Semeç Masgûf (Arabic: سمچ مسگوف), or simply masgûf, is a Mesopotamian dish consisting of seasoned, grilled carp; it is often considered the national dish of Iraq.
The Iraqi capital city Baghdad prides itself of making the best masgûf, with the Ebû Newâs district on the shores of the Tigris river, "dedicated" to this dish, having more than two dozen fish restaurants. Nonetheless, one can find masgûf all over Iraq, especially near the Tigris-Euphrates Basin.
Outside of Iraq, masgûf is more or less popular in the Jazīra as in the rural parts of Syria, especially in the regions bordering Iraq, such as in the Raqqa Governorate, (crossed by the Euphrates). It is also seen, at a lesser scale, in the Jazīra areas located in Turkey, such as Nusaybin and Cizre, on the Iraqi border.
Masgûf is now also found in Damascus due to a high number of Iraqis exiles living there since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the district of Jeremana alone, where most Iraqis live, more than ten masgûf restaurants, staffed by Iraqis. The fish is brought daily from the Syrian Euphrates to these restaurants, and is kept alive in a fishpond or a big aquarium until it is ordered.
The fish is caught alive and weighed. It is clubbed to kill it, then split lengthwise down the belly, cleaned and spread out into a single flat piece. It is then partially scaled, gutted and cut in two identical halves from the back while leaving the belly intact, opening the fish in the shape of a large, symmetrical circle. From there, the cook bastes the inside of the fish with a marinade of olive oil, rock salt, tamarind, and ground turmeric.
The fish is then either impaled on two sharp piles of wood, or placed in a big cast iron grill with a handle and a locking snare, designed specifically for this dish.
The fish, together with the grill or the piles, is then placed near the fire of the "fire altar", a feature shared by all masgûf restaurants. This "altar" typically consists of a big open-air area centered by a raised, podium-like sandbox that is either round, octagonal or sometimes rectangular and in the middle of which there is a large fire of apricot tree logs.
Cooking typically takes between one and three hours, until most of the fish's fat is burned off, time during which the guests will pick at their mezes.
When the fish is well cooked and crispy on the outsides, it is typically laid on a large tray garnished with lime (or lemon), slices of onion and Iraqi pickles. Sometimes, in Baghdad, a little bit of a mango chutney is also spread on the inside. The tray is then covered by a large crispy flatbread straight of a clay oven to keep the contents hot until served to the client.
The Turkmens of Northern Iraq are known to prepare a similar recipe, often using a clay oven.