There are some meals that are so simple, yet they become so incredibly meaningful just because they spark off some long-lost memory that you didn’t even know you had. An Iraqi lamb and egg breakfast at Bait Al Baghdadi did that for me yesterday.
The eggs had been scrambled with salty minced lamb and chopped tomatoes, with the usual serving of fresh vegetables and pickled torshi on the side. I’m well aware that this is something you could easily whip up at home. But hear me out.
The meaty egg scramble was so delicate, it was almost like forking a tender tartare off of the plate. After every few bites of cottony scramble would dissipate in my mouth, I’d chew off an end of a raw spring onion or a peppery span of fresh rocket leaf, the pungency somewhat of a natural mouth cleanser, that would make the next bite of soft lamb and eggs taste new again, like the first bite—always the most alert and expectant bite—all over again.
At its core, the breakfast was nothing more than a muddy mess of eggs, lamb and tomatoes strung together with the faintest trace of oil, maybe a few specks of black pepper rising up from the warm toned hash below. But the saltiness and deep meatiness of the lamb pushed the dish over from something I was merely shovelling down my throat, into something that transported me back to eating breakfast in a village, in the middle of winter. It was such a specific sensory memory, I could almost feel the cold air prick the tip of the nose even though there was nothing but grey Dubai heat steps outside the restaurant entrance. Yet the memory was vague in location. Did the flavours remind me of my mother’s Shiite hometown in India, where food was distributed to everyone in the gated religious town by the religious community chefs, where the smell of oil and meat always lurked about in the morning air, ready to be tugged at and thrown into a hot industrial-sized frying pan? Or did it remind me of the ear-numbing cold that I had experienced as a child when visiting Karbala, a place of which I have no memories, except the biting winds that may or may not have whooshed the smells of a comforting meat and eggs scramble from an Iraqi home nearby, sealing them into my frozen constricted lungs, only to be thawed twenty years later? I don’t know, I couldn’t quite place what was making me so sentimental. But something about the rustic simplicity of the dish whisked me back in time, to a time my senses had still kept preciously bookmarked, but that my mind had shut away and replaced with revised volumes of adulthood.
I don’t know if the dish would move you the way it transported me. It may not. It may just be an ordinary egg and lamb mash that you’d want to smash in my face for creating such a big brouhaha about. But here's a dirty little secret about my blog: my opinions on this blog are as objective as are the childhood experiences, the homely meals, the family vacations, and decades of personal experience I wear as thick-rimmed spectacles over my taste buds.
One of the things most of us can’t do at home is the fresh baked bread peeled off the sides of their vertical tanoor. If a matron ran an iron over the moon, this is probably what it would look like, chewy in places, crispy in others, imprisoning victim air bubbles in certain poofy spots across its irregular hand tossed surface. That, together with cups of black Persian tea poured out of a grandmother teapot that must have blessed many a generation of tea cup in the restaurant, threw me astride a donkey that was plodding miles away from Dubai. I was no longer in a concrete cosmopolitan city, not checking my email with the bittersweet dread of a cyber schizophrenic who loves receiving email but hates responding to them, not screeching my head off about that nincompoop who nearly rammed into me without showing his blasted indicator lights, but far away, in some nameless rural village where it was cold and nippy and a plump motherly figure, who looked quite different from the mild-mannered wiry server who recommended the breakfast to me, slid a homey plate of lamb and egg hash in front of me.
It’s ironic that when I googled Iraqi breakfasts after my meal, I hit upon two kinds of results, one of which that spoke of breakfast in Iraq as a luxury. That’s not shocking. In a country that’s been torn up into shreds over waves of brutal cross-border and internal sectarian violence, you’d be far more worried about whether your neighbourhood is going to be bombed into a ground zero paste than whether you can get your morning eggs and lamb smeared out in the perfect little pâte that I ate yesterday. The second set of results was arguably even more morose, with references to the Iraqi conflict during BBC’s Breakfast Show. By the time I found a few ‘relevant’ results dealing with real Iraqi breakfasts, the whole search felt stupidly indulgent and irrelevant.
One thing is for sure, that you can’t take even simple things like lamb and eggs, fresh baked bread, pretty Barbie-shaped glasses of orange-black tea for granted. Personally, and admittedly very selfishly, I’m just glad that Dubai is—whether consciously or not—preserving culinary traditions of ancient cities in the Middle East, to whatever mutated extent a cosmopolitan city importing culture can preserve.
(I've explored Iraqi masqouf at Bait Al Baghdadi earlier. If you're into 2kg fishy giants, sink your hook into this.)
Al Bait Al Baghdadi Restaurant
On Al Muteena Street, Deira, Dubai
Phone: +971 (4) 273-7064
[They also have a branch in Sharjah, near Al Majaz Park. Phone: +971 (6) 559-8844]