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Linda Dangoor on Bodies of Food and Clay

Linda’s approach to food is intuitive and sensitive, much like how she works with clay to create liquid ceramic landscapes. Over the phone, Linda leads us through her approach to art by narrating the smoky, fish-scented Tigris River, the sweet-sour tamarind essential in Iraqi stews and saffron water’s golden hue and metallic edge. Her artistry spans from cooking to ceramics, mastering painting and poetry along the way, and is layered with histories, emotions, and sensibility.

For me, food is more than just nourishment and recipes, it is also a language and an identity. 

Linda Dangoor, Artist and Food Writer

To explore the robust, aromatic nature of Iraqi cooking, Linda gathered family recipes along with some creations of her own in her latest cookbook, The Flavours of Babylon.

The River Tigris, Baghdad “We lived in a great big house on the bank of the Tigris River and we all slept on the roof with distances between the families. These aromas used to waft up every night.”

How has the lock-down treated you, Linda?

Apart from the fact that there was fear in the air and people dying, which is very troubling, we loved the lock-down. There was no noise outside, a bit like the first day of Christmas where nothing happens, the city was asleep. It really focussed me. 

I am quite sad to go out now and see how congested things are and the breathing the air is not the same. When one goes for a walk now and sees another human being you think of them as wild tigers that you must avoid! Oh! A person! You think, and cross the road.

What is it like cooking for yourselves and not for groups of people?

I cook for me and my husband. My husband is my guinea pig. I love cooking for people but I get the same enjoyment cooking for one or for ten.  The more I cook for somebody else the nicer it is.

I’ve never been a very instinctive baker and I’ve started baking bread. It’s been so wonderful, I bake three loaves a week and give them to family and friends. that was my pleasure, my contact. This has been like cooking for other people. 

Does bread hold particular importance to you?

The symbolism of bread is awesome for me. If I find a piece of bread on the pavement or the floor,  I pick it up and kiss it. We were brought up to kiss it and put it up on a higher level than the floor because bread is sacred. Bread is the symbol of all foods, and food is sacred. We never asked our parents why, we just did it.

There isn’t this love of natures’ bounty anymore.

Do you think plastic packaging has warped our relationship with food?

Let’s say you go to a supermarket and everyone is in a hurry, you can understand that because people work hard and have little time spared for pleasure. When they chuck food into their trolley it hurts my sensibility. 

People are divorced from food. If see a video of a cow or sheep being slaughtered you won’t want to buy meat.  But we are divorced from the cruelty and we buy it. When it comes to vegetables or fruits, one doesn’t even know if the vegetables come from the earth underneath or from a tree above. In fact in Judaism, although I’m no expert, there are particular prayers for food that comes from the trees above the earth and food that comes from the earth from below ground. 

So the plastic does separate.  Yes, definitely. It doesn’t allow for a relationship with the actual ingredient. I find that a real pity and it goes back to this sacredness of bread. 

Is it important where your produce comes from?

Yes, but sometimes it’s impossible to be a purist. My father used to work in Ibiza in the 70’s and 80’s where everything was local because it is an island. When you have that kind of quality seasonal food then supermarket food doesn’t taste the same. You can taste the difference. 

But I do buy organic. I try to buy from certain farmers markets but I go, like everyone else, to the supermarket and just try to get the best because if you get good ingredients you don’t need to do very much. The ingredients speak for themselves and you try not to transform them too much, try not to smother them in all sorts of other flavours.

A gaffa boat along the Tigris

What does masgouf remind you of? 

Masgouf is a famous Iraqi fish dish. You can’t replicate it because we used a certain fish from the Tigris river called shabout, which is like a carp but not a carp. It was barbecued, masgouf means barbecued, on sticks next to the fire and all the herbs on the fire are impregnated into the smokiness of the fish. We used tamarind and a bit of curry powder to season the fish. 

In the summer, all Iraqis at that time used to sleep on the flat roof for six months. We lived with my grandparents, aunts, cousins, uncles in a great big house on the bank of the Tigris River and we all slept on the roof with distances between the families. These masgouf aromas used to waft up every night, I remember distinctly. It was the most fabulous way of sleeping because you just looked and you saw the blue blackness of the sky covered with stars. 

Watch Linda’s video demonstration to find out how to make masgouf. Since the start of lock-down, Linda has done multiple demonstrations over the UK loc-down, one of which was for a soup-kitchen charity in Israel.

How do you cook your rice? 

All rice dishes come with that crispy bottom. I cook my rice for an hour to get a deliciously brown crispy bottom. You need a special, non-stick pot, which we didn’t have in Baghdad. Instead, I remember a special flat perforated spoon, which was given to every bride, and would be used like a shovel to unstick the crispy toasted rice at the bottom of the pot. I remember the sound of it tak tak tak tak, it was so loud as you got it all out. 

Talk to me about saffron

You can take a few strands out of that jewellery box and put it in the warm water. After a while you’ll get this lovely golden colour in the water and this you can put over your rice and cook it. I use turmeric much more. It has a different taste, much earthier while the saffron has a specific, metallic taste. 

Those small strands inside the flower you get in Thailand, that is the saffron strands so they are picked by hand.

(The saffron flower, called autumn or saffron crocus, is part of the Iris family). 

And what about tamarind?

Tamarind comes from the Arabic word tamuru, which means date, and hind, which means India. For a long time the Arabs who traded with India called it “the Indian date” so it was dubbed tamarind in the west but in Arabic it’s tamuru-hind.

We go to India once a year and I buy heaps of sticky tamarind. I boil them in water and put them in a cloth and start milking their juice out. It’s quite hard work but in the end when you have your own tamarind juice it’s worth it.

It’s a bit like pomegranate molasses. We often add rosewater to Iraqi cooking. Rosewater and cardamom! They are like a match made in heaven, or  cardamom and orange blossom water for the people who don’t like rose water.

What does rosewater smell like to you?

My grandmother used to use it as a perfume so rosewater not only evokes a dish for me but makes me think of my grandmother, and grandmothers in general. They all smelled of rosewater. Whenever I smell it it takes me back. With rosewater I make a rice milk and rice or corn flour dessert called mahallabi.

Another one is malfouf, which means rolled, which I make with ground almonds, some sugar and rosewater. I stuff the phyllo pastry with the almond mixture, roll it into a sausage and crinkle it by squashing the sides.  It has a layered look a bit like my pottery really.

Mahallabi with rosewater and pistachio

In Iraq you lived with your uncles, aunts, and grandparents. Do people live like this in the UK?

You can’t do it here, in part because the houses or the flats are too small and expensive, and in part because there is not a tradition of looking after one’s elders. Here, when you’re twenty-one you are expected to leave the home. The tradition in the west is to become an individual and not part of a group. The culture is to leave, to cut the umbilical cord and go out on your own. 

Each has its advantages and disadvantages. To live in a tribal way gives you security… but it’s also oppressive for the individual not to flower and blossom in their unique way. When you are out on your own you have to make your own form of security. You have to make your own roots. It’s a lonelier life because you’re on your own really. 

Extended identity can become a little bit too heavy because you want to move away from it but at the same time you love it; it’s this attachment to something that is comforting. It can make you go crazy. 

Lindas grand parents together with her great grandparents

When we came to this country, I was just a bit older that twelve and they were Iraqi families here who had emigrated before us. There was a small community of Iraqis. When I was growing up in London I wanted to be like all the girls in my school but I couldn’t really… There is this dichotomy of wanting to be like all your friends but then your social group or family group is so completely different.

You couldn’t really become like the others because you are what you have experienced. And I had different issues. The girls were so carefree but I went through a revolution… an upheaval… we had to leave all our stuff behind: our schools, our house, our communities.

When we used to chat over a coffee or a meal, my lovely friends would talk about boyfriends and their various break-ups, then they would ask me, “What are you sad about, Linda?” and I would find myself answering, really surprisingly, “I am sad about being an orphan because my country has rejected me and exiled me.”

It’s not just what you went through that changes you but how you view it… how you handle it.

How are cooking and ceramics akin?

The idea comes from the material and then slowly, slowly I let the shape speak to me and work to see what comes.

Clay has its own character and it won’t let you do what it does not want to do. You can coax it though… coax it to do what you want. I find it’s the same with cooking because I’m using my hands. I use my hands a lot: chopping and folding. One reminds me of the other. 

I find that touching clay is almost like touching a body.  Touching this body that is a million years older than me, you and my family. It’s a repository of many histories and experiences. 

Clay is an ingredient that is so old and has so many experiences you know nothing about yet you’re making something with it. 

We humans are layered by our emotions and our experiences in the same way a tree is layered. When you cut open a trunk those rings tell you different things, its age, similarly with a landscape. A cross section of a landscape tells you so many different things. Layers of time and things happening and you can read so much into it. 

We’re all layered beings and I sometimes look at my work and see it as that kind of layering of experiences. 

Has the geography of Iraq changed the region’s food? 

Baghdad lies in what used to be Babylon, the centre of Mesopotamia’s fertile crescent, which was under the Persian Empire’s reign for a long time. Then more recently, it was under the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years and only got its independence in 1917. These histories have distinctly influenced Iraqi cuisine.

Around 1200 there were cookery books written about the food of that region … Surprisingly it is more or less exactly what we eat today in Iraq. Not much has changed.

In many things, even in language, we see some Turkish and some Persian influences seeping into the Arabi. The Ottoman empire selected food from their wide dominion and improved upon them, creating this fusion from the best of each country.

Unless you are an island and very isolated, it’s very difficult to have a particular cuisine that has not been influenced by neighbouring countries and the trade they went through. 

Kichri in Linda’s style

Thank you for talking with us, Linda. We look forward to your painting exhibition next year and to sifting through your recipe book, Flavours of Babylon. 

Find out more about Linda’s book, Flavours of Babylon, here: https://www.lindadangoor.com/cookbook/

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