Iraqi cuisine is tremendously complex and varied. It reflects a culinary heritage that draws upon the influences of neighbors both near and far and blends them with indigenous ingredients from across this ancient region’s varied natural landscape.
Despite the widespread attention Iraq has received in the news, however, the depiction of the country has remained remarkably one-sided: names like Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra trigger images of bomb blasts and war more than anything else.
Sara Ahmad is here to change that.
The brain behind Iraqi food blog Add A Little Lemon, since 2009 Ahmad has dedicated herself to exploring Iraqi cuisine through the lives and memories of its people. Add A Little Lemon is not just a food blog: it’s a blog about Iraqi culture and history through the lens of food, using dishes to tell stories about the country’s present and past as well as the experiences of those in diaspora.
A recipe for the delicious Iraqi breakfast pastry Kahi and Geymar, for example, mentions that the clotted cream central to the dish was historically made from the milk of water buffaloes living in Iraq’s southern marshes region (a UNESCO world heritage site). The unique flavor of the milk that was central to her parents’ recollections of mornings back in Baghdad eating Kahi and Geymar, however, has been lost due to Saddam Hussein’s draining of the marshes.
These kinds of reminders of how politics shapes cuisine and the tastes available to us can be found throughout Ahmad’s writing. For Ahmad, the blog has been part of a journey of self-discovery, a journey that she graciously invites the reader to embark on with her.
“I was always felt afraid to share the Iraqi part of me with the world,” she tells Ajam, reminiscing on the blog’s start back in 2009. “I started slowly, quietly; sharing old Iraqi recipes from my family and beginning to include stories about my experiences as an Iraqi-American in diaspora.”
At the time, few resources existed on Iraqi cuisine – or Iraqi culture more generally – in English, so Ahmad notes she was “trying to fill in a space for myself that I couldn’t find elsewhere.”
Ahmad learned to cook by watching her mother and father prepare Iraqi dishes, supporting their work and picking up the recipes bit by bit.
“As I got older and had to start cooking for myself, I began to realize that I didn’t want to lose the recipes, I wanted them in my life forever. And I didn’t want to have to rely on my mother to be able to eat them!”
Originally dedicated to sharing experiences with other Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans, Ahmad realized over time the importance of reaching a broader western audience as well.
“I started to feel how important it was that people were seeing a different part of Iraq, and that I could share this with a Western audience who might not have any notion of Iraq outside of war.”
Ahmad grew up in Los Angeles, the child of two Iraqi immigrants who came from different cities and different backgrounds in Iraq: her mother is from Baghdad, her father from Kirkuk. As a result, she was exposed to recipes from different regions of the country, as well as different perspectives on the history since.
As an Iraqi-American, however, the fear of the violence and instability her family back in Iraq lived through has never been far.
“Growing up while the Iraq war and the War on Terror were happening, I was always afraid that someone would find out I was Iraqi and would harm me,” she recollects. “And I was brought up with this sense too, the fear of sharing and the need to be private, maybe because of the experiences my family had back in Iraq as well.”
“Even though my parents grew up during Iraq’s ‘Golden Days,’” she continues, “they witnessed a lot of heavy stuff. … And after they left the country, my parents’ families remained under Saddam Hussein’s rule.”
As a result, Add A Little Lemon has been a learning experience for Ahmad, one in which she could explore the history of food – and the culture, politics, and society it was a part of – and share her discoveries with the world.
“I have a love affair with a country I’ve never been to,” she laughs. “And food is a lot more political than we give it credit for.”
Her posts reflect these histories, meditating on the relationship between Iraqi and Iranian cuisines or how Iraqi foods have been influenced by colonialism and the decades Iraq spent as a way station between Britain and South Asia. “Some dishes that we share with Iran even use the Persian names, like ghormeh sabzi, even though we have Arabic names for them as well.”
“Iraqi food is always surprising for people who have never had it before,” she tells Ajam. “People expect something like Lebanese or Mediterranean food, and so they never expect what it looks like!”
“I feel like Iraqi cuisine embodies the entire region. Iraq is the grandmother saying: ‘We welcome everyone, come bring your own food, let’s all eat it together!’”