"What do people in Iraq eat?"
Hey, it's not just my food obsession. An internationally award-winning photojournalist friend of mine just came back from covering the pre-war troop operations in Kuwait. He burrowed inside big, frightening bomber planes, yet what's one of the first things people ask him about? What he ate.
Iraqis are not eating, as a certain one of my chest-thumping patriotic pals would say, "our dust." (He's one of those guys who is always the first to raise a beer and drawl, "Proud to be an Uhmercun," bless his red, white and blue heart.)
Truth be told, I'd never really thought about it. Iraqi cuisine is hardly an American novelty; I'm sure we've never had such a restaurant in Arizona. So the first time I was asked, I hedged. "Middle Eastern, I bet. Some African. Lots of rice and stuff in pots?"
It turns out I'm partly right. I find out that the traditional Iraqi cuisine is meat, vegetables, rice, usually combined in crocks with Arabic spices like saffron and mint. Meats include lamb, beef, goat, mutton and poultry -- no pork, in light of the Muslim religion. Fancier entrees include quzi (roasted and stuffed lamb); and kubba (minced meat with nuts, raisins and spices). People there like masgouf, made from fish that live in the Tigris River, and tripe. It actually sounds pretty tasty.
Yet the real answer to what they're eating is: "not much." Like I found on visits to Africa and Cuba, in such poor countries, the cuisine is purely hypothetical, based on good-old-days heritage. In Iraq, the government has rationed its groceries since 1991, and issues but five staples: wheat flour, rice, sugar, tea and cooking oil. Maybe there are some lentils, salt and a little bit of milk; most other foods are too expensive for the average citizen to buy. What we're reading in our papers is true: These people are starving.
And since the war began, the Iraqi government has shut down its food program completely. So the irony isn't lost on me that, on the first official night of our Great Nation's "Shock and Awe" attack on Iraq, I find myself at a restaurant, sympathizing with my waitress that it's a slow evening. (Such an inconvenient war; we're guessing that many would-be patrons are home, planted in front of CNN.) I'm at Basis, a new upscale cafe that's opened in Moon Valley, that posh enclave next to the Pointe Tapatio Resort at Seventh Street and Thunderbird.
I like Basis. A lot. There's long been money in these hills, yet besides the Pointe's Different Pointe of View on the North Mountain Preserve next door, the area hasn't had much elegant dining to speak of (okay, any). But if the food is first-class, Basis hasn't gotten wrapped up in swank. Portions are large, prices are low, and meals include all the extras: a huge bread and butter basket, dinner salad (classy spring greens, bleu cheese, candied walnuts in orange poppy vinaigrette), sides of starch and vegetable. It's a remarkable value for such a first-class setting, all warm mustard walls, tan-black-gray fabrics, track lighting, natural woods and a dramatic expo kitchen gleaming in stainless steel. I love that the chefs are perfectly groomed in crisp whites (though one companion's comments that the berets they wear are spookily Saddam-esque is unfortunately true). And there's no pretension, none, from my bubbly waitress who's so happy she must be part golden retriever, to the chef who himself brings me a packet of leftovers one evening and thanks me for coming in.
So it's pretty pathetic that, when my first appetizer is placed before me, I instantly make a mental note that "this is too much food to be truly classy." I'm weighing the chunky, almost entree-size presentation of a plate of smoked salmon and sweet onion tart, thinking that the thick curls of fish would be better shaved more delicately, the pie-slice wedge more compelling if it were a petite tart instead of a huge creamy quiche, and that the too-thick ribbons of chive crème fraîche look sloppy. The flavors are true, the ingredients are fresh, yet here I am picking it apart until I remember the Senegalese family that once fed me the only meat they'd had in weeks because I was a "guest of honor." We sat on the dirt floor, and they watched me scoop beef into my mouth, refusing to take a nibble themselves because that would mean less for me.
An Iraqi family of four could likely make dinner from another Basis "starter" of four huge won ton tacos, the shells pleasantly fashioned from the Chinese crisp instead of tortilla. The insides are bulging with moist pulled short rib meat plus papaya salsa; the plate mounded with risotto and a drizzle of orange-hued chile glaze. And here I am whining that the meat's in a sauce that's a bit too sweet for my tastes, the scoop of risotto in the center is gummy, and the serving is, well, too large for elegance. How weird is it that I feel proud to assign no fault to a lobster papaya quesadilla, stocked with lots of fresh seafood, jack cheese, cilantro and red onions, draped with superb chile crème fraîche alongside spicy salsa fresca?
Basis has a huge menu for such a tiny space – 27 dishes at dinner, 26 at lunch. Most dishes really shine. A pork chop is just a pork chop, but not when it's exquisitely seared and cooked to perfect gentle moist white meat as it is at Basis. The hefty bone-in piece is creatively stuffed with Monterey Jack, roasted peppers and salty pancetta under a restrained Madeira demi (chunky red roasted mashed potatoes and buttery fresh-crisp green beans alongside are good enough to snack on in bed). Gently spicy green chile fettuccine is good cream-and-cheese stuff, too, spiked with bits of bacon, and four big tail-on prawns. Grilled prawns highlight an excellent caesar as well, done up with tangy red chile dressing nicely gritty with Parmesan, and two fat breadsticks spiked with jalapeño and jack cheese.
I went to a "restaurant" in Cuba once (actually a non-advertised private home, since non-government-operated, tourist-only restaurants are illegal). My companion and I were the first party to arrive for the evening, and we ordered snapper. The next couple that came in asked for it, too, but there was no more – my friend and I had eaten the only allocation. I wonder what Cubans would think of the beautiful sea bass served in unlimited glory at Basis. This is a hefty fillet exquisitely moist and meaty, hunkered over roasted red bell pepper polenta cake, and pooled with rich cream sauce stocked with whole wild mushrooms. Its stellar quality isn't lost on me, even though I eat like this every day.
Almost the only thing I could find to fill me up in Africa was a French bread sandwich, offered in a tourist hotel. There was one variety, ham, I think, and this is a vague memory even after I ate it for almost two weeks straight. At Basis, lunch brings a choice of eight sandwiches, and they're substantial: tender shaved prime rib with caramelized onions, melted horseradish Cheddar, Roquefort dip and house-made pommes frites; plump Maryland crab cake with spring greens and red pepper aioli; carved turkey with cranberry relish and herbed cream cheese.
Basis has beautiful macaroni and "triple cheese" with Monterey Jack, white Cheddar and Parmesan, baked with breadcrumbs. It has sautéed spinach, looking messy with lots of liquid but ultra-fresh and ultra-savory – I order a side and eat it straight. It's got a decadent cajeta (Mexican caramel) pound cake, capped with dulce de leche ice cream and marinated blackberries. What a country.
Our forces overseas are eating "meals ready to eat," brown plastic bags stuffed with suspicious-sounding Thai chicken, meatloaf-n-gravy, vegetarian burrito, and the official "Beefsteak, Grilled, Chunked and Formed." It's costing us $6.77 a meal -- a daily cost of more than $3 million to feed 250,000 soldiers. The Iraqis are eating... nothing.
Yet I'm here in America, marveling over the incredible Sunday brunch Basis has just instituted, a massive feast for an incredibly low $19.95. It's an endless, all-I-can-eat wealth of omelets cooked to order, Belgian waffles, crab cakes, carved prime rib with roasted garlic, eggs Benedict, smoked salmon, smoked duck with poblano risotto, a seafood station, fresh salads, cheeses, fruit, desserts and floods of complimentary champagne.
We have it so very good here in the U.S. And with Basis, now we have it even better.