Kurdish Flat Bread and Unusual Connections

by Sarah on January 13, 2010

Kurdish flat bread, called tiri in Kurdish or rakika in Aramaic

On my quest to find someone who still makes Kurdish flat bread I called my grandmother to inquire who might still make it, she gave me her niece’s number who gave me her son’s number, who gave me his wife’s number who gave me her father in law’s number who wasn’t home. When I finally reached him I introduced myself as Zarifa’s granddaughter, as everybody knows her and trying to explain my connection in the convoluted family tree would have been impossible. As soon as I mentioned my grandmother’s name he Ah’ed in recognition, but unfortunately he had just finished baking a big batch of bread, one that would last for several months. He promised he would call me but when he did I was vacationing in Rhodes and missed another opportunity.  I gave up hope of ever seeing how Kurdish flat bread is baked but on my last visit to my grandmother’s I was greeted by a wonderful surprise.

When I walked into their cramped apartment I noticed she had a new couch covering and a lovely cream tablecloth but when I went to sit down my grandmother shouted

“NOOOO!”

and this is when I realized that every horizontal surface of her tiny house was covered in Kurdish flatbread waiting to be baked and I was about to sit on it. Then I noticed Jaya, my grandfather’s Nepalese caregiver trying to stifle his laughter.

Jaya posing like a matador

So on the warm winter day my Kurdish grandmother and her brawny Nepalese helper busied themselves baking traditional bread while my father, who was visiting Israel, sat with my bedridden grandfather in the sunny corner of the room. The smell of baking bread must have awoken sleeping neurons in my grandfather as I have never seen him so lucid in months.

Usually the bread consists only of water and flour, sometimes salt, never yeast but this time she added stale dark bread which kept the dough from drying out before she baked them on the saj, similar to an upside down wok. Bread baking is not the work of one, or even two, but years ago this was a communal event, bringing together the women of the village.

Traditionally Kurdish bread is made outside over an open fire

The Arabs and Bedouins also make flat bread on the saj but their technique is different. While my grandmother painstakingly rolls out each piece of dough, they flatten it into small discs before flipping the dough with the dexterity you get only from years of experience into something much larger and thinner. Using a pillow they flip this dough on to the saj or tanur oven wall. Although flat bread is often made using modern equipment as in the little bakery in Petra Jordan, there are some who still bake “Khoubz” the traditional way ( I first saw this video on  Cmiranda’s lovely Arabic food blog,  Pomegranates and Zaatar)

My grandmother is from what is now the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and her technique is also shared by the nomadic Turks. When my grandmother is ready to place the bread on the saj she uses a long thin rolling pin she crafted from an old broom handle.

The Kurds of Israel, the majority of whom immigrated between 1950 and 1951, like my grandmother, were considered illiterate plebeians, the lowest level in a society run by Jews of European descent. This was partly because their skills and qualifications were not highly regarded in the new state and also because they did not share the same socialist ideology. David Ben- Gurion, first prime minister of Israel set the tone by describing them as lacking even “the most elementary knowledge” or “trace of Jewish or human education”. Golda Meir went on to ask “Shall we be able to elevate these immigrants to a suitable level of civilization?” I have met many people, decades later, brush aside the complaints by Sephardic immigrants (Jews coming from Arab lands) as over reactions, “It was hard for everyone” they said, but for those experiencing discrimination it must have been even harder.  When I see Jaya, my grandfather’s caregiver, I hope that people see him and others like him as important contributors to Israeli society although they are relegated to jobs only foreign workers from third world countries accept, much like the Arab Jews decades ago. Although many eventually go back home, it is hard for me to think that people like Jaya, whom my grandmother trusts with her life, would never be qualified to settle here. Others say they have responsibility to go back to their native country, and like Dr. Seuss writes so eloquently in I Had Trouble in getting to Sollow Sollew the hero of the story eventually heads back to his home, the Valley of Vung where his problems all began to try to fix them.

But I’ve bought a big bat.

I’m all ready, you see.

Now my troubles are going

To have troubles with me!

Although my grandmother has little to offer Jaya, she does give him respect, for she remembers doing jobs exactly like he is doing today which she considers as respectful and honorable as any other. It’s funny to think, but now Jaya knows more about Kurdish bread than many of my grandmother’s descendents.

References:

My Father’s Paradise- A son’s search for his Jewish past in Kurdish Iraq, by Ariel Sabar

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Yael January 13, 2010 at 1:09 am

Wow Sarah! what a wonderful post, and i loved the social outlook on things. i’m also the first to leave a comment, yay!

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Christine January 13, 2010 at 1:23 am

Amazing how a staple such as bread is both a labor of love and a dying art. Great post!

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Angeli Cooks January 13, 2010 at 1:42 am

What a lovely post! I love the flatbreads

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blanche January 13, 2010 at 3:44 am

Amazing! Great stories in there! I always learn so much from your posts… :)

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lisaiscooking January 13, 2010 at 7:08 am

Beautiful flatbreads! So interesting that it lasts for months. And, great information as always.

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IsraeliMom January 13, 2010 at 10:53 am

Awesome story and great looking bread. Amazing that it lasts for months – doesn’t it get moldy?

Interesting that it’s called rekik in Aramaic. There’s also a word in Hebrew – rekik – meaning something baked, usually along the line of a biscuit. Probably the very same word.

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Sarah January 13, 2010 at 11:30 am

thanks for the kind comments!

Anne, rakika, I believe comes from the word thin in Hebrew (rakik) but in Aramaic it means soft, perhaps because they wet the bread before using it to wrap something up in (like a lafa).

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Michael January 13, 2010 at 11:36 am

What a great post! Does anyone know hot to get a saj? I would love to make many arabic flatbreads (my father is Lebanese) but can’t locate a saj. I will flip a wok if necessary, but would love a saj.

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Sarah January 13, 2010 at 11:46 am

Michael,
Thank you! This saj I bought at lod shuk but never was able to produce such large breads.
A wok would work well if it is made with carbon steel, but not a teflon one of course.

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Michael January 13, 2010 at 11:53 am

Thanks Sarah, Unfortunately in USA I am only going to be able to buy a wok, but I will make sure it’s carbon steel. Thank you so much for the quick response and keep up the great work, I really love your blog!

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Curiouseats - Lissa January 13, 2010 at 7:36 pm

WOW! Very special post.

Your grandmother is Beautiful!!! I bet she can tell some stories!

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Fun Joel January 14, 2010 at 7:12 am

So, are you going to start making these breads in the traditional way now? They look scrumptious, of course.

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Sarah January 14, 2010 at 7:22 am

If my family had to count on me making it the traditional way I think they would starve.
I am not that talented :-). thanks

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Miriam/The winter guest January 14, 2010 at 7:35 am

Lovely post, there are so many once-common skills being lost to modernity…

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tasteofbeirut January 16, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Sarah
I really enjoyed this post/documentary; I grew up with Kurdish people in my life that I felt a lot of affection for and also felt sorry for because they were relegated to the lower echelons of society. I have always been intrigued by their culture.

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Baroness Tapuzina January 17, 2010 at 6:14 am

Sarah, you made me cry. It is a beautiful post and so very true. The Middle Eastern immigrants were treated with disdain by the Ashkenazim. They came from rich cultures and had much to teach us.

The bread looks quite labor intensive, but I would love to try and make it sometime. I bet the best place to find a large Saj is in Daliyat el Karmel.

I can tell that your grandmother was a beauty in her day. She has a lovely smile.

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Angie March 24, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I hadn’t read this post and was browsing your site, and came across it. This post is very touching. Grandmothers need to be remembered and honored.

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Catherine Bayar May 4, 2010 at 9:09 am

A lovely post Sarah, making me homesick for my Kurdish mother-in-law and all her daughters, who bake bread in our Selcuk outdoor tandir every other day. Not flatbread like this, but big naan slapped to the insides of the hot oven, retaining her hand-prints so it’s thick in some places, thin in others. Actually, that’s funny, I should know by now if it’s spelt “naan” in Kurmanci, like they do in India or not, but I’ve never seen it written! Nonetheless, so happy to have found your blog – thanks!

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Sarah May 4, 2010 at 12:51 pm

lovely you stopped by. The Kurdish Turks cook differently
than those from Iraqi, more similar to the non Kurds of their country. The naan bread you are
describing sounds very much like khubz, the way bread is made in Iraq and other Middle Eastern
countries.

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Dilek November 14, 2010 at 9:35 pm

We call that bread Yufka, story about the bread.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yufka

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Sarah November 15, 2010 at 6:10 am

Dilek, thanks for the information. I mentioned yufka on my baklava post http://www.sarahmelamed.com/2009/04/baklava-the-missing-link/

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Myriam December 4, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Dear Sarah,

I was so excited to see this! My ex-husband was a Kurdi, from Zakho and I remember once seeing these old women bring in a platter of this flat bread into his parents’ house (In Israel) but it was for the Pesach Matzah. I”m assuming it’s made the same way except of course for Pesach it must be done in under 18 minutes from start to finish. Also, can you get the recipe for “kadeh”? My late mother in law used to make 2 kinds, one with cheese which they ate on Shavuot and I’m not sure of the filling in the second one. I remember how good the chamusta tasted. They always ate it on Friday afternoon and I think also on Friday night. I also tasted “chitaah” once, which is a winter chamin made with wheat but it was quite heavy and I wasn’t very impressed with it. More suitable for the colder winters in the mountains of Kurdistan!

Thanks!

Myriam S. Gabbay

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Sarah December 5, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Myriam, So happy you enjoyed this post. I will look for a recipe for kada. The one that my Aunt makes is with walnuts and cinnamon if I remember correctly. I will ask her if she makes them with cheese. Chitaah (means wheat in Hebrew) is a very heavy dish, especialy in the Israeli summer but my relatives always make it year round. They add special kubba (dumplings) filled with meat and pinenuts.

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APM July 19, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I came across your blog while searching for Tanur bread. I happened to see some in a local Mexican/Arabic market and wondered what it was used for. I mention this post in my blog about writing, while talking about inspiration striking in the most mundane places. http://preview.tinyurl.com/4yh2zno

Thanks for all the great info!

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JPB November 20, 2011 at 8:55 pm

This was a wonderful read!
I enjoyed Kurdish cuisine while working with the Peshmerga in Ninewah. I wish I could remember the names of some of the meals, because they were DELICIOUS and I haven’t been able to find them elsewhere.

One that I rememebr distinctly were ground meat kabobs, usually cooked over coals on flat irons, served with flat bread, rice, tomato, onion, cucumber, and a thin tomato soup with chickpeas, onion, etc in it. I would form little tacos (I hate calling them that, but I don’t know what else to say!) and dip it in the soup.
This was lunch for me nearly every day for a year, and I do dearly miss it.

One that I didn’t have as often, but was stupendously delicions involved a fried chickpea crust similar to kibbeh, but rounder and flatter and much yummier.

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NazarBlue January 27, 2012 at 10:08 am

Great post! Love the photos too – she looks so kind. I stayed with a Kurish family while staying in Istanbul, my their food was great.

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Sarah January 27, 2012 at 10:20 am

Thank you NazarBlue!

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