Restaurateur Abu Haytham Mikha has introduced masgouf, Iraq's national dish, to people beyond its Mesopotamian borders
AMMAN, Jordan – Along the bustling Wasfi al-Tal street stands Al-Mahar Fish Restaurant, a household name in the northwestern area of Amman, Jordan’s capital. Tucked behind green pillars, the restaurant’s large bay windows reveal about 30 dark wooden tables and coloured tapestry seats.
Inside the place is always swarming with visitors. It is 1pm and a group of customers are selecting fish for their meal. Usually the choice depends on the weight of the fish.
“Iraqis always select the biggest fish,” restaurateur Abu Haytham Mikha said. “There is one woman who often comes in, she never picks a fish that weighs less than three kilos. She even eats the skin. But she’s right, it’s the part that contains all the nutrients.”
In the kitchen, Mikha stands proudly in his grey suit next to a fish tank filled with about 50 carp.
“The water should be between 10 to 35 degrees. If it is less, the fish will fall into a coma, if it’s more, they will die,” Mikha warned.
Having established his restaurant in Amman in 2005, Mikha is now regarded by many of his customers as the king of masgouf – the staple and only item on Al-Mahar Fish Restaurant’s menu, often considered the national dish of Iraq.
Masgouf is a Mesopotamian cooking technique where a fleshy freshwater carp is roasted over a wood-fired oven.
Mikha runs a tight ship at Al-Mahar, managing a staff of 30 Jordanians, Egyptians and Iraqis.
“The Iraqis taught the others [the] masgouf secret recipe,” the owner explained. Iraqi cooks explained to their counterparts of other nationalities the significance of this fish in Iraq’s culinary culture before teaching them how to roast it over flames.
In the large kitchen, a one-kilo carp is taken out of the fish tank by one of the staff.
Tradition dictates that the fish are killed by the customer with a quick blow to the head using a wooden mallet. The fish is then gutted, and its skin laced with salt, it is mounted on an iron spike, ready to be roasted.
If the carp is carrying eggs, they are removed and then fried with tomatoes and onions, to be served as a side dish.
An employee at the restaurant shows off a bottle containing a sauce dubbed “Abu Haytham’s magic mix”. It is a special sauce made of sumac, vinegar and tomato paste that is generously spread on the entrails of the fish.
The fish is then laid between two metal grates and immersed in the wood-fired oven. “Once the wood burns, eucalyptus oil spreads with the smoke and gives a sweet taste to the fish,” said Mikha, while supervising his employees’ work.
After 30 minutes of cooking, the masgouf is ready to be served with pickles, lemon, olives, mango chutney with amba (a tangy mango pickle condiment popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine made of mangoes, vinegar, salt, mustard, turmeric, chilli and fenugreek) and tannour bread (dough shaped by hand and then placed on the sides of a hot cylindrical oven made from clay or mud), which is freshly baked in the kitchen.
“This is absolutely delicious. The taste of the fish blends perfectly with the acidity of the pickles and the sweetness of the sauce,” says Saleh Buhmiza, a 35-year-old customer. Next to him, another customer, Mubarak Allah, carefully removes the bones before squeezing the lemon on his plate.
The two men are from Dubai and the restaurant came highly recommended by a friend to try “the best masgouf restaurant” in Amman. “As we cannot go to Iraq, we take the opportunity to taste their culinary specialities here,” said Alah.
“Mikha used to cook the best carp in Iraq, now he cooks the best in Jordan,” said Kasim Haddad, an Iraqi regular who is currently visiting Jordan.
A Christian Iraqi national, Mikha fled Baghdad after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. “The Americans brought anxiety to Iraq. As Christians, we were persecuted. It was tough for the minorities,” he recalled.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 made room for a militant insurgency, namely by the al-Qaeda group, and then later the Islamic State group (IS). The growing sectarian violence drove hundreds of thousands of Christians into exile, leaving an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 remaining in a country that originally housed 1.4 million Christians.
Mikha arrived in Jordan in 2004 with only one goal in mind: to open a masgouf restaurant in Amman. “With so many Iraqis taking refuge in Jordan, I thought they would need their masgouf,” he said. “It was the only thing I could do here.”
Iraqis constitute the second-largest refugee population after Syrians, with more than 63,000 Iraqis living in Jordan.
“To obtain a residence permit in the Hashemite kingdom, exiled Iraqis only had three options: either deposit money in the bank ($20,000 for a family), or own an apartment in the country, or start a business,” said Zachary Sheldon, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago, who is conducting research into Iraqi residents of Amman.
No one could have predicted that Mikha would become a masgouf master. Born in Mosul in 1945, he began his career as a high-school physics teacher in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, in 1968. To supplement his income, he also worked as a hotel manager.
In 1984, friends of his proposed that he work with them in the fish business. At that time, many fish farms were created to compensate for the drying up of Mesopotamian marshesunder Saddam Hussein. Mikha agreed to focus on fish farming with his friends and gave up his other jobs.
In the beginning, fish farming was met with some resistance from Iraqis who argued that fish used to cook masgouf had to come directly from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow through Iraq. But towards the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the draining of Iraq’s southern marshes and the damming of the country’s rivers led to a dramatic decline in fish caught off Iraq’s coast, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
In 1984, Iraq’s annual common carp production through aquaculture was 4,476 tonnes, whereas in 2016, production was nearly 29,000 tonnes, according to the latest figures by the FAO.
In Jordan, Mikha also depends on a fish farm located in the Jordan Valley to supply his restaurant with fish. According to Jordan’s department of statistics, fish farms in Jordan produced 1225.4 tonnes of fish in 2017 up from 1118.9 tonnes in 2016, recording a 9.5 percent increase.
A rare delicacy
While working on fish farms, Mikha’s interest in Iraqi fish dishes was piqued. At that time in Iraq, carp were usually cooked on food stalls in front of casinos and bars to attract customers.
“Those fortunate enough to enjoy a twilight stroll along the outdoor restaurants lining the banks of the Tigris river will be tempted by the many eateries serving this fish dish,” wrote the Iraqi chef Raghad al-Safi in her book The Iraqi Table.
But according to Mikha, this technique was problematic. “Carp took too long to cook, attracted pollution from the streets and were not roasted evenly,” he said.
To tackle this issue, Mikha opened his first restaurant in Baghdad in 1985, which was also named Al-Mahar Fish Restaurant. As a physics professor, he decided to use thermo-physics to create the perfect oven for roasting masgouf: a hole in an inclined plane designed to accommodate the grates containing the carp, a space to burn the wood, and an air inlet to continuously supply the fire with oxygen. A large tank, which is placed on a wood fire, has been designed to accommodate metal grates that hold the carp in place while being cooked. To give the fish a unique taste, some of the smoke is released into the tank through a small hole.
Mikha claims that his oven cooks fish evenly in only 30 minutes. “My friends used to say that people haven’t really been to Baghdad if they haven’t tried my fish,” he said, smiling.
In 2004, Mikha sold his Baghdad restaurant to a former employee and fled to Jordan.
Today at his Amman restaurant, on a daily basis he sells between 500 and 1,000 kilos of fish, at nine Jordanian dinars ($12.69) per kilo.
In the beginning, the restaurant attracted mostly Iraqi customers, but now it welcomes many Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Saudis and Emiratis.
“Once they’ve tried it, they can’t live without it. In a way, I have instilled the masgouf tradition into their culinary culture,” he boasted.