In Iraq they have rivers flanked by restaurants, they fish out carp and split them open like a book, impale them on wooden sticks and position them close enough to an open fire so that they take on a smoky flavor but far enough so that they cook slowly, over the course of one hour. If you eat only the meat from the belly, there are no bones to contend with.
I haven’t been to Iraq and I have been told the rivers have become so polluted that the fish are no longer safe to eat.
The fish I ate at the Iraqi restaurant Zad el Khair in Amman originally came from the rivers of Syria and was fished out still alive from a shallow pool of water. There it thrashed about on the tile floor while a man delivered some ineffective blows to its head. The carp doesn’t even have time to go into rigor mortis, so quick is its journey from pool to plate.
My father instructs the kitchen to cook the carp “nice and slow”. While we wait, we are given plates of labneh, smoky aubergine paste, humus, and lemon soaked tabouleh with tiny pieces of tomato no bigger then 1mm. The waiters clear away the starters and start to bring vegetable stews of aubergine and okra, a giant platter of rice and finally the fish.
A word on rice in the Middle East, it’s the best rice in the world. I promise you, this is not hyperbole. Somehow each grain of rice is separate from its neighbor, making it unbelievably fluffy. The grain itself is smooth, no telltale flayed ends from overcooking or gritty centers from undercooking. I could just eat the rice on its own but out of respect for the fish, I go easy on the rice and instead eat flakes of soft white fish, doused in lemon and olive oil.
Below, I have included links to two very good articles on this traditional method of cooking carp:
The Guardian “Rich or poor, a million iraqi refugees strain the hospitality of Jordan”
The New York Times “In Iraq, Reigniting a Flame for Roasting Carp”