Monday, April 5, 2010

My Daily Bread

What sort of world do we live in where bread - the staff of life, our very bread & butter - is confusing as hell? I've been in Kurdistan for about 7 weeks now and I'm just beginning to plumb the depths of the shifty slippery underworld of bread.

This is what I've learned thus far:

1) Bread worth eating must be purchased at a bakery. (That's pretty much true anywhere.)

2) Buying bread is anything but straightforward except that it is
(sort of) straightforward when you know what you're doing. (Which I seldom do.)

3) Sliced bread (for toast or Western sandwiches) must be avoided at all costs unless your intention is to feed the birds. (Which we should always do.)

4) Kurdish bakeries, in spite of their mandate to bake bread, don't actually bake bread all day, nor are they necessarily open all day, nor are their hours indicated.

Having said that, if Kurdish bakeries do stay open all day, they will often have no bread.

6) Prices are not marked, and are probably not fixed.

7) Kurdish bread is the greatest thing since sliced bread - unless it is sliced bread made in Kurdistan.

Confused? Don't be.

Case in point: the bread featured in the photo above is called samoon (my lame transliteration of the Kurdish word). To buy samoon, you go to the street-level window outside a
samoon bakery (imagine a pedestrian drive-through for bread), and toss your money - say 1,000 dinari - through the window. The baker (or his assistant) will ask you something incomprehensible - incomprehensible if, like me, you don't speak a lick of Kurdish (except "thank you"), but which undoubtedly makes wads of sense if you are a Kurd. The best guess we have is Do you want 1,000 dinari worth of bread? because a bag of very hot triangular bready-roll-things are tossed your way without any change. But really, we have no clue what the baker (or his assistant) is saying. In any case, just nod and/or say yes like you understand. This has worked so far.

The bag of samoon bread (above) was purchased for 1,000 dinari - about 85 cents
- which seems like the deal of the cent
ury until you realize that you'll probably eat at least half the bag on your way home. But should any samoon actually manage to make it home unscathed (i.e., uneaten), they will beg to be broken open and filled with all manner of wonderful things and crammed into your mouth while they are still hot. Bliss.

Now as divine as samoon is (and it is), bread attains the Truly Sublime in the form of naan bread (below right): the warm bubbly flaky flatbread whose place in Unleaven Heaven is unequivocally assured. I would add that in restaurants, naan is normally served towards the middle or end of the meal. Given that Mr. This Cat's (Not Abroad) and I normally eat Kurdish tapas or meze or whatever they're called (or how about just appetizers?) as our main meal when we dine out, this habit of serving bread after the dips borders on maddening. Simply put: I don't like eating hummus with a fork.

But I digress.

So, how to buy naan: find a naan bakery. Which becomes more than a little irritating after, say, 7 weeks of looking and like us, you still haven't found one. Mr. This Cat and I knew there had to be naan bakeries - albeit invisible ones - in our neighbourhood but until last Thursday night, they remained an elusive mystery worthy of Dan Brown. (Not really). That evening, walking home after work - sometime after 8 p.m. - we walked past a hole-in-the-wall (literally) which we hadn't noticed before, and which was now swarming with life. Male life. As we wormed our way through the crowd we saw a clay oven - a gaping fiery maw in the wall which the baker (or his assistant) was tossing dough into, and whose final product the throng of men were eagerly awaiting. Huzzah! A naan oven!

It seems that naan ovens are only operational very early in the morning or late at night. No need to bake bread between those troublesome hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. - who eats bread then except me? But there was no window here - only a small counter separating us from Dante's Dough Inferno. How much do we pay? How much will we get? Why must bread be so goddamn confusing?? I shrieked inside my head, shaking Mr. This Cat by his lapels. We exchanged unknowing glances. Just put a thousand on the counter, I whisper to Mr. This Cat. Which he does. No, I change my mind. Naan is bigger than samoon - give him two thousand. Which he does.

We suspected that our order might be verging on the embarrassingly excessive side when the baker (or his assistant) asked Mr. This Cat to hold open the plastic bag for the mountain of bread in his arms. One, two, three, four naans ... well, look at the photo and count for yourself. For about $1.70, the baker (or his assistant) sent us on our way with 14 rounds of bread - bread so large that the dinner plate groaning under the weight of the naan is completely hidden from view. To our credit, we got six meals out of it (assuming breakfast counts), rather than the one meal which I had envisioned.

Next time we'll just give him 500 dinari. Or not.