That’s going to make me sick.”
That was my first reaction to the early-December announcement of Iraq’s Trump Fish, a new restaurant in the Kurdish city of Duhok, where I work as an English professor. My negative gut reaction wasn’t necessarily toward the president-elect himself (fine, maybe a little) but about how the fish restaurant named for him looked: mediocre. Now, mediocre doesn’t automatically mean bad, but when it comes to Kurdish fish, you absolutely do not want to eat anywhere less than “classy” or your innards will almost certainly suffer. I say this because I’d made that mistake before, and would now make it again, for journalism.
Trump Fish is located on one of Duhok’s busiest streets. Walk half a block in one direction, and you’ll find yourself in Duhok’s biggest shopping mall, which houses the city’s only movie theater. Walk half a block in the other direction, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by children asking for spare change. There’s not much to differentiate Trump Fish from any other average Kurdish restaurant: The walls and floor are clinically white, like a Greyhound bus station, with framed posters of scenic Kurdish cities like Zakho and Amedi adding bits of green to the fluorescent-lit walls. In the back, there’s a staircase leading up to the second-floor dining area, where you are advised to go if you are a woman or in the company of a woman, as in most Kurdish restaurants. The only thing that really stands out is…
SUDDEN DARKNESS. Oops! A minute or two after we arrived, the power went out, our faces lit only by smartphones. This was no fault of Trump Fish; the lack of reliable electricity has been a thorn in Iraq’s side for so long that nobody really notices blackouts anymore (myself included). Luckily, Duhok has worked out a system of private generators for whenever the government electricity runs out, and the lights were back on in a mere five minutes.
Now, we could clearly see the tank of live fish swimming in water murky enough to set off my internal “do not eat from this tank” alarm. Then again, maybe that’s the natural habitat for carp. I’m no student of fish society. The tank sits next to the window looking out on the fire pit/grill area set up on a large pedestal outside of the restaurant, so passers-by can’t help noticing. The fish live in constant view of their inevitable execution! Sad!
“Even taken with a bite of raw hot pepper, the Trump Fish lacked any discernible flavor other than morning breath washed down with pond water.”
Carp is the only item offered on the menu. This makes life easy for everyone: We didn’t have to stress over choosing from a cluttered menu, and the cook didn’t have to worry about messing up anyone’s order. A friend and I ordered one carp to split, with lemon and hot peppers on top. We watched the cook prepare the fish by splitting it in half, unfolding it like a book and propping it up on metal grates over the fire.
While waiting for our order, I asked one of the four brothers who own the restaurant why they’d named their restaurant Trump Fish. He spoke excitedly, knowing I’m American. “Trump’s good!” he exclaimed, to the tune of “isn’t it obvious?” I should mention that a lot of restaurant owners in Iraq don’t seem to have put a lot of thought into their establishments’ names. Usually, they’re just the name of a city or thing the owner likes (think “Café Venice” and “Restaurant Batman”). Having been visited by major news outlets like CNN, BBC, Reuters and others over the previous month, the owners were an endearing combination of boastful and bewildered by all the attention their carp establishment’s name had garnered.
Inspired by this, my dining companion and I had a brief conversation about Donald Trump over the olives, pickled cucumbers, cabbage and lemon that constitute the ubiquitous Kurdish appetizer. By the time our carp came out 20 minutes later, we’d established that neither of our countries (the U.S. and China, respectively) took him as seriously as Iraqi Kurdistan seemed to; here, he’s already something of a folk hero.
As for the fish placed before us, it had been entirely, thoroughly blackened, rendering the outside inedible because the many sharp, skinny bones stuck firmly to the charred exterior.
We each grabbed some flatbread and dug in, pulling the burned meat from the bones.
“Not bad!” I thought.
And it really didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t taste good, either. In fact, it didn’t taste at all. That’s usually nothing a little lemon and hot pepper won’t fix, so we seasoned the fish. I tried another piece. The flesh had a squishy, oily texture, like if tofu mated with carp. And it still tasted like nothing, even after squeezing a whole lemon wedge over it. Even taken with a bite of raw hot pepper, the fish lacked any discernible flavor other than morning breath washed down with pond water.
At this point, we started pairing everything on the table with the carp to improve the taste, or at least heavily disguise it. I was hopeful upon noticing a bottle of pomegranate sauce on the table. Pomegranate sauce is a ubiquitous condiment in the region, and I’d used it to liven up humdrum fish before. I gave my next forkful a liberal squirt of the thick, sweet, tangy brown-red liquid, but the flavor was somehow getting worse the more I ate. The only thing that managed to overcome the fish’s oppressive swampiness was a thick slice of raw onion. We were getting desperate. We ordered an entire plate of hot peppers because we were running out of things to put on the fish.
My friend gave up first, saying, “My friend works in construction. He tells me if you build the basement wrong, the whole house is no good. The fish is all wrong. Nothing we do can make it good.” I held on for a little while longer, popping out the bones and trying to unveil some hidden nook or cranny of flavor. I failed, and in the end my prophecy came true: Trump Fish made me so, so very sick. My olfactory system was saturated with the swamp-water stench — made worse by the fact that I’d seen the water in question — and I didn’t sleep much that night.
In summation, the novelty and attention Trump Fish has attracted really isn’t worth it. It’s a
carpy crappy place to eat, and if you find yourself in Kurdistan, do yourself a favor and try the lamb.