A date with Michael Rakowitz (and his mum)

Two exclusive recipes from the artist's new cookbook

Michael Rakowitz. Photo: Mikael Gregorsky

Interviewed in the Summer 2019 issue of ArtReview, the artist Michael Rakowitz recalls how the home of his immigrant grandparents in Grand Neck, Long Island, felt like a little enclave of Iraq. “I grew up in a house of rugs; on the walls were paintings and the miniature drawings that they were able to bring with them. Iraqi music played on the reel-to-reel tape during family gatherings… Being surrounded by this culture rescued all of us when the Iraq War started in 1991.” Iraqi food also played a major part in Rakowitz’s upbringing, and the cuisine has gone on to have a recurring role in his art making.

In 2018 Rakowitz unveiled a public art commission for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, a recreation of the lamasu that had stood guard in Nineveh, near Mosul in modern-day Iraq for 3000 years, until, in 2015, it was destroyed by members of IS. Except Rakowitz’s version was made from empty cans of date syrup. In part, the artist says, because Iraqi dates are supposed to be the best in the world.

Rakowitz has now published A House With a Date Palm Will Never Starve, a cookbook of recipes, all of which feature dates, with contributions from chefs including Prue Leith, Yotam Ottolenghi and Alice Waters. Dishes by Rakowitz, and the artist’s mother Yvonne, also feature; two of which, in an exclusive extract, are reproduced below.

Iraqi charoset, by Yvonne Rakowitz

Date syrup, known among the Jews of Baghdad as silan, can be used the same way that one uses honey. It is one of the two ingredients of the Iraqi version of charoset, a sweet, dark paste eaten at Passover. Its colour and texture symbolize the clay used by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt. Some Jewish traditions make it from a mixture of fruits, nuts, spices, and even sweet red wine, but this is a simpler version.

Date syrup
Chopped walnuts or pecans

In individual small bowls, pour enough date syrup to half-fill each one. Top with a generous serving of chopped nuts.

Masgouf, barbecued fish with date syrup marinade, by Michael Rakowitz

Masgouf is considered the national dish of Iraq. Dating back to ancient Babylon, the basic recipe consists of a fresh carp fished from the Tigris River, split open from the back, gutted, and impaled on two wooden stakes next to an open fire of apricot logs, fig logs, or reeds. In 2007, Baghdad’s imams issued a fatwa on the carp swimming in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, declaring them unclean and unfit for human consumption due to the large number of corpses floating in the waterways. And so, at the height of the war, another of Iraq’s cultural symbols was endangered.

2 freshwater carp, each approx. 450g / 16oz

For the basting sauce
215g / 1 cup sesame or olive oil
240ml / 1 cup warm water
2 tbsp Iraqi date syrup
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp curry
1 tbsp sea salt
1 tsp tamarind

Serves 2

To make the basting sauce, mix the ingredients thoroughly and place in a squeezable condiment bottle.

You can cook the fish over a barbecue using a grill basket, but to prepare masgouf the traditional way, a firepit is required.

First, catch a carp. This is hard to do. Fishermen call them the ‘golden ghost’ for a reason. Kill the carp. A swift whack to the head using a wooden club is the least painful way to achieve this. Using a sharp gutting knife, cut the fish open from the back – not the belly – starting below the dorsal fin and slicing towards the tail. Then slice down the middle of the head. If the head is hard, use scissors to do this. Open the fish so that it is butterflied. Remove the stomach and innards carefully. Be careful not to puncture the gall bladder as this will give your fish a metallic taste if it bleeds.

Do not scale the fish.

Near the spine, to the right and left of the dorsal fin, make two incisions on the back using the knife. Firmly plant two skewers or sharpened sticks into the ground. They should have a distance between them to correspond to the incisions made in the fish. Their length depends on the size of the fish, but there should be at least twenty-five centimetres / ten inches between the ground and the fish.

Insert the two skewers or sticks into the incisions.

With the carp now butterflied open and standing vertically, build a fire using natural, dried wood beside the open belly of the fish. Be careful not to use construction timber, as pressure-treated wood will release toxic gases.

Light the fire and allow the fish to slowly cook and smoke. Depending on the size of your fish, this process could take between forty-five minutes and three hours. Throughout the cooking, baste your fish with the sauce by spraying or brushing it on the meat. You will know your fish is cooked when the eyes become foggy or completely white. Carefully remove the fish from the skewers or sticks. The fish becomes more delicate and flaky when it cooks, so be sure to cradle it with both hands.

Rake the burning embers of the fire to evenly distribute them like coals across the pit. Lay the fish on foil, skin face down, and place onto the embers. Allow the fish to cook through a bit more, until you see liquid beginning to boil on its surface. You may also baste the fish one last time.

Remove the fish. Place on a round tray and garnish with lettuce and lemons. Serve with tannour bread and amba (pickled mango). Eat with your hands and share.

A House With a Date Palm Will Never Starve by Michael Rakowitz and friends is published by Art/Books. The artist's exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, London, is on through 25 August. The gallery will host a supper club, with Rakowitz and chef Philip Juma of Juma Kitchen, serving dishes from the cookbook on 26 July. The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist occupies the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, through March 2020.