My parents had been married about five years when Mom bought a whole fish at the Safeway, threw on spices and seasonings at random, and broiled him up for dinner. When Dad got home and took his first bite, he declared, “This tastes just like masgouf!”
Masgouf should be considered the national dish of Iraq. The fish is caught right out of the river, gutted, split open, seasoned, and grilled on an open flame. Many family members have told me of the “good old days” of sitting at outdoor restaurants along the Tigris River in Baghdad, eating Masgouf and mezes, drinking arak and beer, and telling stories until dark.
It had been almost a decade since Daddy left Baghdad, and his tastebuds seemed as homesick as his soul.
“How did you season this?” he asked Mom.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention,” Mom said (I’m sure four-year-old me had something to do with this).
“Please… you must season it like this every time,” Daddy said.
Thirty-seven years of trying later, and lightening hasn’t struck twice.
I’ve not yet had the courage to grill masgouf. But I have tried to cook as close as I can to the flavors of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates. A few years ago, I came across Alton Brown’s kebab episode of Good Eats where he tells the story of the kebab’s Middle Eastern origins. I adapted his recipe and tried it on some lamb kebabs for Dad’s birthday.
I chose lamb because Dad once told me his father farmed lamb, so grilled lamb was his favorite and what he ate most growing up.
I also made some hummus, falafel, tabouli, and seasoned rice with pine nuts… all in hope of hitting as close to his home as I knew how.
When dinner was over, I asked Dad what the thought of the meal.
“The lamb tasted close to home.”
Since then, I’ve further adapted Alton’s recipe into two versions: a marinade and a dry rub. It’s pretty much all I use to season any meat I grill… beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and fish.
My daughters say my steak is better than candy, so I hope someday when they grill for their kids, they’ll use the same recipe and tell them, “This tastes like home.”
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder (3-4 chopped cloves for liquid marinade)
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon za’atar (if you can find it, but not necessary)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon cayenne red pepper (depending on how spicy you like it)
1/4 teaspoon allspice
Mix all the spices together, lightly rub the meat with olive oil, cover the meat with the seasoning, and throw on the grill (or in the oven).
Mix the spices with 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup red wine vinegar. Put meat in ziplock bag and pour in marinade. Squeeze out the air and let marinate for two hours to overnight (for fish it will only need about half an hour tops). Take straight out of the bag and onto the grill (you can pat dry if you want to. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If I do, then I’ll add some fresh ground pepper and sea salt before grilling).