“In Baghdad, it wasn’t always safe for you, was it?
“No, but my family made me feel as though it was. We lived through little acts of rebellion. For example, we used to listen to forbidden music under the sheets and eat prohibited ice cream!"
On the 6th August 1990, four days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council imposed a trade embargo on Ba’athist Iraq. Sugar – among other essential items - became scarce, as 90% of Iraq’s sugar supply was imported. As such, the non-essential use of sugar was forbidden. As you can imagine, ice cream was declared non-essential and the production and consumption of this sweet dessert was therefore prohibited. Those caught breaking the rules faced prosecution or worse. In a dim basement, with a man outside guarding the ice cream dealers within, Bryar broke those rules.
Born to a Kurdish family, in Khanaqin, an Iraqi city on the border of Iran, Bryar was forcibly displaced from his home at the age of two. Together with his family, they fled to Baghdad where they were stateless with no fixed home. They evaded the Ba’thist police by limiting their possessions to a suitcase of clothes: when the phone rings to warn them of an imminent raid, they carry the suitcases and run, finding shelter in the next place, waiting for the next call.
Without papers or identity cards, existing was prohibited. Yet, through little acts of rebellion, Bryar did. He recalls his story playfully, tenderly, with a youthful smile that stirs in my imagination the image of his younger self.
One night, Bryar’s uncle announces that he found ‘it’. Bryar and his dad look at each other and the three men head out in a car and drive to a ‘secret basement’. There, a man greets them at the door. ‘Do you have the stuff?’, a head nod follows. They enter the basement to be met by rodents and dirt. “It was the dirtiest place I had ever seen”, he laughs wholeheartedly, and I join him. He tells me that they didn’t care, the dirt didn’t matter, nor the rodents, because behind the counter was the treasure he’d been long anticipating. The ice cream now in their hands, they sit side by side, three men – one in a boyish body – surrounded by rodents, a war and an embargo: slurp slurp slurp slurp slurp.
In 2003, the embargo ended, and sugar was allowed again. I wonder if clean ice cream tastes as good. If the prohibited tastes of freedom, perhaps nothing will ever taste as delicious as the ice cream of that night.
In my living room, his story never feels as dark as it could be. Infused with a joie de vivre impossible to ignore, his words lift me up and his story lingers long after the microphone is switched off.
I offer him my homemade ice cream in my rodent free home. My heart is full as I watch him enjoy it. Bryar’s eyes are filtered with compassion and love. I sit there and quietly pray that the Kurdish people, his people, find shelter, homes, identity cards, safety and of course, the sweet sweet taste of ice cream.
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Arabic Ice cream
The Arabic ice cream we shared together is known as “Booza”. Its consistency is more like melted cheese than a gelato. It’s stretchy, chewy, with a hint of unusual sweetness created by the orchid root flour (sahlab) and plan resin (mastic). The Sahlab or Salep might be hard to find. It can be easily substituted with flour. Try this recipe below and let me know what you think.
Prep 5 mins
Make 20-30 mins
Total 25-35 mins
Author: The Lesbanese Cook
Yield 8-10 people
- 4 cups of whole milk
- 2 cups of double or whipping cream
- 1/2 cup of Sahlab (if not available, substitute with 1/2 cup of cornflour)
- 3/4 cup of sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Mastic gum crushed to taste (I use about 1/4 tsp)
- Pistachios (crushed into small pieces)
Place the milk in a large pot on medium heat.
Add the sugar, salt and sahlab (or cornflour) and mix them well. Keep stirring the mixture until it starts to bubble.
Now add the mastic powder and keep stirring until you bring the mixture to boil. Continue stirring for another 10-15 minutes, until the liquid gets thick and creamy.
Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool down to room temperature.
Add the cream and stir everything together until it becomes smooth.
Pour the mixture into small freezer friendly containers. When they reach room temperature, place them in the freezer for a few hours.
When you’re ready to try them, take the container out of the freezer, serve the ice cream and sprinkle the pistachios on top.
Here is to the stories you'll create sharing this ice cream with the people you love.