Every country has street meat.
I remember giving a 12 or 13-year old Iraqi boy a $5 bill for falafel (ok, it’s not meat, but hey- it’s amazing), which he would run to us as fast as he could. Down the street to the falafel stand, back to us, then back to the stand with more bills. The falafel was fantastic, nestled with lettuce, tomato and sumac in distinctive diamond teardrop shaped pita bread. I heard a rumor once that this falafel stand in Hwar Rajab was then-Iraq commander General Petraus’s favorite in all of Iraq.
Our interpreter Ricky was surprised I knew what sumac was. He had tried explaining the spice to another American, who thought it was the American poison sumac and that the Iraqis were trying to poison him. Iraqi sumac is different. It’s a ground red berry, gritty and lemony. I was delighted to find a jar in a Indian market.
Sumac is an essential ingredient in another quintessential Iraqi street food: kufta kebab. Most Iraqis just call it kebab, which confuses Americans who expect chunks of meat or vegetables (Americans can be lax about naming street food). In Iraq, a ground meat sausage on a stick is kebab, chunks of meat on a stick is tikki, and shaved, roasted ground meat is shawarma. Kebab is my favorite- it’s ground fatty lamb, seasoned to perfection and grilled until the fat melts and drips out, leaving behind a lace of meat and spice.
I deconstructed kebab while in Iraq, badgering Ricky to get more details about the recipe. I’ve made it a few times here, where it’s hard to get fatty lamb. I usually use a mix of fatty hamburger and lamb to get the texture close to right. The original recipe didn’t have garlic in it, but garlic and lamb seem like such a good fit.