Getting to the heart of the cuisine in northern Iraq isn’t especially easy for tourists for two main reasons. One is that the culture of eating out isn’t particularly prevalent and establishments that cater to travelers are far and few between – mostly because tourists themselves are. You’ll find there’s a lot of surface to scratch, which can be a fun process that uncovers some unexpected meals.
Shawarma Sandwiches, Falafel Sandwiches, And Doner…Sandwiches
Throw a rock in Arbil and you’ll hit two sandwich shops. These small establishments are typically brimming with people (virtually always men) with a sandwich of sliced beef, chicken, or fried chickpeas in either hand. Incredibly warm and humid inside, payments are made upfront to a clerk (sitting strategically far from the hot rotating spits) who hands out color-coded, laminated numbers designating your order.
- Shawarma and doner are very similar types of fast food. In Iraq they consist primarily of small pockets of white bread filled with shaved beef, lamb, or chicken, along with a touch of lettuce, tomatoes, and spicy onions.
The process is quick as you’re shuttled across a short lunch line. Everyone eats standing up, except for the lucky one or two that finds an old plastic porch chair to sit in. Bits of salad, sandwich, and sauces drip to the floor which is conveniently hosed clean several times an hour. Iraqi sandwiches make even fast food look slow.
Colorful Juice That Packs A Punch
Flavored juice, that’s as bright as it is sweet, is churned out from vendors armed with blenders from block to block. Facing many of these juice shops are rows of small chairs – where sipping juice and people watching seems to be an favorite pastime.
Sit around long enough and you’ll see a variety of unexpected faces like those of Fijian UN workers, Chinese businessmen, and every other child wearing an FC Barcelona jersey.
(Incidentally the logo for the team is everywhere – on the back of trucks, hanging in storefronts, and stuck to billboards right outside of checkpoints.)
Although there is some fruit in each drink, the taste and sight of each flavor is strongly accented with food coloring.
Lots Of (Probably) Chinese Restaurants And Pizza That Isn’t Pizza In Sulaymaniyah
The variety of international food in Sulaymaniyah is instantly evident as there are numerous Chinese restaurants throughout the city; quite in contrast to the sandwich-filled landscape of Arbil.
- Strangely though, some of those Chinese restaurants don’t serve food, a fact Wandering Earl and I happened upon.
Also, there were several “pizza” places that, well, didn’t serve pizza but rather a variety of cold salads and elaborate sandwiches. Despite the spattering of places like the German Deutscher Hof Erbil in that same city, Arbil is a fairly monotone menu landscape.
Sweets And Alcohol – Plenty Of Both For Next To Nothing
Indulging your sweet tooth isn’t a problem as Iraqi candy stores have a seemingly endless variety of confections. Pistachio, orange, apricot, chocolate is infused into the local “mann al-sama”, which is similar in taste and texture to Turkish delight. Half a kilo (~1 lbs) runs about 5,000 Iraqi dinar, which is about $4.30 US. You have your pick of the lot to create your own custom mix and be offered a generous number of samples to train your palate if needed.
Travelers wanting to enjoy an alcohol drink in Iraq will be happy to know that finding it will be relatively easy throughout the north.
There are liquor stores stocked with just about every popular brand of adult beverage while beer can be found at many convenience stores. What’s most striking isn’t the availability of booze – but how incredibly inexpensive it is. Finding bottles of beer for well under a dollar and popular brands of vodka, whiskey, and wine for less than 10 is common.
Grounding Your Senses
Getting a good idea of what Iraqi food is like can be tough if you’re traveling through the region. There aren’t many obvious staples to base your frame of taste; along with a broad assortment of seemingly random grub making matters worse.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to eat dinner with anyone at home; I got the strong sense that there is a marked difference in cuisine behind closed doors. The food you’ll find out and about apparently strives to be give the locals a fast food alternative to a home-cooked meal – rather than adding some spice to native dishes – leaving travelers with a journey to find more than just a taste of Iraq.