Masgouf is a traditional Iraqi preparation for fresh fish, usually carp. It involves butterflying a large fish, spicing the exposed meat, and skewering it on a stick or securing it in a flat barbecue basket so it can be placed very close to the fire or coals. The fish is cooked until it is crispy and is then served immediately on a platter of lemons, tomatoes and other vegetables. The entire process takes several hours and is steeped in traditions so the cooking resembles as much a ceremony as it does a recipe. There are restaurants that have special ovens to cook masgouf, although any hot fire will do for community celebrations or home cooking.
The process of making masgouf begins with the selection of a live fish, usually carp, though it can be any white fish. This can be chosen from a tank of fish or from a fisherman’s fresh catch. The chosen fish is then clubbed to kill it, after which it is split lengthwise down the belly, cleaned and spread out into a single flat piece. A long skewer is drawn through the fish so it can be mounted in front of a fire. Alternately, the butterflied fish can be sandwiched between a pair of large grates attached to long handles and hinged at one end.
A marinade of oil, salt and tamarind is applied to the exposed flesh of the fish before cooking. This marinade can sometimes include other ingredients, such as pepper, turmeric, cumin, ginger or coriander, but is most traditionally just simple oil and salt. Once the marinade is applied, the fish is placed vertically in front of a fire, or horizontally inside a hot clay oven. The purpose of the cooking process is to render all of the fat from the fish, leaving only the meat and spices. One reason why carp is the traditional fish for masgouf is because of its high fat content.
The entire ceremony surrounding the preparation and serving of masgouf has made it an event that is often very social and sometimes involves an entire community. After the group to be served chooses the fish that it wants, group members sit around a table during the one- to three-hour cooking time, eating small appetizers and talking. The size of the fire needed to cook the fish makes it easy to prepare many fish simultaneously so large groups can be served. The dish is so popular and social in Iraq that masgouf is frequently served to visiting dignitaries during their visits.