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When I went to Iraq a few years ago for WHERE GOD WAS BORN, I drove from the Garden of Eden and Abraham’s birthplace in the extreme south of the country to Nimrod and Nineveh in the extreme north. Now, of course, Western journalists never travel this route. I also ate in restaurants, frequently, though in some of the more dangerous places we sent our driver out to bring food back. Now, that’s not even possible. My friend Jane Arraf, who’s covering the war for NBC, posted this extraordinary piece over at gourmet.com about what it’s like trying to find food in Baghdad.
The last time I went to a restaurant in Baghdad was more than two years ago. I didn’t know then, of course, that it would be the last time. I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember my Iraqi hosts becoming increasingly nervous when a suspicious-looking car kept circling the restaurant. A lot of the restaurants are still open, but it’s become too dangerous for westerners to go to them. Like most news organizations, we’re based outside the Green Zone, and it’s even become too dangerous to send Iraqi drivers after dark to pick up food. So for dinner, when we’re not putting together stories for the Nightly News, we take turns cooking. Kiko makes silken green curries and ethereal cakes.
Apart from the curry spices and chocolate brought in people’s suitcases, a lot of the food we eat comes from the local market. When we were able to go out and do our own shopping before the war and for a while after, one of my favorite things to do was buy field greens there, often sold by the women who grew them. I never knew what a lot of the greens were, but it didn’t really matter — they were wonderful. Now, our drivers shop for us, although for safety reasons, they don’t go out to buy food every day. The fruit and vegetables grown in Iraq are organic by necessity, and the lamb and beef are from butchers who display the meat hanging from hooks in the windows. You can always find tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, and onions — staples in Iraqi cooking — at sidewalk vendors, who cover the produce with burlap soaked in water to keep it cool. Those vegetables don’t wilt in the sidewalk stalls the way that lettuce does when it’s 130 degrees in the summer. When it’s hotter than 130 degrees, it’s difficult to find lettuce.