Masqouf in Bait Al Baghdadi | Tasting Iraq’s National Dish
This must be one of the fishiest moments of my life – of course in the most awesome way. Tasting the Masqouf, also known as the Masgûf, is a culinary journey by itself. Located on Al Muteena Street, Deira, Bait Al Baghdadi is not very difficult to find. Bait, which translated into English means ‘home’, leads to the peculiar English name – Al Baghdadi Home Restaurant. The Maskouf here is a must-try for all fish lovers. And for non-fish eaters – if you happen to be a foodie, this is a culinary experience that you shouldn’t miss. Considered the National dish of Iraq, this grilled Carp is genuinely unique. The fish is cut in two identical halves from the belly up while leaving the back intact, opening up the fish. Usually, a marinade made up of olive oil, rock salt, tamarind and ground turmeric is generously brushed inside the fish and then grilled for 3-4 hours, with the fish locked in a standing position. But here in Bait Al Baghdadi, the fish is simply salted and then placed in a locking position in an open wood pit, inside a glass room to contain all the smoke and the heat. The fish then gets smoked and grilled in the heat for about 45 minutes to an hour, with the open side facing the fire. Then it is placed directly on a pile of open coals, while the underside gets singed. How only a simple ingredient like salt makes the Maskouf so tasty is beyond me. It has to do with the ‘smoke’ that goes into the flesh of the fresh fish. While we waited for our fish to arrive, Arabic breads with various dips like Hummous, a ‘Tahina‘ based yogurt dip, an amazing mango pickle and a Fattoush salad kept us occupied. Another thing that kept us occupied was a thick lentil soup that was more than just ‘comforting’.
Words of caution:
1) Please don’t get carried away by these frills and fill up your tummy because the fish is going to be quite big as the minimum weight of the fish with which the Maskouf is prepared is 2 kgs
2) Please ask the staff to serve you – scooping out the fish flesh can be an art in itself and a dish prepared so craftily ‘deserves’ to be served craftily as well. This is a tip that has genuinely saved us from eating disgrace and massacring the beautiful presentation of Masqouf and I have food blogger Arva to thank. The other thing that Arva’s post had urged us, was to order a Fish Stuffing – a salsa kind of tomato dip made with chopped onions, peppers, garlic and other •secret• ingredients. This dip was finger licking good and complemented brilliantly with the fresh hot grilled fish.
Heritage and history of Masqouf
What the locals call the roasted fish, Masqouf can be found all over Iraq – from North to South, especially in the regions near the Tigris-Euphrates Basin. Though the famous Ebû Newâs district on the shores of the Tigris river is dedicated to this dish with more than two dozen fish restaurants, it is the Iraqi capital Baghdad which makes the best Masqouf. Outside of Iraq, the Masqouf is very popular in the rural parts of Syria, especially in the regions bordering Iraq. The Time Magazine recalls brilliantly how the Masqouf or the Iraqi fried fish has fed many American soldiers on their Iraq stay. Nate Rawlings writes from Baghdad – As the sun set over the city, families and bands of teenagers strolled along the river, an unthinkable activity only a couple of years ago. Children hopefully too young to remember the war played in a large pool, racing one another in bumper boats, spinning in circles and crashing with glee as their mothers looked on. We walked to an outdoor pavilion with a large tank in the back. By leaning over the side, I could see that the cistern was full of carp — thick, oily, 2-ft. (70 cm) fish straight out of the Tigris. TIME’s former bureau manager Ali al-Shaheen pointed to the specific fish he wanted, and the merchant wrangled the carp out of the water. Al-Shaheen inspected the fish closely and then said, “No, not this one. That one,” and pointed to another fish. When al-Shaheen was satisfied with his choices, the carp wrangler became a chef of sorts. He dumped the fish onto the pavilion’s concrete floor and, as they leapt into the air, bashed them over the heads with a wooden stick. The chef then slit the fish up the back, cleaned the guts out and flattened the bodies so that they resembled soft tacos lying open on a table. After sprinkling sea salt onto the fish, the chef carried them over to a fire pit, plunged two stakes into the ash and propped the fish on their sides to roast against the flames. This cooking technique is known as masgouf, a Baghdad specialty loved by Saddam Hussein. By roasting the fish vertically with the open side facing the fire, the oil seeps into the ashes, leaving salted, seasoned fish meat. After roasting the fish for nearly an hour, the merchant singed the undersides directly on a pile of open coals.
Bait Al Baghdadi – an Iraqi Restaurant
+971 4 2737069, Al Muteena Street, Deira (just after Sheraton Deira)
+971 6 5598844, near Al Majaz Park, Sharjah
Opening hours: 7:00am -1:00am
The Masqouf is charged according to the weight of the fish and it costs Dhs 69/kg. We were served a fish that weighed around 3 kgs. The Arabic bread, dips, mango pickle, the regular salad comes free with the dish. We had ordered the Fattoush salad and the Hummous separately. You can see the menu here.
Service is very prompt (pardon the Maskouf, it’s going to take time to prepare it!) in Bait Al Baghdadi. The staff is very helpful and more than willing to share their knowledge on Maskouf – please hear them out as the dish carries a lot of legacy. The fire alter or the ‘sauna’ room is a subject for painting and is absolutely fascinating. Quite obviously, it is extremely hot. I went into the sauna room for my video and came out dripping in sweat, from head to toe. The Masqouf definitely enters my list of must-eat fast feasts or ‘no-chandelier’ eats in Dubai for the Chowzter application. And this could topple my top favourite Bu Qtair fish joint for the King’s crown. Though, the Masqouf hogged away all the attention that evening, another item that put my Instagram on fire were the custards – sitting pretty on the shelves like red poppies. It’s amazing how different dishes originate from different regions and countries, and my next post documents exactly that while I eat through a variety of dishes from around the world. And a blog giveaway too, as promised!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: The bill for our dinner was Dhs 410 for six persons which also included water and diet cokes. This isn’t a sponsored post and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. And do join me on my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
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Finally something in the non-veg section I can actually give a try!!
Looks tempting. I wonder if they serve it in the Iraqi restaurants here…
I’m glad that this my post is going to urge you to try this. But even if you are a non-fish eater, this is an experience:)
wow Ishita – relived the experience with your write-up. it is so well written with all the small details that I had almost forgotten, like the lentil soup..! loved the blog.
Thank you Sudipa! The company matters too. If you all hadn’t been such foodies, the excitement of the entire Masqouf would have paled.We must do it again, once the weather cools down. And the next time, I’m definitely not going to stuff myself with the Arabic breads and Hummous. And the mango pickle? Yum!
Prada For Breakfast
I’m not one for fish, but this dish looks so delicious! I’ll definitely be giving this a try if I ever get the chance — thanks for sharing and providing so much history on masqouf! The hummus also looks fantastic.
That’s what I said – fish lover or not – this is an experience not to be missed! Thanks for hopping in Halie:)
Ah, the Maskouf looks divine! Had never heard of it before. Appreciate the background info 🙂
Now you know. Come over – I promise to take you:)
I am sure you can guess my reaction. It looks SO SO SO good. I am so hungry and craving fish badly. Loved how neatly the bones were picked and how finely it was chopped it slices. Thanks for sharing this. I am going to find out if I can find that dish anywhere in my area. wish me luck!
I have been doing internet searching for you – I really want you to taste this. Can very well imagine how it would be along the Tigris river (or rather used to be) – open fire, Masqouf being cooked. Hope you read the links to the Times articles. Wishing you luck for sure. But my own search is on!
Actually, had the restaurant guy not served us, we would have massacred the entire dish. My search is on – why not meet over a Masqouf experience in California?
Amazing Dish ! so delicately cooked and precisely served. It deserves to be a National Dish..bravo
Thanks Raj… yes this dish is fabulous!