Sunday, May 31, 2015


The weather has finally become warm, and we’ve had some of our first spring storms. The kids are wrapping up the school year and squeezing in their final field trips. I think they had a pretty good year. My daughter received second place among 3rd Graders in a district-wide math contest a few weeks ago, and I’m so happy that my son has made huge strides from the beginning of Kindergarten to now. Now, I just have to figure out something to do with them for nearly six weeks during their summer break. I’m thinking of teaching them Japanese lessons and piano lessons, which means I only have a week to come up with some kind of “lesson plans.” Good thing the library and the parks department also have a ton of free things to do this summer.

It looks good; it smells good...

But in order to mark the end of my daily peace and quiet, I’m going to celebrate with some Irish food. The first thing I’m making today is Irish white soda bread. (There’s also a brown soda bread variety made with wheat flour.) It’s a bread of few ingredients. I started by mixing 4 c of all purpose flour, 1 tsp of baking soda (except that I used baking powder because my husband put the baking soda on top of the fridge where I couldn’t possibly see it or know that it was up there so I thought we were out), and 1 tsp of salt in a large bowl. Then I slowly added in 16 oz of buttermilk and stirred until it became a sticky dough, adding a little flour to stop it from being too sticky. I only kneaded this lightly because too much kneading would allow the gasses to escape. Then I shaped it into a round shape and put it in my springform cake pan (the one that I don’t trust to make a cake anymore) and cut a cross in the top of it. Before I put it in my 425º oven, I covered it with a large glass lid (to simulate what’s called a bastible pot) and baked it for 30 minutes. Then I removed the lid and let it continue baking for another 18 minutes. It looked browned on top, and the bottom sounded hollow, but when I cut it open, it looked like it needed another 5-8 minutes. Regardless, the parts that were done tasted really good. Not to mention that the edge of the pan burnt the most inconvenient part of the underside of my forearm when I was trying to get the bread out. So now I have to start my injury counter over. 

I love cabbage. Cabbage and potatoes remind me of my childhood. We'll try a different cut of meat next time, though.
The main dish for today is bacon and cabbage.  In the US around St. Patrick’s Day, many Irish-American families (and the Irish-for-a-day families) serve corned beef and cabbage.  But in Ireland, it’s with bacon. And from my massive amounts of research this week trying to figure this all out, there are several different types of bacon and many different terms for it. So, here’s what I gathered, and please correct me if I’m wrong: American bacon is thinner, comes in strips, is generally fattier, and is cut from the pork belly. American bacon is almost always cured and smoked and is often called “streaky bacon” in the UK and Ireland. Irish bacon is thicker, more like a thin cutlet, and is also called back bacon, coming from the loin in the middle of the back. In the US, this is called Canadian bacon. (My dad used to cook green beans in jowl bacon, which is smoked and cured cuts from the cheeks of the pig. It also tends to be fairly fatty but adds a good flavor.) Not to mention all the other cuts of pork (cured or uncured) where we get hocks, slab bacon, fatback, gammon, rashers, salt pork, and a number of other cuts. So, needless to say, I drove to several stores including a meat market, and I still could not find any kind of back bacon. So, I bought several packages of Canadian bacon and hope that it’s close enough for Hoyle. Since it’s precooked, I didn’t have to cook it for an hour and a half. I did, however, put my Canadian bacon in a pot and boil it for a several minutes. I could skip ahead to cutting up my cabbage into chunks and taking out the thick stalks. I put my cabbage in a pot and boiled it for about five minutes. Then I added in some of the water from the meat and cooked it until the cabbage was tender. After it was done, I drained it well and seasoned it with black pepper. Once my meat has been boiled for a few minutes, I sprinkled the slices with breadcrumbs and a little bit of brown sugar. If I were using actual back bacon, I would’ve put them in the oven to brown for a bit. Although the meat and the cabbage are supposed to be served side by side, I ate them together. I think I would’ve been better buying the jowl bacon, thick cut (American style) smoked bacon, or even salt pork instead of the Canadian bacon. This dish needed the fat, and there was none with the Canadian bacon. Next time, I may go that route. But otherwise, it was very good.

The best part of the meal. Clearly.
And finally, an Irish meal wouldn’t be complete without some potatoes, and for this, I chose colcannon. I peeled and cut up about seven russet potatoes and boiled them. While my potatoes were boiling, I cut my kale into smaller slices and cut out the stalks.  In a separate pot, I boiled my kale as well just until it has wilted and turned a darker shade of green. It didn’t take to long, a few minutes at the most. Once the kale was done, I drained it, then turned the heat back on to try to dry up some of the excess moisture. Then I added 1/3 of a stick of butter to the kale. When the potatoes were done, I drained them and heated them again to try to remove the excess moisture from the potatoes. Then I added in some heavy cream along with another 1/3 of a stick of butter and the chopped scallions. I put it back on low heat just to warm the milk and melt the butter. Then I mashed the potatoes, milk, and butter together, adding in the kale to the mix. Just before I served this, I added a little salt and made a well in the center to add the last 1/3 of a stick of butter in the middle to melt, stirring everything together. Lastly, I topped this off with freshly chopped chives. This clearly was everyone’s favorite. (Although it would’ve been better with a little bacon grease mixed in.) It was such the perfect comfort food. I will be sure to make this one again. 

Loved it all! I can't wait for leftovers tomorrow. Aw, it's too bad the kids'll be at school. 

This meal was really good. I enjoyed it even though it tried to prove how tough I am. Of course, there were things that I’d do differently next time (like wear welding sleeves when I cook), but these are definitely recipes that I would make again. The colcannon seems like the perfect Thanksgiving dish. Heck, both of them for that matter. I had pulled a recipe for Irish coffee, which consists of pouring a shot of Irish whiskey into coffee and pouring cream on top; however, I forgot to go back out and pick up some Irish whiskey. But now that I’m full from dinner, I could really go for some Irish coffee right now. After reading about Ireland, its people, and its poetry, I’ve come to realize how tough and resilient the Irish people are. And it makes me proud to have a bit of Irish in me somewhere in the mix.

Up next: Israel

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Irish music is fairly well known throughout the world and especially the English-speaking world. Vocal music has been an intricate part of the musical traditions of Ireland from the beginning. Harps were also very much a part of traditional Irish folk music. There were two different kinds you would see in folk music groups: a smaller harp and a larger one of about 30 strings. Other instruments include the bagpipes (often thought of as iconic in Scottish music), fiddles, a variety of flutes and tin whistles, a variety of other stringed instruments (mandolins, guitars, banjos, bouzoukis), harmonicas, accordions, and concertinas. The bodhrán drum is a type of frame drum that has been popularized in Irish music. 


There are several genres of traditional folk music, and one of them is dance music. The three main types of Irish dances are names that may sound familiar, especially to anyone who has studied music. Reels are typically in 4/4 time; hornpipes are also in 4/4 time but are characterized by swung eighth notes. Jigs are can either be single or double and are usually in 6/8 time, but sometimes different kinds of jigs can be written in 9/8 or 12/8 time as well. Melody is far more important in Irish music over harmony, which is generally kept fairly simple with common variations. Other dances originating in other countries were also fairly common in Ireland as well such as polkas, waltzes, mazurkas, and other dances. Irish stepdancing became familiar on a global scale, especially with the popularity of Irish-American Michael Flatley and Riverdance during the 1990s. 

Of course, Ireland produced a large number of classical music composers starting in the 16th century. Most of the names are largely unfamiliar outside of Ireland and perhaps the UK and outside of musicologists; however, many Irish composers were the teachers and inspirations for other more notable composers such as Handel and Chopin. 

There were so many Irish bands listed that it was really hard to narrow it down to just a handful of bands to add to my playlist.  There were many who I have already heard and loved, and there were a few who I didn’t realize were Irish (I went through this with Australia and Canada, too). And of course, I added a few new bands in the mix too. So, let’s start with my old favorites. Of course, number one is The Cranberries. The album No Need To Argue got me through high school along with Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?. In fact during the 1990s, music/CD stores used to sell the piano books to our favorite albums and singles, and I ran out and bought this when I realized it existed. I’m not sure if they still sell those or not. You probably have to order them online now. Of course, I searched around and found it and played a few songs from it. Good times. 

Of course, I went through a phase where I really liked U2. I still do like them and their [RED] campaign they were doing a few years ago along with the other socially conscious messages they have. I was probably one of the people who wasn’t exactly irately pissed off that iTunes delivered their new album to me for free, because, hey, free music. I definitely think they were better during the 1980s and 1990s, though. I watched this video years ago, and it made a deep impact. 

I also used to listen to The Corrs album In Blue quite a bit, but only because of one song: “Breathless.” This album has a very typical “1990s pop/rock sound” to it (which makes sense because that’s when it was made, duh). Sinead O’Conner is one singer I never got into, although I liked the song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” I think her shaved head scared me as a kid. 

And then there’s Enya. I don’t know too many people who didn’t have the album with the “Orinoco Flow” song on it, or were at least familiar with the song. It was used in commercials and whatnot. I did stumble across the choral group Anuna. I really enjoyed listening to this, but of course, I’m a little partial to choral music. And of course, I almost forgot about the Clannad CD that was super popular during the 1990s as well. I think my mom may have had a copy. It’s quite meditative.  

Let’s go even farther back: Thin Lizzy, famous for their song “The Boys are Back in Town,” are Irish. Van Morrison is also apparently Irish, known for the songs “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” (which is one of  my favorites). 

Now, I’ll squeeze in a little note about Irish-American bands. I’m including the band Flogging Molly (one of my favorite bands ever) because the lead singer Dave King was born in Ireland. They combine traditional Irish music with rock and a little punk. I absolutely love this band. They’re coming to Indianapolis to perform with Gogol Bordello this summer, and I’m sad that I won’t be able to go. Because THAT would be the perfect concert. Other bands, like the Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys, were created in areas of the US with a large Irish population (like Boston) and have used that influence in their music. There’s also a Celtic punk band called Pipes and Pints who are from the Czech Republic.

OK, now for a few bands who are fairly new to me. The Pogues utilize the fiddle, drums, flutes, and other traditional instruments and styles and modernized it. The lyrics, as far as I can tell, seem to be told in a story form. The Dubliners is an older band who performs in more or less traditional styles. You can definitely tell that the main part of the music is in the vocal line and the lyrics with the instruments clearly the accompaniment, often imitating the melody line. My high school world history teacher forced us to study the song "Dirty Old Town" and made us listen to it over and over again. 

For a little punk/rock, I found Stiff Little Fingers. They remind me a little of Rancid (who I absolutely love!). For a little bit harder of a rock sound, I found My Bloody Valentine. Because of the way their music is recorded, they remind me of the Danish band The Raveonettes with the constant noise/static in the background, but they are harder than The Raveonettes. I liked their sound. Axis Of’s music is also on the hard rock sound, but they will contrast their music with variations in rhythms, elements of blues, suddenly switching to acoustic for a few bars, and other style changes. I loved the band The Strypes. My husband and I discussed what genre of music it is, and the best we could come up with is that they took rockabilly and roadhouse blues and garage rock, sped it up, and merged it with rock. I loved the album Snapshot so much, I requested it from the library. I did manage to find an Irish metal band called Waylander that I liked a lot. Definitely in the category of folk metal, which is my favorite genre of metal now.

For a little quieter, more reflective sounding rock, I’d recommend Snow Patrol. The music of Two Door Cinema Club seems to borrow from a lot of styles and subtly merge it all together. At times it sounds kind of minimalist but then it’ll sound like a song that Franz Ferdinand passed over. I liked what I heard from them.

And finally, I learned that Hozier was Irish. I was so tired of the “Take Me To Church” song because people went nuts over it, and it became overplayed. My daughter is also not a fan of it but only because some girl she doesn’t care for sang it all the time. So, I unfairly judged him for this one song. But I did listen to most of the other songs on the album, and I really like his rock blues style. So, I stand corrected: you shouldn’t judge an album based on its radio-play single.

Up next: the food

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Irish and Celtic art are highly popular around the world. Early Irish art was mostly decorated gold disks, jewelry, and other goldsmith work. Designs were geometric in style. There were also many pieces of iron work created during these early years, but because of the harsh Irish winters, much of this work was destroyed throughout the centuries. After the Romans and subsequent Christianization of Ireland, a merging of cultures created what’s known as Insular art (or Hiberno-Saxon style art). Viking and Scandinavian art also had its influences on Irish art as well. Probably the most famous work from this era is the Book of Kells. This book is contains the four Gospels of the New Testaments with highly elaborate illustrations. It’s a masterpiece of calligraphy and is considered one of the finest pieces of Irish art. The Book of Kells is permanently housed at the Trinity College Library in Dublin.  


Celtic crosses and brooches also rose to fame during the Medieval periods. The high cross, usually made of stone, generally was used as a headstone. Some of these were elaborately carved with relief scenes and intricate Celtic motifs; others were much simpler. Although it actually had its origins from Roman art, the Celtic knot was used extensively in Insular art, mostly as a stylized interlace for borders and as endless knot designs. The triquetra, a type of trefoil knot, is also used extensively in Irish and Celtic artwork and many times combined with various other interlace designs. 

Irish painting really didn’t take off until the 1600s due to a number of social and political reasons. Generally Irish painters during this time left Ireland to study abroad in the art centers of Europe: England, France, Germany, Italy, and other areas. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, artists used their art for many means and opened up their skills to many genres and artistic movements: landscape, impressionism, social realism, political, abstract expressionism, public art, contemporary art, and portrait artists. There were also notable artists who excelled in stained glass art (something I’ve always wanted to delve into) as well as sculpture. 

Although a New Yorker, Martin Driscoll was fascinated with his family's Irish heritage and devotes his time to painting Ireland and its people. His realistic style of painting really brings out the essence of Irish life.

Much of his portfolio of work includes paintings of the Irish countryside and of the agricultural communities at work and play. I absolutely love his work. 

For a country that can be driven across lengthwise in about eight hours, this small country has made huge contributions to world literature. There are dozens of Irish writers who are canonized and their works are considered classics and required reading in many schools in the Anglosphere. I have read many Irish novels and poetry in my lifetime; some were required in school, most were read on my own. Irish literature is written primarily in English and Irish but also includes Latin (for older works) and Ulster Scots. The earliest writings were mythological stories, early historical documents, religious texts, folklore, and epic poetry. 

One of the first famous writers from Ireland was Jonathan Swift, famous for his A Modest Proposal. Bram Stoker was an Irish novelist, known for his novel Dracula. It didn’t do very well when he was alive, but after it was made into a movie starring Bela Lugosi, people took an interest in it, and it has never been out of print since. Incidentally, Dracula just celebrated its 118th anniversary of being published. One of Ireland’s most revered poets is William Butler Yeats. He was the first Irishman to be bestowed with the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had to read some of his poetry when I was in college. 

These early novelists and poets helped pave the way for 20th century writers to emerge and continue on. The modernist period began during the early 20th century. One of the most well known Irish modernist novelists is James Joyce. His novel Ulysses is often touted as one of the best ever yadda yadda yadda. I read this novel as an adult to see what the fuss was about. Yes, it was innovative at the time because of Joyce’s use of the stream of consciousness style. But it was hard to understand—punctuation is taught for a reason. He writes mostly in English, but will randomly have passages in French, German, Latin, and other languages. I think it’s highly overrated. I enjoyed Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man far more. (I’ve yet to read Finnegans Wake, so I can’t comment on it.). Samuel Beckett is also a famous author from Ireland. He also won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was included in a select group of authors known as the “Theatre of the Absurd.” He’s most widely known for Waiting for Godot and Endgame. C.S. Lewis, most famous for his The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, was Irish. Cecil Day-Lewis was a poet and father of actor and filmmaker Daniel Day-Lewis. 

Irish playwrights abounded as well. George Bernard Shaw wrote numerous plays, novels, and short stories. Shaw, also a Nobel Prize recipient, is most famous for his play Pygmalion. This play went on to be the basis of the musical My Fair Lady. He is also known for Major Barbara and Man and Superman. Oscar Wilde is another famous playwright and poet, most widely known for his plays Salome, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Importance of Being Earnest. There have been numerous other poets and novelists and playwrights who have made important contributions not only to Irish literature but to world literature in general.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, May 24, 2015


I happen to be part of the large Scots-Irish population that is widely common in the Midwest. I’m far more Scottish than I am Irish (my maiden name was Campbell). But there is a small amount of Irish in my history somewhere. So, technically speaking this is the first country of my ancestry that I’ve come to in my blog. I’ve always been fairly certain that God looked down on the Scots-Irish and said, “Look, I know you can hold your liquor and hold an argument, but I can’t make you too perfect. So, unfortunately you will practically burst into flames if you go into direct sunlight in warm weather. Sorry, but we all have to make sacrifices around here.” Pretty sure that’s a true story.  


It was Ptolemy who referred to Ireland as “Little Britain” as compared to Great Britain. Later on, he would call Ireland Iouneria while Great Britain was known as Albion. The Romans called the island Hibernia (which you still see in prefixes referring to Ireland as in Hiberno-English culture) or Scotia (later the term Scotia referred to Scotland, as in Nova Scotia [New Scotland]). The Irish name for Ireland, Éire, is named after a Celtic fertility goddess. 

The island of Ireland lies to the west of the island of Great Britain. It’s thought that these two islands were once connected by a land bridge. When the glaciers melted, the two islands became separated along with many of the islands in the British Isles. Ireland is the third-largest island in Europe and 20th in the world. The Irish Sea separates Ireland from Great Britain and the North Atlantic Ocean lies on the western side of the island. The vast majority of the island is known as the Republic of Ireland; however, the northernmost section broke away and eventually became part of the United Kingdom. Because Ireland is an island that generally stays cool during the summers and very cold during the winters, there are not as many native species of flora and fauna that more tropical countries have. 

By the Iron Age came along, the Celtic language and culture was firmly set in Ireland. The Celts suffered through several invasions from nearby groups from Europe including the Britons. The Romans pushed their way farther north through Great Britain and into Ireland. Kingdoms were established all over the island, and although unifying rules of law were generally adhered to, the goal of unifying all of the kingdoms together didn’t happen at this time. Ireland was then invaded by the British followed by the Normans. The Pope issued a papal bull establishing Ireland as a Catholic country. This is pretty much the beginning of a long history of Ireland becoming involved in religion-based wars. Ireland became part of Great Britain, but because of its lack of iron and coal, they used Ireland as an agricultural resource. When the Irish Catholics rebelled against the British in 1641, British military/political leader Oliver Cromwell executed anyone who was involved; 20,000 were estimated to have died in battle; another 200,000 civilians were thought to have died due to war-induced famine, disease, and displacement; and another 50,000 were sent to Barbados and other areas in the West Indies as slaves (the band Flogging Molly has a song about this called “Tobacco Island”). During the 1840s, Ireland would go through the Great Famine, which was one of the main pushes behind the large waves of immigration into the United States. After Irish involvement in WWI, Ireland (and the Irish Republican Army [IRA]) launched into its own conflict over independence. In 1920, Northern Ireland essentially became part of the UK and the rest of Ireland became independent. Although Ireland retained its neutrality during WWII, German intelligence held positions on the island. From the 1950s–1980s, Ireland saw a large period of emigration and growth that became known as the Celtic Tiger.  Starting in the late 1960s and ending in 1998 (more or less), a long period of sporadic fighting stemming from the constitutional and political status of Northern Ireland became known as The Troubles (The name sort of diminishes the violence that occurred and issues at hand. I mean, drinking too much whiskey gives me The Troubles the next day, but it shouldn’t be on the same par as deciding who controls your country.).

Dublin is the capital and largest city in Ireland. It’s estimated that over 40% of the population lives within 100 km (62 mi) of the capital. The name itself comes from the Old Irish meaning “dark pool” in reference to the dark tidal pools that develop in the River Liffey. Dublin is a very old city, far older than any city in the US: it celebrated its millennium in 1988 (it was actually a Viking settlement at one time as well). But now, it stands as the center of government, literature, music, arts, education, media, sports, and finance. Trinity College is widely known, especially to fans of James Joyce and other writers. In fact, Dublin is often the setting of many stories, including Joyce’s Dubliners. (I was quite obsessed with moving to Dublin after reading this.) 

Ireland adopted the euro as its currency when it joined the European Union. (In contrast, Northern Ireland is part of the UK and uses the pound sterling as its currency.) The economy on the island is a little confusing because on one hand, the two are completely different from each other. But on the other hand, there are also parts of their economy covering all-island economic statuses. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have strong agricultural and energy industries. They deal highly in electricity and natural gas, but they are also looking into expanding into wind energy. 

Religion has played an important role throughout Ireland’s history. The Catholic Church especially has impacted much of the culture of Ireland. Although roughly 90% of Irish claim to be Roman Catholic, only about 35-40% actually attend church regularly. Saint Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint and namesake of the famous Irish-themed holiday, St. Patrick’s Day (March 17 is the date of his death). Legend has it that the reason there are no snakes in Ireland is because St. Patrick banished them off the island after he was attacked him during a fast. However, it is thought by anthropological scientists that they never found any evidence there were any snakes on the island to begin with after the glaciers melted. 

Ireland has two official languages: Irish and English. Irish is sometimes referred to as Irish Gaelic and is related to Scottish Gaelic and Manx (spoken on the Isle of Man, an island located in the Irish Sea between Ireland and Great Britain). Although Irish is taught in schools, only about 10% of the population speaks Irish outside of school; there are more speakers outside of the urban areas than in the larger cities. The app Duolingo just added Irish to its list of language courses for English speakers. I did the first lesson a while back and was very surprised at how it sounds. I may go on and do more since I’m almost finished with the Spanish track. 

Yes, it is true that the Irish (and Scots for that matter) are generally not as tall as other ethnic groups. I, myself, topped out at 5’ ½” at the age of 14. And yes, roughly 9% of Irish are natural red heads. Dublin is the City of Pubs: there is roughly one pub for every hundred people. Its oldest pub was founded around 900 years ago. And they are the 2nd highest (per capita) in alcohol consumption—behind Czech Republic. The shamrock, the harp, and the Celtic cross, and the color green are all symbols of Ireland. Halloween actually has its roots in Ireland with the harvest festival called Samhain. The Irish surname that starts with “Mac” means “son of” while the surname that starts with “O’” means “grandson of.” Ireland has produced many scientists who have come up with many inventions and scientific theories that have changed the world as we know it. And just yesterday, Ireland made history for being the first country in the world to allow gay marriage based on a popular vote. This vote was so important to them that there was a popular Twitter hashtag called #hometovote where Irish people all over the world were flying home in order to vote.  I’m so proud of them and dream that it would happen here. But instead, I’ll just make some Irish food in solidarity with them. I’ve got my recipes all picked out along with my Smithwicks and some episodes of Father Ted queued up, of course. 

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, May 17, 2015


It’s the month of May in Indiana, and we’re a week from the Indianapolis 500. It’s like a huge festival in the city with checkered flags and race themes everywhere you look. Because my cooking schedule somewhat got off last year, this is the first year where I’m not cooking on Race Day. I suppose that will be a nice change. Not that it matters that much—the race is blacked out here in most of Indiana. Instead, I’m cooking today. And it will be far more exciting and less crowded. 

Best flat bread ever. Perfect companion to chicken shawarma.

It seems like every recipe I had required a wait time this go around. I started with the lafah bread, a type of flat bread. Instead of proofing my yeast first, I mixed my yeast in with the flour, sugar, and salt, and then I slowly added in my warm water and oil, mixing it until the dough came together. After kneading it together, I oiled the bowl and made sure the dough was covered in oil. I covered it with some plastic wrap and let it sit for about an hour. Then I divided the dough into six pieces, formed them into balls, and let them sit under a damp towel for about 10 minutes longer. I took each ball and rolled it out to a 10-12” disk. After heating up some oil in my super large skillet I got for Mother’s Day, I laid each disk in the skillet and cooked it on either side until it was brown. I loved the flavor of this, and although a few spots in the bread were a little tough for some reason, the overall texture was absolutely wonderful with the chicken shawarma.

It's dishes like this that makes me wish Smellovision was real.

Speaking of, chicken shawarma is one of my favorite things ever. And this Iraqi version was a little different from what I have had before, but it was equally tasty. It’s like trying to choose between your children. I heated up my oil in the skillet and added some garlic. After a minute, I threw in my onions and then my chicken breasts that I cut into strips. I cut a half of a lemon into smaller chunks and threw it in (rind and all) along with some white wine vinegar. Then it came time for the spices: a little bit of salt, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, coriander, garlic powder, paprika, turmeric, cloves, crushed red pepper, and cayenne pepper.  You can adjust the spices as you like it. (I added in a little more paprika, cumin, and coriander.) Then I stirred this until everything was coated and let it sit for 7-8 minutes, stirred again, let it sit for another 7-8 minutes, stirred, and let it sit for about 4-5 minutes. This tasted as good as it smelled. I served this on top of the lafah bread, with some roasted garlic hummus and a Greek-style cucumber-dill dip that I used in lieu of tahini (a sesame seed paste). I cannot tell you how much I loved this. It truly made my heart happy. The combination of the sweet spices and savory spices always give food a very complex flavor.

I don't care that it was chunky, it was good. And I made it.

To go with this, I made my other favorite Middle Eastern food: falafel. I’ve had falafel many times, often as a sandwich like the shawarma. But I’ve never made it myself. This recipe made me realize how much we take canned goods for granted because not using canned chickpeas was a ton more work. I bought my chickpeas in a bag and soaked them overnight. (Ever wonder why some recipes call them chickpeas and some call them garbanzo beans? “Chickpeas” was borrowed from the French, and “garbanzo beans” was borrowed from the Spanish. But both mean the same thing.) I minced some onion, garlic, parsley flakes, and cilantro in a blender, and then I tried to pulverize the chickpeas with my mortar and pestle before attempting to put it in my blender to chop them up finer. However, I completely forgot to buy myself a food processor when we got our tax refund check back, so I was stuck with having to use a personal blender that’s really only ideal for making smoothies and nothing more. Needless to say, it really hated my idea of throwing chickpeas in there. But anyway, I mixed my half-chopped chickpeas and onion-cilantro mix together, and then threw in some flour and baking powder. The key was to mix it well and refrigerate it for two hours. After this time, I heated some oil in my skillet, formed the chickpea mix into balls and fried it. The flavor was outstanding, but the texture was still too chunky. It didn’t matter to me, though. I topped it with some cucumber-dill dip and kept it steppin’. The kids were a little indifferent, leaning toward the “I’ll pass” side. That’s understandable. I didn’t like falafel much until a few years ago, but that’s because someone once made falafel and tried to pass it off as meatballs and put it in my spaghetti. I’m still a little scarred. 

What's not to love about this? It's perfect.

And finally, the pièce de résistance… Iraqi Klecha Cookies. Often considered the national cookie of Iraq, this cookie is the real deal. It was certainly a hit with everyone here. I started this off with mixing 1 packet of yeast into 1 ¼ c of warm water, covering it and allowing it to proof for about 5-10 minutes. In a large bowl, I mixed 4 c of flour, 1 tsp black sesame seeds (in lieu of nigella seeds), 1 tsp of ground cardamom, 1 tsp of ground fennel seed, 1 tsp salt, ½ c of vegetable oil, and 1 stick of butter (melted). I used my hands to mix everything together.  Then I threw in my yeast-water mix into the bowl and stirred until my dough formed. I had to add a little bit of flour in order to get it smooth. Then I put some oil in the bottom of my bowl and rolled the dough in it enough to cover it, letting it rise for an hour.  In the meantime, I made my filling: 1 c chopped walnuts, 3 Tbsp sugar, ½ tsp cardamom. After mixing these together, I threw this into my coffee grinder to grind it finer. When the hour was up, I punched down the dough and divided it into four sections. I took each section and rolled it out, using a ramekin as a stencil and cut out circles. I placed the walnut-cardamom mix onto half of the circle, folded over, and used a fork to crimp the edges together. Once I did this with all of the dough, I made an egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with a splash of milk, stirred) and brushed it on top of each cookie.  Then I put them in the oven at 350º for about 30-35 minutes. Besides having the egg wash drip on my pan and almost gluing the cookies to the pan and making a huge mess for my husband to clean up, these cookies were out of this world. I can completely understand why these are considered the national cookie. What’s not to love about this? The filling on the inside is not overpowering, but complements the buttery, slightly spiced, almost flaky pastry. It’s practically perfect. There are other fillings, such as date-filled ones, but I just went with this one today.  

I want another cookie, but I'm still so full.

This was one of those meals that I call “healthy comfort foods.” At least it gives the impression of being so. Despite the fact that these dishes are more or less pan-Arab, each country and region has its own flavors and variations. I’ve had shawarma served with tomatoes and cucumbers, or sometimes served with shredded lettuce, but this particular recipe didn’t call for it. And the falafel recipe suggested a side of pepperocinis or pickles. I’m sure people in Iraq serve it with or without those things. Where do you draw the line between personal preference, recipe variations, and what the original recipe is? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell, but regardless of how you make it, as long as it feeds the ones you love, it shouldn’t matter.

Up next:  Ireland


Ethnically speaking, Iraqi music incorporates the traditions of Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Assyrian music. Poetry has long played an important part of Iraqi music, no matter what ethnic background or region a person was from. Because many songs were essentially sung poetry, many singers utilized a lower, more comfortable and conversational range for the melody line. Melodies happened to follow more of a step pattern rather than jump around. 

The style of music most associated with Iraqi classical music is maqam. Maqam is more specifically a set of melodic modes where the musician applies a set of improvisational rules to create new modal variations. To me, this seems very similar to how ragas work in Indian classical music. There are many different types of maqam, designed to evoke different emotions and characteristics. 

Iraq is known for three instruments: the oud (a short-necked, pear-shaped stringed instrument), the joza (also known as the rebab; a type of bowed string instrument that looks like an electric violin), and the Iraqi santur (a Mesopotamian hammered dulcimer). There are also a variety of flutes and percussion instruments as well. Studying the oud is quite commendable in Iraq, and there are many classically trained oud players in Iraq. Today, modern instruments are often used along with classical Middle Eastern instruments. 

The Iraqi National Symphonic Orchestra is the premier orchestra in Iraq and is located in Baghdad. They primarily play European music as well as music composed by Iraqi composers and music using traditional instruments. This orchestra has undergone several periods of hardships with many periods of time where they had to practice underground along with times when they had no funding or even a place to practice. But I recently came across this interview with Karim Wasfi, the conductor of this orchestra, that speaks volumes to the power of music. 

Dance traditions in Iraq are tied to its music and have been a part of its culture for thousands of years. The hacha’a dance is very similar to belly dancing except with less hip movement and slightly more movement in the hands and neck.  This dance is a solo dance for women, and a drummer dances circles the woman.  It's also designed for women with long hair since they swing their hair around in the dance. The dabka is a Kurdish dance where the dancers form a line and move their shoulders in rhythm while rhythmically stomping the ground. 

There are quite a few pop bands from Iraq.  One star widely known throughout the Arab world is Kadim Al Sahir. He mixes traditional sounds with a quasi-dance beat. I kind of like some of the music I heard. I can understand why he’s popular. There are a lot of musicians in this style, and I found the differences in their sounds are moderately subtle. Ilham Al Madfai’s style sometimes reminds me of various Mediterranean styles. Ali Al Essawi makes use of various string instruments with traditional singing styles, but I can tell there might be some Western influence in some of the riffs. Shatha Hassoun is a female singer who falls in the same category. Majid Al Muhandis also falls into this category, but I’ve noticed he pulls in a lot of Arab percussion into his music. 

Iraq even has its own boy band called Unknown To No One. They sing in both English and Arabic. (You can also briefly see an old man playing the joza.) This particular video is pretty moving. I suppose I’m fairly sensitive to the effects of how living in a war zone has on the children. 

And surprisingly, Iraq also has a metal band called Acrassicauda. I’m not the hugest metal fan, but I have opened up to it more in the past year or so. I was fairly impressed with what I heard. So, without further ado, here’s probably your first listen of Iraqi metal music.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Iraq is quite proud of its extensive history and culture that dates back tens of thousands of years. The ancient Assyrians and other ethnic groups arriving here throughout the centuries had such developed societies that art was an important part of it. Most of the important pieces we have discovered at various archaeological sites include pottery, necklaces, copper pieces, tools, utensils, sculptures, and paintings.

Iraqi arts also shared many similarities with the arts traditions and styles of other nearby countries, such as rug weaving and elaborate gardens like the neighboring Persians. Many of the Kurds excelled at weaving; in fact the Kurdish Textile Museum showcases many of the best examples of Kurdish weaving.

There have been many painters, sculptors, and architects emerge from Iraq, not only famous in Iraq but also throughout the world. Some of the more famous names include Ismail Fatah Al Turk, Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, Khalid Al Rahal, and Faeq Hassan. 

by Faeq Hassan

The Sumerians were the first to have a major influence on Iraqi literature, namely because they were the first to develop a writing system, which was called cuneiform. The earliest specimens of their writing dates back to the 27th century BC. During this time, not only were there historical records being kept, but there were stories being written as well. The stories during this time were mainly in the form of legends. Three epic cycles were popular from this era: the Enmerker legends, the Lugalbanda tales, and the Gilgamesh stories.


Sumerian literature later influenced the literature of the Akkadian-Babylonians. During this era, it was common for both women and men to be learned enough to read and write. The Aramaic language was gaining ground, and the upper class and most educated were required to learn it. (It is widely thought that Jesus probably used Aramaic the most, but he was probably proficient in several languages.) A wide array of literature was written during this era including historical chronicles, law texts, humorous literature, religious texts, letters, and mythology.


The great Persian epic One Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights) consists of several stories. One of these stories is the famous “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” which is partly set in Baghdad. There have been many remakes for cinema and for kids. 

Najem Wali

During the 20th century, many writers focused on political themes for their subjects. There was a lot of political change throughout much of that century, so it was on the forefront of everyone’s minds. After Saddam Hussein came to power, many writers left for countries where they were freer to voice their opinions on what was happening in their home country. However, many writers stayed in Iraq for a number of reasons. It was against the law to dissent against the government—no matter how minor. Several writers decided if they couldn’t write what they believed, then they’d rather just not write at all. But they were forced to publish pro-government works out of fear for being punished for their silence. Today, the censorship is not quite as bad as it was, but it’s certainly not perfect by any means. Some of the more well-known names in Iraqi literature include Salah Al-Hamdani, Najem Wali, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Abdul Rahman Majeed al-Rubaie, and Saadi Youssef.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, May 11, 2015


Since my children have been born (2005 and 2008), they have only known war and conflict in Iraq.  Since I was born in 1979, I have only known Saddam Hussein’s Iraq up until my children were born. My grandmother was ten years old when Iraq became an independent country.  For a country built on the same soil as one of the oldest civilizations in the world, Iraq as its own political entity it isn’t as old as it seems. Yet, the people of this country have witnessed much change over the decades: good, bad, and indifferent.  

The name al-Iraq has been in use since the 500s AD. There are a few theories as to where this name came from, but one of them stems from the Sumerian city of Uruk, based on the word for “city.” Folk etymology has the word meaning “well-watered or fertile,” which probably refers to the lands that are flooded yearly from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. 

Iraq is located in the Middle East, surrounded by the countries of Turkey to the north; Iran to the east; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to the south; and Jordan and Syria to the west. It also has a very small area touching the Persian Gulf. Two of its major rivers are listed in the Bible: the Tigris and the Euphrates. A large portion of this country is desert, and the country spends most of the year in a hot, arid climate. Because of its desert climate, they are susceptible to sandstorms and dust storms. And they also have a lot of desert flora and fauna, including 8” scorpions (nope and nope). The northern region of Iraq is mountainous and does experience snowfalls on occasion during the winters. 

Iraq has been inhabited since roughly 65,000 BC with Neanderthal populations. It later gave way to the Sumerians, who came up with so many things that led to the modernity of societies that this area was soon to be known as the “Cradle of Civilizations.” The Sumerians created the first writing system (cuneiform) as well as developing the wheel, the 60-second minute, the 60-minute hour, the first maps, and the first schools. They also made great strides in mathematics, medicine, astrology, astronomy, organized religion, and written law. The Akkadians also moved into this area and eventually the two cultures merged to a degree. The fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was known as Mesopotamia and most of the early civilizations lived in this region. Later under the reign of Hammurabi, the Babylonian Empire took control of this area. Many tried to take control of this area throughout the centuries, and many different empires have had their turn at ruling this land: the Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Alexander the Great, various Persian groups, the Romans, and others. Islam was introduced to Iraq during the 7th century and quickly became the majority religion. The city of Baghdad was built as a capital city for the caliphate, and the Mongols came in and destroyed it. They also couldn’t escape two terrors: The Black Death and Tamerlane, a Mongol warlord who came in and slaughtered thousands and thousands of Assyrians.  This area was later under Ottoman rule, because who WASN’T under Ottoman rule at one point or another, right? While under Ottoman rule, they sided with the Germans and Central Powers during WWI. The British subsequently arrived to take over the city of Baghdad toward the end of the war to defeat the Ottomans. After the British took over, they kind of just never left and then appointed who they thought would make good leaders in the area. The famous movie Lawrence of Arabia is based on the actual person T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier who was a liaison between the British and the Ottomans. Iraq was finally granted independence from Britain in 1932. There were several conflicts during their early years of independence, and in 1979, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party took control of the government. Iraq spent much of the 1980s in a war with Iran, and when that was done, they fought with Kuwait, in which the US got involved. I remember watching those bright green scud missiles streaming across night vision videos during the Gulf War. Then the US mistakenly invaded Iraq in 2003 on the false pretenses that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Since then, there have been many conflicts and much fighting; although US troops withdrew in 2011, attacks from insurgency groups continue to still plague the cities of Iraq. 

Baghdad is not only the largest city in Iraq, but it’s the second largest city in the Arab region (after Cairo, Egypt). It also happens to be the second largest in Western Asia (after Tehran, Iran). This capital city is located along the Tigris River and has long been an important cultural and business capital in this region. Although the city was pretty much decimated by the Mongols in 1258, it rebuilt itself and became the intellectual and cultural hub of the Middle East. Because of years of recent war and continued insurgency attacks, Baghdad has been listed as one of the least desirable cities to live in. Its hospitality and quality of life consistently keep its ranking low. Prior to the 2003 invasion, the Baghdad Zoo used to be the largest zoo in the Middle East. However, within a week most of the animals were either stolen (for food) or died from starvation themselves. The National Museum of Iraq and the National Library held thousands upon thousands of historical and prehistoric artifacts and documents chronicling our world heritage. Many documents were destroyed at the hands of the Saddam Hussein regime, and many of the national and world treasures have been looted and/or destroyed over the past couple of decades. This is the part of war that makes me sick at heart: to watch all of those pieces of history simply go down the drain. We’ve held onto some of these artifacts for 20,000 years and destroy them in 20 years. 

Iraq’s economy is largely based on its oil reserves. Being one of the founding members of OPEC, Iraq has around 2000 oil wells that have been drilled in the country (compared with about 1.1 million oil wells in just Texas alone, which begs the question of why we are messing around with other country’s oil in the first place?). The 2003 invasion has really wrecked the Iraqi economy. Because of the high number of people who fled the country and general problems with infrastructure due to continued insurgency attacks, there are still many people who are unemployed and underemployed. 

Roughly 95% of the population are Muslim in Iraq, and of that population, 65% of them are Shia with the remaining 35% as Sunni. There are a small number of Christians who still live in Iraq, although many have fled. Most Christians in Iraq are Roman Catholic and they are not allowed to mention or show their religion outside of their church. At one time, there was an Iraqi Jewish population as well, but most of them have fled the country after the beginning of WWII.  

The most widely spoken language in Iraq is Arabic (Iraqi Arabic to be more specific) and is the official language.  In 2004, the Iraqi government also included Kurdish as an official language as well. Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (also referred to as Syriac) and Turkmen are also counted as recognized regional languages.  Other minority languages in Iraq include Persian, Armenian, Mandaic, Circassian, and Shabaki. 

Iraq has some impressive firsts based on its location and history.  There are so many cultural traditions that go back to antiquity, like beekeeping (honey is very important in this region), growing licorice and dates, and much of their music and arts. A number of places mentioned in the Bible are thought to be in Iraq: it’s said that Abraham was from Ur (located in southern Iraq) and his wife was from Nahor (another city in Iraq). In fact, many legends put the famed Garden of Eden between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. And although the number of invaders throughout the centuries has influenced their culture, they incorporated those influences into their food, language, and cultural arts. I’m very excited about cooking food from Iraq because I’m basically making my favorite foods with an Iraqi twist.

Up next: art and literature