I had the joy & privilege of speaking with Ahmed Chaloob, our first Iraqi CR, and a native and Graduate Teaching Assistant at Mississippi State University (MSU.)  Ahmed is a graduate of University of Bagdad, University of Baghdad / College of Agriculture / Dept. of Food science. He arrived in the US 3 years ago first adjusting to American life  Arkansas Food Science Department, then Texas Tech in hospitality and nutrition finally arriving where Mississippi which offered him the best opportunity to study his passion, receptor genes.

It’s hard not to ignore the political issues which have been amplified to the world when speaking with Ahmed about Iraqi food, diet and overall health. Just in case you didn’t know, in 1990 Iraq was led by Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait, & t set off the Gulf War. Fifteen member countries of the United Nations Security Council agreed to stop trading with Iraq. Their hope was if they stopped trading with Iraq, Saddam Hussein would feel pressure to cooperate with the other countries of the world. Because of the sanctions, no food was allowed to be imported into Iraq. The consequence was lack of food, especially to children leaving about 15 % of the population classified as undernourished by the World Bank. Of children under the age of five, about 12 % are underweight, and more than 22 % are stunted.

After his studies are complete in 4 years, Ahmed hopes to go back and give back to his country. While it seems like a daunting task, he plans to bring his education, expertise & enthusiasm to help improve the nutrition status and health in the country despite the compounded malnutrition & chronic disease issues. He is most compassionate about helping pregnant women and children. His research interest while here in the US is inulin and impact of chronic disease—hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. Jerusalem Artichokes, widely available in Iraq and good source of inulin can be incorporated in daily diets to manage some of these epidemic challenges.

How many Dietitians are in Iraq?

There are actually no dietitians nor dietetics programs in Iraq despite the need for nutritious diet guidance for chronic disease prevention and management, reproduction and growth.

What are the major nutrition issues impacting your country?

The sad truth is many do not care about nutrition as more than 3 million have no food to eat. Because of extreme hardship, lack of employment & money people are relying on tomatoes and potatoes for their daily diet. Often the children have no clothes, no education; while those with chronic disease have no access to medications.

Food safety, water safety, lack of electricity also impact food quantity, quality, and preparation. While the rich will always sustain ample meat, eggs, dairy—traditional protein rich foods and a varied diet. The military who are working hard to fight ISIS are also assured of a varied nutritious diet.

Does Religion impact dietary habits?

The majority of Iraqis are Muslim, about 96 %. Of those, 64 % are Shia, 32 % are Sunni, and 4 % other religions. The difference between the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims is a conflicting belief in authority dating back to the early history of the religion. The two groups, however, share the same Muslim beliefs and religious holidays. Honestly, there are no effect on dietary habits between all religions in Iraq.

Do people exercise in Iraq? What type of activities are most popular?

In fact, there are several sports in Iraq, but the most common one is football/soccer as well as bodybuilding. Most people exercise to spend free time rather than targeting specific goals. Work, family, friends and shopping are the activities occupying most Iraqi’s time.

Can you describe Iraqi cuisine, favorite foods, and recipes?

Iraqi food is one of the only Mideast countries without a unique cuisine but is rather influenced by neighboring countries Turkey & Greece. Iraqis like to stuff vegetables and eat a lot of lamb, rice, and yogurt. Like Iranians, they enjoy cooking fruits with beef and poultry. Steak and lamb Kabobs are popular, served with brown rice, flat bread called Taboon bread or Laffa bread and sweets are the most common foods.

Mealtime Customs

Known for their hospitality, Iraq’s enjoy mealtime with friends and family. Guests are encouraged to try all dishes, in fact overeating is one way show their appreciation to hosts.

Mealtimes start with an appetizer called “mezze” like kebabs. Soup served after is typically drunk from the bowl. Main courses at lunch & dinner are simple, meat or lamb with rice, salad & khubaz , a flat wheat bread served buttered with fruit jelly. Quizi (stuffed lamb), kibbe (minced meat nuts raisins and spices) & kibbe batata (potato beef casserole are also popular. Desserts are a must as pastries like baklava, candied lemon, grapefruit or orange peels are typically kept on hand. Concluding meals, Iraqis say, “sahtayn,” to one another meaning “two healths to you.”

Ahmed’s favorite and most missed Iraqi dishes include: Masgouf, Dolma, and Iraqi Biryani.

Further Reading: