developed the world’s first known writing system, which we call cuneiform. Making impressions into wet clay with a pen like object called a stylus, these ancient humans left a legacy of their lives that has lasted six thousand years.
Amazingly, many of these cuneiform tablets contained recipes and grocery lists. But if you’re thinking of heading down to your local museum to capture an ancient recipe, we advise you to think again.
Apparently fine dining for the Sumerians meant soaking their meat in fat and oil. And their propensity for every type of onion leaves certain questions about their oral hygiene given the lack of toothpaste.
While the preparation of the food is not something modern humans might enjoy, it is evident that these ancient civilizations were foodies in their own right. Their preparations were complex, using a variety of spices and ingredients with complimentary flavors. A simple leg of lamb on a stick was apparently not what upper class Sumerians had in mind when they were sitting down for a good meal.
Their ingredients were largely stagnant until global trade routes began to develop, and one vegetable in particular made its way into the fertile crescent around the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
Tomatoes Travel to Mesopotamia
Before the Spanish conquest of the New World, the Aztecs were cultivating and enjoying the delectable fruit (or is it a vegetable!?) we now call the tomato. They called it a tomatl.
Tomato, tomatl, potato, potatl. Well, not quite.
But we digress. After the Spaniards arrived in Chile, they quickly fell in love with tomatoes and took them back to Spain to share their juicy, sweet goodness with Europe. Tomatoes quickly began popping up in dishes across Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It wasn’t until the Spanish Moors were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the early 1600s that tomatoes appeared in the Fertile Crescent. How grateful we are to the Moors for introducing okra to Spain and tomatoes to Mesopotamia. So many recipes across the world would not exist without them!
Once tomatoes were introduced to Mesopotamia they gradually began to replace other commonly used ingredients in the local cuisine. Frankly, we are surprised that this occurred gradually, because tomatoes are one of the most delectable and versatile fruits imaginable.
One would think that tomatoes simply exploded onto the scene, but good things take time, so that’s not the case.
Tomatoes are featured prominently in Masgouf. So although the date of origin of Masgouf is unclear, it is safe to assume that the dish evolved after tomato cultivation in Iraq began.
However, the chief ingredient in Masgouf, freshwater fish, has long been pulled from the rivers that flow through Iraq. So perhaps fisherman had been preparing their fish in the Masgouf fashion and then added tomatoes once they had a taste of their juicy red flesh.
The Recipe of Refugees
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an estimated 4 million people have fled Iraq. Nearly another 2 million who were displaced from their homes due to violence remain in Iraq.
These numbers are staggering. Six million people torn from their homes due to violence that has been ongoing since 2003. These people, individuals with favorite foods, favorite restaurants, favorite snacks, are not unlike you and me.
We believe that food is unifying. If a recipe can survive thousands of years and give us an idea of what culture was like at the time that writing was invented, then trying a recipe that is popular today can do so much more.
A bite of the national dish of Iraq, Masgûf, is literally a taste of the culture of Iraq itself. Each flavor, each ingredient tells a story about the people who live there. We hope that by preparing Masgouf you will feel a connection to the people of Iraq.
About the Recipe
Technically speaking, masgouf isn’t so much about the ingredients as it is about the cooking technique.
Still, it all starts with a butterflied fish. Regardless of how you prepare your masgouf, one of the keys to the recipe is to have a whole white freshwater fish – something like a carp, branzino, sea bream or even catfish – that’s been descaled, gutted, cleaned and split lengthwise through the belly. Keep the back of the fish intact, though, since that’s what keeps it in one piece.
Next, the fish is marinated in an olive oil-based mixture. The sure-fire ingredients in the marinade are olive oil, salt and turmeric powder, although a fair majority of other recipes include dissolved tamarind paste in their marinades as well. For all intents and purposes, we consider tamarind a traditional ingredient in the recipe, although don’t be surprised if you find other versions without it.
What happens to the fish post-marination is where you’ll find the intricacies of the traditional masgouf cooking. The fish will either be either impaled onto upright hooks and placed by a large open fire referred to as the “altar.” Here, the fish will slow roast for several hours as the fat from the fish meat melts away and yields a flaky, crispy bite.
You’ll see later on – for obvious reasons – that we made adjustments to the style of cooking our masgouf, but so you can see what it’s really like, have a look at the video below:
As the fish cooks, it’s common to prepare side sauces and chutneys to accompany the fish. Depending on who you ask, two particularly popular sauces include a tomato curry sauce and a green mango chutney, both of which have heavy Indian influences.
When the fish is fully cooked, it’s laid either on a bed of salad or fresh bread and served with all sorts of accompaniments on the side. Enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
Clearly, it would be impractical and difficult for anyone to create an open fire altar in their own homes. We acknowledge this and wanted to lay out a recipe that cooked the fish, you might say, in a more “contained” way. With this in mind, we started with an original reference recipe that had the same intention as us.
That’s where a lot of the similarity stops, however. For starters, we used an entirely different fish. In place of traditional carp or catfish like the reference recipe, we chose instead to make our masgouf with a whole branzino. The branzino has a meat that we’re particularly fond of, which was the main driver in the choice we made.
As for the marinade, we made the tamarind paste a necessity in our own marinade. Again, here you could either omit it altogether or use a dash of lemon juice to get the same flavor effect, but we found that the tamarind coupled with the turmeric powder gave something really special to the dish. As such, we kept it in.
For the actual cooking of the fish, we placed it into a cast iron baking dish and baked it in the oven for 35 minutes to start. After that, we topped it with some of the tomato curry sauce we’d prepared, after which point we broiled it ever so briefly before declaring victory.
Finally, it’s hard to actually admit this openly, but we cut down the amount of garlic suggested for the tomato curry recipe. This might be a first in the entire lifespan of Arousing Appetites, but it helped bring more evenness to the overall dish.
In the end, whether you cook it the traditional fire pit-style way or in the everyday oven, masgouf is a recipe that anyone can come to appreciate. It’s full of flavor and has a lot to offer for a recipe with few ingredients.
How would you marinate your masgouf? Comment below!
Helpers for this Recipe
Masgouf: Iraqi Tamarind and Turmeric Marinated Fish
Yield 4 people
- 1 1/2 pound white freshwater fish (carp, catfish, branzino, etc), descaled, gutted and butterflied
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon tamarind paste, dissolved in water (or substitute with 1 tablespoon lemon juice)
- 1 teaspoon dried fenugreek (optional)
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Tomato Curry Sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 medium onions, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1-inch piece of ginger, minced
- 2 stalks fresh parsley, chopped finely
- 2 teaspoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves (optional, but highly recommended)
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Stage 1 - Butterfly and Marinate Fish
- If not already butterflied, take your whole fish and cut it lengthwise down the belly. Keep the back intact, and spread both parts of the fish open to create one flat, connected piece. (Alternatively, you can ask your fishmonger to pre-butterfly the fish for you)
- Place the fish into an oven-safe baking dish (cast iron works best), and set aside for the time being
- Next, take a small bowl and mix together your olive oil, dissolved tamarind paste, turmeric powder, salt and pepper. Mix well until you have a marinade with a smooth, even consistency to it
- Spoon or brush your marinade over the outside of your fish, then open the fish to lay flat and generously marinade the inside
- Cover the fish and let sit in the fridge for 30 minutes while you tend to the tomato topping
Stage 2 - Prepare Tomato Curry Topping
- Take a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat with a healthy dollop of olive oil
- Start by adding in your minced garlic and onions, and cook for 1-2 minutes as it starts to sweat and become translucent
- Next, add in your tomato paste and cherry tomatoes, and cook together for another 1-2 minutes
- Follow this by adding in your turmeric, ginger, curry powder, dried parsley leaves and black pepper and mix well. Once well mixed, cook everything for another 6-7 minutes over a medium heat as the tomatoes begin to soften
- Turn off the heat at this point and add in your lemon juice. Stir the lemon juice in well into the sauce and then let your sauce sit until your fish is finished baking
Stage 3 - Bake the Fish
- By now, your fish will have marinated well and will be ready for the "makeshift masgouf" cooking. Start by preheating your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit
- Sprinkle a little extra sea salt (for good luck) over your butterflied marinated fish, and place it in the oven for 35 minutes
- After 35 minutes, take your fish out ever so briefly. Hopefully it appears flaky, at which point you can drizzle some of the tomato curry sauce on top of fish
- Turn on the broiler and broil the fish for another 2 minutes, then you're done. Alternatively, you could also bake it for another 5 minutes at the same heat
Remove the masgouf from the oven, let cool for a few minutes, then serve with extra tomato sauce, bread, chutney, salad, a few lemon wedges and anything else you might like. Enjoy!