Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—A seventy-year-old restaurant in Baghdad’s literary heartland, Al-Mutanabbi Street, could be the smallest and most renowned eatery in the Iraqi capital.
Since it opened, the establishment has maintained its tradition of serving only one dish, kabba al-saray, a name derived from the neighboring Souq Al-Saray bookselling district. Kabba is made from bulgur wheat and minced lamb or beef and is served with soup.
The eatery’s walls are like an open history book. They feature pictures of the prominent political, cultural and military clientele that have frequented the restaurant throughout the years. The owner, Rashid, known to his acquaintances as “Abu Ali,” says his enterprise is considered one of Baghdad’s rare artifacts.
While serving dishes of kabba to customers, Abu Ali tells Asharq Al-Awsat that the restaurant’s size does not prevent people from visiting, even though some diners have to eat standing up. He says they come “in order to have their choice dish while standing and looking at the pictures hanging on the wall and recall memories of a bygone era, which gives our food an added flavor.”
Speaking of the restaurant’s inauguration, he says: “In the past, we used to serve our dishes on the ground, yet our unique way of cooking kabba attracted a lot of customers. In 1935, my grandfather inaugurated the restaurant here in Souq Al-Saray market, and it is considered to be among the oldest in Baghdad.” Next, his father took over its management.
And now, Abu Ali says, “here I am running the restaurant with the assistance of three old friends of mine. As you can see, there are a lot of customers, and we are trying to fill all orders. There are also those who buy considerable quantities of kabba for their families and friends.”
Asked about the celebrities who have visited his restaurant, he says “All the renowned characters of Baghdad have passed by and tasted our kabba. Most prominent of these personalities is Queen Aliya, mother of King Faisal II, who used to send her driver to buy kabba from us here. She used to also drink raisin juice from the famous Hajj Zebala shop.
“There are several customers who ask us to sell them the pictures hanging on the restaurant’s walls. Of course, I always refuse.”
Mohamed Samara, a researcher, speaking of his memories of the restaurant, says: “All the shops have changed their appearance so as to cope with the spirit of the age, except Kabba Al-Saray, which has maintained its original decoration as well as its way of serving dishes.
“I remember many people who used to come here from remote areas to taste the kabba served here, which gained great fame—especially on Fridays, when intellectuals, writers and visitors to the Baghdad book market would meet.”