MEETING UM JASSEM: An icon of the dried fish trade

Winter is just around the corner, and Um Jassem is busy selling the traditional Iraqi dried fish known as “masmouta”. It’s a favorite Iraqi dish in the colder months. The dried fish is displayed in front of her on tables at a popular market in downtown Nasiriyah, a city in south east Iraq.

By Ali al-Nasiri, in Nasiriyah

Um Jassem is 60 and has worked in this trade for three decades. Um Jassem’s fish come from all over Iraq and she prepares it herself. The technique of preparing dried fish is a traditional trade here in Nasiriyah. It’s normally displayed on ropes to keep it dry and looking good to customers. Um Jassem poetically describes it as looking like gold hanging from necklaces.

Locals describe Um Jassem as an icon of the dried fish business, saying she has a special knack for drying it.

According to the Nasiriyah woman, the process is not an easy one as it has several stages and takes around a fortnight.

“I thoroughly clean the fish, then soak it with water and salt for a whole night,” Um Jassem told Al Menasa. “The next day I hang the fish on ropes above our roof, so it can dry completely in the air and sunlight. My sons help me with this.”

There is also a secret trick of the trade, Um Jassem says laughing, but this is something she won’t reveal.

She learned all this from her own mother and other female relatives when she was much younger. She has been faithful to the trade which has allowed her to feed her family of four.

Um Jassem sells the fish for between IQD2,000 and IQD10,000 (between around US$1.37 and US$6.85). It’s a fairly high price for fish in Iraq but buyers say it’s worth it because of the fish’s nutritional value in winter.

Cooking the fish is another talent that Um Jassem boasts. Preparing the dried fish dish begins with washing and cutting the fish, then placing it in a large pot with water, oil, garlic, celery and spices.

Um Jassem has a lot of clients who buy from her regularly. Some of them even bring the fish to other parts of Iraq when they visit because it’s so good. Um Jassem has even heard of customers sending the fish outside of Iraq.  

Haj Abu Ahmed is one of Um Jassem’s regulars and explains that the taste of her masmouta is unique. “It’s different from any other food and I come to buy it every Friday. We usually make it for special events,” he explains.

Um Jassem thinks she will continue to work in the dried fish trade for years to come. “It has never crossed my mind to leave the profession from which I have lived, which helped me raise my sons and daughters, and which made me many friends and clients,” she explains.

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