Photo by Joshua McNichols
Peshtiwan sits around a home-made meal with his family in Kurdistan, Iraq.

Backyard Feast: Saddam Hussein was not a foodie

By Joshua McNichols

I came to Northern Iraq to write about my Kurdish friend Peshtiwan, his flight to Europe and his eventual reconnection with his homeland after the fall of Saddam. One thing I did not expect from this war-torn country was a thriving local food movement.

That’s because when a people have experienced attempted genocide, you’d think they’d have bigger things on their minds. But in Kurdistan, the immediate danger has passed, and in this province, at least, there is peace. That’s allowed the Kurds to resume their favorite positions -- sitting on the floor in a circle with family around a beautiful meal made of local food.

They eat this way several times a day. At one recent meal I attended, we had beans in a tomato sauce spooned over moist Kurdish rice, cauliflower soaked several days in homemade vinegar, chicken from down the street (the hens roost on empty crates in the driveway), and a salad made from fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, cabbage and pomegranate juice. The only foreign ingredients were the beans, which came from neighboring Iran.

Eating this way is a point of national pride for the Kurds. In 1988, Saddam razed hundreds of Kurdish villages, forcing farmers to flee to the larger cities. The purpose: besides consolidating the Kurds where they could be monitored, this also eliminated their food system, making them reliant on Baghdad for food. The teeming cities were fed through Saddam’s food distribution centers, which rationed certain quantities of sugar, oil and rice to residents.

Saddam may be gone, but the villages did not immediately bounce back. Today, most food in Kurdistan comes from Turkey, Iran and India. The food is cheaper, but many Kurds don’t trust it. They believe other countries foist their worst food on the Kurds. They tell the story of a pair of candy bars; one bought in Kurdistan, and its equal purchased in Turkey. Supposedly, the Kurdish one was tainted. True or not, these rumors have pushed consumers to prefer organic -- and to associate it with Kurdish agriculture.

But it’s not just about the chemicals. It’s also about heirloom varieties. “This is a Kurdish tomato.” My host holds up a small, dark red tomato -- something like a baby brandywine. “It’s better.” Specialty products like this -- have become a point of national pride.

My hosts make long drives to micro-regions famous for growing this kind of pomegranate or that kind of walnut. They bring back carloads of produce to their friends. They serve these foods at every meal, and they make at least 2 meals a day from scratch. In their homes, they dry, ferment and preserve all kinds of produce. And meals are at the center of their social life. I can’t help notice the similarities between their efforts to promote local food and ours in Seattle. It took a dictator to set back their local food system. What’s our excuse?

A trip to the shiny new European-style grocery store in downtown Sulaymaniyah helps me remember. There, Peshtiwan’s wife Awen looks longingly at jars of baby food. She asks me which is best for her baby. Which one is the best replacement for the fingers full of home-cooked Kurdish food she places in her baby’s mouth at every meal. None of them, I tell her. Just keep doing what you’re doing.

Trshiat (A Kurdish side dish)

Fill a pot half-full of black grapes. Cover with water -- water should be 1 ½ inches above grapes.

Cover and leave for 40 days without moving. Very important because in the intervening stage it’s alcohol, and the Koran forbids even touching alcohol. Then, taste it. It should be sour, like vinegar.

Boil it for 15 minutes, then strain through a cheesecloth. Add salt to taste. Discard solids (feed to chickens). Let liquid cool. Soak cauliflower, apple, or cucumber -- anything you like -- in the liquid until it gets soft for 5 or 6 days.

Joshua McNichols is the author of The Urban Farm Handbook and a Ballardite. King County 4Culture helped fund his trip to Kurdistan.

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