Felicity Cloake: the delicate flavours of the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora

Less than a century ago Iraq’s ancient Jewish community made up a third of Baghdad’s population but is now estimated at no more than seven individuals.

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Growing up, Linda Dangoor had to get used to blank faces when she told people where she was from. “It felt very strange when they said, ‘Where’s that?’ ” she recalls. “It was like it was a no place.”

These days, everyone knows Iraq. Linda and her family left Baghdad in 1959 following “a very, very bloody revolution” and, after a couple of years in Beirut, settled in London. “Unfortunately,” she says, “what’s happening to [Christians] now is what happened to us earlier, this kind of cleansing.”

By “us”, Linda means the region’s ancient Jewish community, which less than a century ago made up a third of Baghdad’s population but is now estimated at no more than seven individuals (for obvious reasons, those remaining tend not to court publicity).

I met Linda at the Gefiltefest London Jewish Food Festival, clutching a copy of her Iraqi cookbook Flavours of Babylon, a riot of Middle Eastern flavour in a sea of pickled herring: think lots of herbs, tahini and (showstopper alert) a stuffed Shabbat chicken, slow-cooked in aromatic rice.

In the introduction, Dangoor describes an idyllic childhood on the banks of the Tigris, “where the river twinkled pink and silver under the setting sun, and the fruits in our garden hung lazily on the trees”. But, she admits, as children they found exile a great adventure. “It only hit me personally when I was about 16 that there was always something missing.”

Indeed, although she remembers her mother desperately scouring Indian and Greek-Cypriot grocers in London for ingredients, the youngsters threw themselves into their new life with gusto. “As children, we loved everything in tins – for a long time, coming from a Garden of Eden where you could just pick ripe fruits, we rejected all that,” she recalls. “We wanted to be like everybody else.”

It wasn’t until Linda returned to London after years in Paris that she began to rediscover the flavours of her childhood. Rose water, she says, anathema to some of her British friends, to her “tastes of belonging. You taste much more than the food, something churns inside . . . Before thought, you have a feeling.”

Her two nephews were so enthusiastic about the Iraqi recipes they cooked together that she decided to write some down and the project spiralled from there, putting her in contact with elderly members of the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora who were thrilled to share their knowledge. Dangoor explains that though there might be small variations as a result of dietary restrictions, Iraq’s Muslims, Christians and Jews were united by a common cuisine, which, by her account, is simple, hearty cooking.

There’s an Ottoman influence but, Linda says, “Iraqi food is more like Persian – though ours was more a Bedouin culture . . . It’s peasant food: a piece of bread, a bit of rice and a meat stew. I feel next to Syrian and Lebanese [cuisines and with] Iran on the other side, we are not as sophisticated, but . . . the Jewish community did a more sophisticated, delicate version of Iraqi cuisine.”

The dishes particularly associated with Jewish Iraqis – such as that chicken and the fragile almond and rose-water cigars and soft cheese pillows I am sent away with – would, Dangoor thinks, now be impossible to find in Iraq. In a way, she tells me, publishing the cookbook was about “saying we were there, too . . . A lot of the young ones, they don’t know. We’ve been airbrushed out of Middle Eastern history completely.”

Naively, as I pack up, I ask if she’s ever been back to her homeland. “We have no right of return,” she says. “A lot of us left just by closing the door. For a very long time it was like a sadness for me and I think, through the food, I made peace with all that.”

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World