Finding a Butterball in Baghdad: Rajiv Chandrasekaran recalls a wartime holiday


Munther, chef at The Post’s Baghdad bureau in 2003, carved the turkey he roasted for a Christmas Eve dinner. (2003 WASHINGTON POST PHOTO)

As U.S. troops prepare to celebrate their final holiday season in Iraq, Washington Post associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran recalls the challenge of acquiring a turkey in Baghdad during the war’s first year. The following essay is adapted from the recently released anthology “Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food During Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents.” Copyright 2011 by the University of California Press.

In 2003, when I was in charge of The Washington Post’s bureau in Baghdad, my responsibilities included ensuring that a half-dozen colleagues didn’t go hungry. We had been subsisting on military rations and cans of beans and tuna fish that we had squirreled away before the war. When our supplies ran low, I headed to a shop that I had frequented before the American invasion.

The Malik market had been a culinary smuggler’s dream. There was Heinz ketchup, Kellogg’s corn flakes, Campbell’s soup and Ritz crackers. Seemingly everything you’d find in an American Safeway was packed into this little store — and several items even had Safeway price tags. I later learned that the owner’s son traveled to Jordan once a week, where he filled up three taxis with a few of everything off the shelves at the Safeway in Amman. In 12 hours, after a couple of well-placed bribes to customs inspectors at the border, the food was for sale in Baghdad. Chilled, smoked Norwegian salmon? Yup. Philly cream cheese and a bottle of capers? Sure. I even saw a Butterball turkey in the freezer.

“Aliseesh,” the owner said, teaching me the Arabic word for it. Who, I asked, buys turkeys in Baghdad? Nobody, he said. His son picked it up on spec, and it had been sitting in the cooler for a year.

But like so much else in Baghdad at the time, Malik had been gutted by looters in the wake of the invasion. There were some broken jars on the floor, but everything else had been taken, even the freezer case and the turkey inside. I despaired for a moment, and then it came to me: I’ll just do what the owner’s son did. I had a colleague visit a supermarket in Amman and fill up a GMC Suburban. The result, unfortunately, was more tuna and two cases of Cheez-Its. There was, thankfully, also a case of pinot grigio, and the realization that with a proper shopping list we could sustain ourselves.

Soon the need for shipments became less acute. The end of dictatorship meant we could move into a hotel with a decent kitchen, and then into a comfortable house a block from the Tigris River. I hired a chef named Munther, who scoured the markets for ingredients to indulge his experiments with Western cooking. One day we got a Waldorf salad. There was creme brulee for dessert, albeit a little too sweet and runny. When a young reporter in the bureau came back with a Whopper and onion rings from the new Burger King at the military base next to the airport, Munther decided to copy the meal. The burgers, made from sheep that had been grazing on garbage, were a bit gamy, but the onion rings were perfect — crunchy, circular, and the size of half-dollars.

I put on 15 pounds that first summer. Munther served up a three-course feast every night, donning a white jacket as he brought his creations into the dining room. I gave him carte blanche to buy whatever he wanted — figuring that with Malik closed, he couldn’t get into too much trouble — and he managed to find a seemingly endless variety of produce. The lack of supermarkets meant everything was made from scratch. He baked the bread and trimmed the meat and simmered the sauces.

In idle moments, over cups of tea and cigarettes, I came to learn about the lives of the Iraqis who worked for us as interpreters, drivers and guards. One had been a pilot for Iraqi Airways. Another was a mechanical engineer who had a master’s degree from UCLA. Yet another had worked as a driver for the general security directorate before the war, no doubt shuttling people to torture sessions. But Munther remained a mystery. He spoke little English, so every conversation required an intermediary. Every interaction was transactional: What do you want for dinner tomorrow? Can I buy a new meat grinder? My efforts to engage always seemed to fall flat. After a few months, all I knew about him was that he was in his thirties. He was lanky and had close-cropped hair. He arrived in the afternoons with a stack of Arabic books and kept to himself in the kitchen. He left as we tucked into dessert. Where did he learn to cook? How did he feel about making sumptuous meals for a bunch of Americans while millions of Iraqis were still living hand to mouth? I had no idea.

One day I walked into the kitchen as he entered from the back door. He placed his books in two stacks, and I pointed to them with a quizzical expression. He gestured to one pile: “Shia books,” he said. Then the other: “Cookbooks.” I beckoned an interpreter to join us, but we were able to wrest from Munther only the most meager details about his life. He had grown up in the overwhelmingly Shiite south, and by the time he was in his late teens, he was torn between his desire to train as a cook and his desire to rebel at the oppression of his fellow Shiites by Saddam Hussein’s regime. His religious activism soon landed him in prison, where he was tortured so brutally that he lost hearing in one ear. When he was finally released, a few years before the war, he managed to land a job as an apprentice in a Baghdad restaurant. When the restaurant closed after the invasion, the owner sent him my way.

That’s all I got. Despite the white jacket and Waldorf salads, I could tell he was ambivalent about working for a bunch of foreigners. Sure, the money was good, and he got to experiment in ways he never could in a kebab restaurant, but he was cooking in a house where the occupants drank wine and the women let their hair flow freely. Of the three dozen Iraqis who worked for me, he was the most conflicted. At the time, I thought him an anomaly. I blithely assumed most Iraqis were like the rest of my staff — guys who liked to sneak a beer and check out pornographic sites on the office computers; one young interpreter was so enamored of the United States that he took to wearing an American flag T-shirt. Munther never socialized with them. He holed up in the kitchen.

In the following months, I tried to win him over. When I was in California for a holiday, I bought him a 10-inch Wusthof chef’s knife and a cookbook with photos so he could pick out recipes he wanted translated. Our vegetables were chopped a little finer, and the menu became more varied, but he didn’t become any less standoffish.

* * *

In mid-December, U.S. forces found Saddam hiding in a hole, and any hopes I had of spending Christmas with my family in California were shot as quickly as the celebratory gunfire that lit up the Baghdad sky. I decided to host a secular Christmas Eve dinner at our house. It would be a night to see friends in Baghdad with whom I had lost touch because of hectic work schedules. It would be a way to expose our Iraqi colleagues to new traditions. It would be an opportunity to make up for the Thanksgiving dinner that I left uneaten on the table at the Los Angeles Times house when we got word that President Bush had arrived in Baghdad for a surprise visit. And it would give me a chance to challenge Munther with his most complicated meal yet.

The essential ingredient, of course, was an aliseesh. But with Malik still closed and my supply convoys suspended because of banditry on the highway from Jordan, I had to find a new smuggler. I approached a few shopkeepers, but none of them was willing to try. Then, on the advice of a friend, I went to a market in the city’s Christian quarter that was so secretive it had no sign or door from the street. To get in, I had to go through an unlit adjoining building. When I entered, I discovered why: there were cases of whiskey, gin and beer amid a Malik-like assortment of foreign foodstuffs. I inquired about a turkey. “Come back in three days,” the man said. I thought about asking whether it would come from Jordan and, if so, whether it would be kept cold. Or would it be packed into the hot trunk of a taxi with a dozen boxes of Cheerios? Or did he have a connection on a military base who’d slip him a bird under the barbed wire? I kept silent and purchased a bottle of whiskey.

When I returned home, I asked Munther whether he had ever cooked an aliseesh. Never, he said. Did any of his books have instructions for how to prepare one? Not that he had seen. Since these were the days before one sought answers to every random question on Google, I did what I always do when I find myself in a culinary fix: I called my mother — on a costly satellite phone — and asked her to e-mail me her turkey recipe.

On Dec. 23, we got word from the market: Come get your turkey. There, in a waist-high chest freezer, was a genuine Butterball turkey. Fifteen pounds. Frozen as a rock.

Munther showed up early the next morning to prepare the feast, which would also include roast beef, potatoes au gratin, sauteed peas and carrots, fried zucchini, rice and a fattoush salad. I printed out my mother’s turkey recipe, gave it to one of my Iraqi colleagues to translate for Munther, and then settled down to write a story.

An hour later, there was a knock on my room door. I opened it to find one of my interpreters and a grave-faced Munther.

“Munther cannot cook your turkey,” the interpreter said.

“Why not?”

“The recipe calls for wine,” the interpreter said. “He cannot touch any alcohol.”

“It’s just for the broth and to baste the turkey,” I said. “All the alcohol will evaporate in the heat of the oven and the stove.” But Munther was adamant. He wasn’t going to touch the turkey or the broth. “Fine,” I huffed, “I’ll do it myself.” And I walked down to the kitchen, uncorked a bottle of Chablis and set about preparing the turkey.

As I was assembling the ingredients for the broth, Munther came up to me with the interpreter. He cracked a smile. He noted that I had thrown a large party for the Iraqi staff and their families a month earlier to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday after the month-long Ramadan fast. Because of that, and because the recipe was from my mother, and because I promised him that the alcohol would evaporate, he said he would cook the turkey. “You respected our traditions, so I will respect yours,” he said. And with that, he shooed me out of the kitchen.

It was the sort of grudging, uneasy accommodation that came to define the American presence in Iraq. The rest of the staff were like the exiles who sought power in the early days: unabashedly pro-Western and modern, eager to please and happy to change. But Munther was the real Iraq: strong, proud, conservative, tradition-bound, and more than a little bit stubborn. There was common ground to be had, but it wasn’t going to be achieved easily.

* * *

I hate oven-roasted turkey. Thanksgiving is my least favorite meal of the year. At Christmas, I always lobbied my mother to make fish or lasagna or even Indian food. Why I sought out a turkey in Baghdad that year is beyond me. Perhaps I was going a bit mad after all those months in a war zone. Perhaps I just wanted a Butterball because it seemed so crazy and unattainable. Whatever the motivation, Munther’s turkey looked as perfect as the fake one Bush carried when he visited the troops on Thanksgiving. Golden brown. Crispy wings. Juices oozing down the sides.

He put it on a silver platter and placed it on the table, next to the potatoes and rice and all the trimmings. Munther was beaming as we walked in from the living room.

“Merry Christmas,” he said. And then he began slicing the turkey.

It was, everyone agreed, the best meal they had eaten in Baghdad. When we finished, I walked into the kitchen to thank Munther, but as usual, he had departed as soon as we began dessert.

“Did Munther eat before he left?” I asked the young man washing dishes.

He did, I was told. He ate the roast beef and the potatoes and the rice. He ate everything, the young man said, except the turkey.

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