NPR's Guy Raz Tracks Down a Local Baghdad Delicacy
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View a photo gallery of Iraqi Mazgouf being prepared
May 17, 2003 -- Baghdad's Abu Nawas Street has long been famous as the place to eat mazgouf, the city's famed barbecued river fish. NPR's Guy Raz, in Iraq to cover the post-war reconstruction, went for a taste and learned why it takes 15 years to become a true mazgouf chef.
Hamed Shakir Husain and his four brothers were all taught how to prepare mazgouf by their father, Shakir Husain -- known all over Baghdad as the best mazgouf chef in the city. Hamed tells Raz that each of the steps in cooking the local delicacy has its own exacting method.
"When I was 6 years old, my father taught me how to clean the fish," he says. "I did that job for five more years. When I was 11, he taught me how to cut the fish. Finally, when I turned 20, he showed me how to cook the fish -- and cooking the fish is the hardest part because it's so easy to mess up."
To make proper mazgouf, the fish must be from the Tigris River. It's cut symmetrically along the back, cleaned and spread like an open mouth, salted and then carefully propped on four tree branches vertically, with the open portion of the fish facing towards a low-burning fire of pomegranate wood.
The fish is placed just close enough to cook slowly, but not too close to touch the smoke and flames. The fire should be blowing away from the fish.
"This kind of cooking is natural," Hamed says. "It's not the same when you cook fish in a gas oven. When you cook fish near an open fire, with special wood, it gives the fish a special taste."
Like many people in Baghdad, Hamed worries about Saad's Fish Place -- the name of the family restaurant -- and the fate of the rest of Abu Nawas Street. He's only had a handful of customers since the outbreak of the latest war.
"Hamed believes he's the last in a famous line of mazgouf chefs," Raz says. "He only has one child -- a daughter -- and the secrets of mazgouf making aren't passed down to women."
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