Food Under Fire is an occasional series of food and restaurant reviews from places where conflict is happening.
Erbil, September 2, 2014—For old times sake during a visit to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, I decided I wanted to have a dish of Pacha. Check the spelling on this one, because pacha has lots of variations in different countries, and this spelling is a Romanization of the Persian.
Anyhow, pacha is sheep’s head, boiled and served on the plate whole. Eyes and everything. I first tasted it during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq when I was working as a journalist in Kurdistan. It is tasty, but I guess I forgot how laborious eating a sheep’s head actually is because it’s not all that easy to find the meat.
I was invited to the restaurant in the garden of the Abu Shahab restaurant by my friend Goran who I had not seen since the war. I first met him during the lead up to the Iraq war at an Internet café he ran around the corner from the Erbil Tower Hotel. I was staying at the Erbil Tower, but worked on a computer at Goran’s place to file stories.
He was a 23-year old at the time and the café was filled with other young Kurds chatting on line with distant women, doing academic work or watching porn. In February, 2003, I did a story along with a colleague at the Washington Post on Kurdish attitudes toward Iraq and the Arabs and interviewed Goran and his father together. His father, Saad Abdullah Othman, was a high official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which along with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, run the autonomous region up until today.
Anyway, it was good to see Goran, who is married and has a son and was doing well in business. During the meal, he asked me if I remembered doing the interview. He reminded me that when I asked about feelings toward Iraq, his father said that he had been educated in Baghdad, spoke Arabic and thought that Kurdistan could be part of a successful country. When I asked Goran the same questions, he answered, “I hate Arabs.”
This was probably more the prevailing opinion of the time, as the Iraq under Saddam Hussein had feverishly oppressed the Kurds, infamously using poison gas on the village of Halabja in 1988.
I said to Goran, yes, I remembered. He said later that day his father had criticized him for lashing out at the Iraqis. Less than a year after the interview, two suicide bombers blew up holiday receptions at Erbil headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Sixty-seven people died, including Saad Abdullah. Goran’s son is named Saad.
At the dinner, we talked about the future of Kurdistan now and everyone at the table, friends of Goran, agreed that independence would be the best thing. Goran said that when the Islamic State forces were bearing down on Erbil after having conquered Mosul in Iraq, 50 miles or 80 kilometers away, near panic gripped the city. His wife wanted them to leave, but Goran said no. “This is my country and I’m not going to flee,” he said. Anyway, the Islamic militia was deterred from Erbil by US bombing and the Kurdish pesh merga military.
Our restaurant is near the Christian neighborhood of Ainkawa which is hosting thousands of Christian refugees from Mosul and other towns in Nineveh province. The refugees are huddled in tents on churchyards and in unfinished buildings. Goran thinks that if Christians stay on—and Ainkawa is largely the result of Christians fleeing Baghdad and Mosul from post-Saddam Hussein Iraq—it would be a good thing for Kurdistan as it would develop into a multi-ethnic country.
The sheep’s heads arrived. Forks and knives were superfluous. You have to grabbed the head and dig out the meat. Cheeks are the best. I must say that I enjoyed better the sewn-up stomach filled with rice and lamb, which didn’t require as much athletic handling as the head. Here’s a recipe I took from a website called Alwaysfoodie that seems about right:
- Just boil the water and immerse the sheep head so that it is totally dipped in the water.
- Bring the water to boil. You can even add salt in the water for taste. Boil until the meat has become tender and could be cut out using a table knife.
- Take the head out with the froth covering the parts of the head.
- Now for your own interest, you can even try out bar-be-cue with the sheep head but they do not practice it authentically.
- For sides, stuff the sheep stomach with steamed rice and the sheep meat pieces before you sew it up.
- The pacha is now ready to be dressed with your favorite seasoning and served with tomato and onion salad. You can also serve the bread in the sides.
By the way, the eyes are much appreciated. You scrape away the puple (!) and pop the white ball into your mouth. Everyone pretty much laughed as I swallowed. It was a fine night in Erbil.