My scoop on Masgouf: Asmak al-Basha's 'radiant Iraqi delight'
As a recent convert to the hedonistic cult of pescatarians (I eat fish, not meat), my mission for this review was to find the best Middle Eastern grilled fish in town. It seemed only natural to opt for Masgouf.
Masgouf, the national dish of Iraq, is a large, butterflied carp, roasted over the flames of fruit-tree wood before being plunged onto hot coals to cauterise and seal in the juices.
For many, Masgouf is the taste of Iraq's cultural heritage – a reminder of a childhood lived out by either the Tigris or Euphrates river.
So it was that I found myself at Asmak al-Basha, a new Iraqi fish restaurant set up in the heart of London's Iraqi community in Cricklewood.
A conscious decision was made before entering, that come what may I would sit through all manner of nonsense, as long as the grilled carp, representing Iraq's pride and glory, was excellent.
And you may rest easy, my patient readers, for the Masgouf at Asmak al-Basha was glorious. I will return to the juicy, sordid details presently, but please allow me to first whet your appetite through the traditional detailing of my surroundings.
Walking through the door at 7.30pm on a Friday, it was immediately clear that I had arrived too early for service. The kitchen was open, but the lights and music weren't on and the restaurant itself was empty.
I have previously wanted to throw bad hummus at the wall and although the hummus served at Asmak al-Basha wasn't bad, it was however grainy and slightly dry – not the best start, it must be said.
|Hummus (back left), Baba Ghanoush (right), Jajeek (front left) and Tabouleh (front right)|
|For many, Masgouf is the taste of Iraq's cultural heritage – a reminder of a childhood lived out by either the Tigris or Euphrates river|
I had the hummus packaged as takeaway and tried it again for breakfast the next day to remove any doubt of momentary petulance.
The experience ruined my day and I walked fifteen minutes in the driving rain to punish myself for its existence. The restaurant owner, Abu Hussein, must take note and commit violent acts of vengeance for what was served in his name.
The rest of the mezze were wonderful. The Baba Ghanoush was the right consistency, and it went perfectly with the oven-baked bread. The salads were balanced and the flavours matched up to my humble experience of good home-cooking.
Throughout all of the experience however was the subtle scream of a fan motor that needed changing. There was a faint, yet distinguishable high-pitched noise that came from somewhere above us, and it was difficult to ignore between the wonderfully prepared courses.
The main course – the centrepiece at a banquet, if you will – was served very quickly and impressively.
The fish was splayed outwards, presenting its golden, sumptuous flesh on both sides. It must have only recently been plucked from the water because the eyes were crystal clear. Despite having only just finished a healthy amount of Baba Ghanoush with bread, my companion and I became immediately ravenous.
We dived in with forks to tear the big bones away and seize at the slightly less boney meat underneath with bread. At first we attempted with knives and forks, but attempts at Western table manners seemed ironically rude. In short, we were compelled to get involved by its resounding carnal lusciousness, so to speak.
|The full spread of our meal at Asmak al-Basha|
|The Iraqi state may have been destroyed by more than 25 years of American intervention, but as long as Masgouf is served like this, there will always be an Iraq to return to|
Masgouf is mentioned in Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's cookbook, Kitab Al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes) – one of the oldest Arabic cookbooks, dating from the tenth century.
"On a hot summer day, the cook brought us a dish of shabbut (carp)," said Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, half-brother of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid said.
"He brought it in looking like the sun, a radiant delight, redolent with aloe wood, musk, and amber."
And just as then, it was today. Our fish, redolent with scents of spices and burnt wood, radiated excellence and we were filled with bonhomie.
Masgouf itself is of course important because of the beloved childhood memories for many Iraqis – but it also represents the long and glorious history of this proud culture – one of the oldest in the world.
The Iraqi state may have been destroyed by more than 25 years of American intervention, but as long as Masgouf is served like this, there will always be an Iraq to return to.
I was honoured to have tried this excellent fish for my first experience and one I recommend to everyone.
Alcohol served: No