One of the most popular ways for preparing fish in Baghdad is by grilling it as masgouf, a method which in all probability goes back to ancient Mesopotamia. In some ancient Sumerian texts, fish was described as being ‘touched by fire,’ and ‘placed upon the fire,’ which possibly means placed on the glowing coals. Masgouf, as we shall see, is cooked in two stages. First, it is touched or licked by fire, and then it is placed on the fire. In modern times, masgouf is, more often than not, a picnic treat, which requires a certain skill. In the summertime, particularly on moonlit nights, picnickers make huge campfires along the banks of the Tigris, or on the many small islands, known as jazra. These small islands spring into existence when the water level of the Tigris drops. Masgouf can also be ordered at the open-air restaurants along the river Tigris. In the summer, the sight and the taste of masgouf has never failed to fascinate foreign visitors to the area. In the amusing memoirs of American twin sisters, who visited Iraq in the late 1930s, masgouf was given exceptional significance. ‘No wonder,’ they said, ‘this part of the world had become the cradle of civilization when its inhabitants could think up a dish like this.’ The twins then go on to describe how they ate it:
We rolled up our sleeves, and with our fingers we slid the tender meat off the backbone of the fish and scooped it up. It was a dish worthy of an Escoffier. Everyone had a lot of fun except the [British] ambassador. He, too, sat on the ground, but he was wearing a hat and balancing a plate of fish on his knees drawn up in front of him. He ate with a fish knife and fork. Suddenly we looked around and saw that we were the only ones who were eating the masgouf in the proper fashion, or the improper fashion, depending on which way you looked at it. We wondered if a hot dog would also be honored with knife and fork under these circumstances. We were afraid we would never achieve that admirable ability of the British to translate into their own terms everything that came their way. (Heffman and Heffman)
Another American guest, visiting the region in the late 1960s, describes masgouf as prepared at one of the casinos (outdoor cafes) on Abu-Nuwas Street, a promenade along the river Tigris:
The best food in Baghdad is masgouf, fish barbecued beside the Tigris and eaten outdoors along the riverside… With our host and hostess we looked into several fish stalls and chose a live shabout (a popular kind of fish)…
It was split and cleaned, seasoned with rock salt and paprika, and placed beside the fire with nine or ten others, all impaled on sticks arranged in a circle around the crackling twigs. The cook used a long stick to push the burning wood toward one fish or another as the breeze shifted the flames.
It takes an hour for the fish to cook… At last the shabout was brought on a large, oval plate, garnished with tomato slices and wedges of raw onion and accompanied by several loaves of Arab bread. ‘You must eat the fish with your hands,’ said our hostess, ‘so you can feel the bones.’ But I remembered a better explanation of the custom: ‘Eating with knife and fork is like making love through an interpreter.’ We all tore off pieces of bread, searched out succulent morsels of shabout and ate, alternating mouthfuls of fish with bites of tomato or onion. (Nickles)
Well, they have left very little for me to say, except that I should admit that they are justified in all the fuss they made about eating the fish with the fingers. The region’s fresh fish has a lot of tiny bones, as sharp as pins, which can only be felt with the fingers.
It is to be regretted that nowadays fish is not as readily available or even affordable as it used to be in the good old days. Unfortunately, too much use and abuse have drained the two rivers of such a nutritious natural resource, and a dish like masgouf may well be beyond the means of many pockets.