The concept of modernity after decades of strife is a tough one to process. But when you’re meandering the streets of Baghdad in post-war Iraq, you can’t help but be awed at the resilience and resurgence of life. The scars of war remain, but so does an undeniable spirit—a spirit that’s found a haven in the kitchen.

After countless meals in the city’s hidden gems, I can say this for certain—Baghdad is redefining itself, one hearty dish at a time.

A man sitting in the back of a truck
The local conveyances were a bit different back in the day, and a man can only eat so many MREs. SOFREP Original art by the author.

Baghdad, by morning, is a feast for the senses. A walk through the bustling markets presents an array of colors, scents, and sounds, each more enticing than the last. Smoke from sizzling skewers of meat fills the air, the inviting smell of fresh bread wafts out from bakeries, and vendors hawk their colorful produce with an unyielding vigor that’s captivating.

My first stop is a local favorite—The Al-Shaibani Restaurant, known for its version of a national staple: masgouf, an ancient Mesopotamian dish. Here, the carp is meticulously selected, seasoned with oil, salt, and tamarind, then grilled over an open wood fire for hours. It’s worth every second of the wait. As I bite into the smoky, flaky fish, the combination of subtle spices and the distinctive charred flavor transports me back in time—it’s gastronomy and history on a plate.

But what’s a visit to Baghdad without embracing its unique street food culture? I find myself at a small roadside stall, surrounded by locals munching on dolma. It’s a medley of stuffed vegetables—peppers, onions, aubergines, tomatoes—packed with a savory mix of rice, minced meat, and spices. They’re cooked to perfection, each bite revealing a pop of flavor that speaks volumes about Iraq’s culinary heritage.

Some Things Are Slow to Change

The first 30 seconds of the video below will recalibrate your taste buds and make you wonder if the burger and fries at your go-to place down the street isn’t just good enough. It shows a bomb exploding in a crowded Baghdad marketplace on January 21st, 2021.  This occurred a mere 24 hours after Drew shot the footage you are about to watch. It is included to remind you that Baghdad, and the world, is still a dangerous place. No blood, gore, or bodies are shown, but please keep this incident in mind if you are thinking of doing your own culinary tour of Iraq.

That said, life isn’t really worth living without at least a little calculated risk.

Moving Forward

In this most ancient of cities, amid the old, there’s innovation. A new generation of restaurateurs is creating a niche in this culinary panorama. Like at JZ’s Aroma, a hip joint run by a young Iraqi chef recently returned from abroad. Here, traditional Iraqi dishes are infused with a modern twist, and my lunch—a kubba burger, a contemporary take on Iraq’s classic kubba—hits all the right notes. The crisp, fried exterior of the burger gives way to a delicious combination of minced meat and bulgur wheat, leaving a lingering taste of ingenious fusion. It’s a testament to the evolving food scene, where reverence for tradition meets a brave embrace of the new.

As night falls, I find myself in one of the city’s quaint tea houses. It’s a hub of social activity where locals gather to sip on sweet, strong chai and play dominoes or engage in lively debates. I join an old man named Faisal at his table, and as he shares stories of Baghdad’s past over endless cups of tea, I’m struck by the sense of community, the warmth, and the resilience. Amid the clinking of tea glasses, the laughter, and the buzz of conversations, I feel a palpable sense of hope—a testament to Baghdad’s indomitable spirit.

men enjoy tea in a street cafe
The smell of earthy exotic spices lingers in the warm air. It’s unique and not to be found where you are from. Original art by SOFREP.

There’s an old saying in Baghdad; قلب العراق متماسك بحبه للطعام (“the heart of Iraq is held together by its love for food”). The city has shown me the truth in these words. The food scene here is not just a testament to the culinary prowess of its people but their resilience too. Each dish is steeped in history, each mouthful a mix of traditional tastes and modern aspirations.

Baghdad’s culinary landscape is a reflection of its society—bruised, yes, but certainly not broken. And every once in a while, as we can see in the video above, the wounds open up again. It’s in the crackle of the masgouf grilling on the open fire, the fragrance of freshly baked samoon, the warm sweetness of a cup of chai, and the inviting aroma of dolma cooking in a home kitchen.

In the end, it’s clear that food does more than nourish the body—it tells a story, it fosters connection, it bridges divides. It’s in this dance of flavors and experiences that I find the real Baghdad—a city of contrasting narratives, a city coming to terms with its past and looking hopefully towards the future, one dish at a time.

So here’s to Baghdad, a city that cooks with its heart and feeds the soul. It’s been a gastronomic journey of a lifetime. For now, this culinary nomad signs off, hopefully to return one day for another meal, another story, and another taste of this indefatigable city.