Abu Shahad digs his fingers into a flame-grilled carp, stuffs them into his mouth and relishes a taste of what is perhaps Iraq’s most beloved dish: masgoof.
Thanks to a drop in the once-rampant levels of violence across the nation ravaged by years of war, sales of the national meal are soaring.
Seated with four of his friends and dressed in an immaculate dishdasha, the traditional Arab full-length male gown, Abu Shahad enthuses about his dinner.
“This fish is part of Baghdad’s heritage, part of the heritage of the south, the west of Iraq,” he says.
While violence is still high, it has declined to levels that make it increasingly possible for Abu Shahad and others to visit cafes and restaurants.
“When we come here, we feel relaxed,” he said.
As a result, the fishing industry and restaurants serving the cut-open carp, best eaten in groups, are seeing a boom.
“During the sectarian tensions, we would hardly sell 10 fishes a day,” said Hashim Murshid, the owner of the Khadra restaurant in the north Baghdad neighbourhood of Adhamiyah, where Abu Shahad and his friends were eating.
“But now, we serve around 100 fishes a day,” he said.
More and more Iraqis are venturing out to restaurants like his, on the banks of the Tigris river snaking through Baghdad, where the smell of cooked fish mixes with that of the flavoured water pipes customers puff as they eat their meals.
A gathering like Abu Shahad’s would have been inconceivable between 2006 to 2008, when the worst of Iraq’s communal bloodshed claimed tens of thousands of lives and Iraqis would only leave their homes after dark for essential work.
But the situation has changed.
Abu Shahad said that evening’s meal was in honour of a friend who had been sick.
“He recovered, so we forced him to invite us to eat masgoof,” Abu Shahad said as the restaurant sank into darkness, victim to one of the Iraqi capital’s frequent power cuts.
When customers arrive at Khadra, they select their carp from a restaurant pond. The fish is killed with a sharp blow to the head, cut in half, and then seasoned with a combination of onions, spices, and tomato sauce.
It is then set on a rack and grilled in front of an ember-filled pit.
Khadra customers are charged around 40,000 dinars ($33, 27 euros) for each masgoof, expensive by the standards of Iraqi restaurants, meaning many choose instead to buy the fish at markets and cook it at home.
Umm Ahmed is one of those. At the fish market in Shawka, in the heart of Baghdad, she selects carp.
“I cook masgoof in the memory of my son and my husband,” she said with a sad smile. “They were killed in an attack three years ago, during Friday prayers.”
Umm Ahmed was cooking for her family and friends, noting that she frequented the Shawka market because the fish is cheaper.
Harith Faraj, who runs a market stall selling fish, agreed, pointing out that fish costs less in Iraq than meat.
“A kilo costs 6,500 dinars ($5),” he said, as he swatted away flies clustered on a carp. “Today, carp is within reach of everyone. A few years ago, it cost much more.”
Prices at markets have fallen as fish farms have developed, partly to counter the effects of dwindling flows along Iraq’s two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Levels have fallen after Turkey constructed dams upstream, and also because of the draining of marshes by former leader Saddam Hussein.
The Euphrates Fish Farm is located near the ruins of Babylon, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad. Its owner Khudayr Abbas al-Imarah trumpets the facility as the biggest fish farm in the Middle East.
The farm produced around 1,250 tonnes of common carp, grass carp and silver carp in 2011, up from 800 tonnes during the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 which, Imarah said, is what “put masgoof back on the tables of Iraqi families.”
With help from USAID, the US government’s development agency, which invested an unspecified amount in the farm, and a decline in violence, Imarah has seen rising sales.
But during the worst of Iraq’s violence, “we spent a lot of money on security,” Imarah recalled.
“It meant we had less money for investment. On the roads, our trucks were exposed to terrorism, but the situation began to stabilise in 2008.”
The farm now sells to fish markets, and directly to customers — carp swim in three ponds, waiting to be selected by individual clients.
Ahmed and his young son were at the Euphrates Fish Farm’s store, looking for one such carp.
“We have this tradition, every Wednesday, we cook masgoof,” Ahmed said.
“Thank God, Iraq is better now … We are serving masgoof for 12 guests tonight.”