Naan, a delicious staple of Kurdish culture

A baker prepares naan (bread) for a customer. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)
A baker prepares naan (bread) for a customer. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)

Early morning is filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread. The naan is puffing up soft, you can see it in the tandoor. The baker shapes a soft ball of dough, flicking it hand-to-hand to stretch and lengthen it. 

Customers lining up for the fresh bread have already put their cash on the table of the bakery in the Qarabu neighborhood in Erbil. A young man picks up 1,000 Iraqi dinar and asks, “Whose money is this?” 

“Mine,” a woman replies. She is about 40 years old. The young man puts the money into a cartoon box and then retrieves the naan, now fully baked, from the tandoor.

Traditional Kurdish naan is ordinary bread, made from flour, but it is fresh, delicious, and healthy. Once put into the tandoor (the oven) or on a ser (a concave iron top), it cooks in a flash.

Astook naan baking over hot coals. (Photo: Goran Sabah Ghafour)
Astook naan baking over hot coals. (Photo: Goran Sabah Ghafour)

“We have teeri at home,” the woman says, referring to another type of bread. “But sometimes the kids like this one, astook.”

There are many different names for the types of Kurdish bread: Hawrami, Teeri, Kulera, Astook, Naskanaan, samoon hajari, samooni tomatik, samooni drezh, Kalana, nawseri, astook ba shakir, astook ba roon, astook ba doshaw, and harmishk. People eat many of them on a daily basis.

Kalana is a stuffed fried flat bread baked on a brick or stone griddle. The flour may be stuffed with herbs, chives, spring onion, and garlic. Some people add vegetables such as celery. 

Samoon hajari, a puffy, diamond-shaped bread, cannot be baked from tandoor. It needs a big kiln-like oven. Kulera is round, a bit thicker than the astook. It can be eaten plain or topped with cheese, meat, or eggs. It is delicious with a tea in the morning, and locals say “it is so delicious you eat your hands with it.”

Naani teeri. (Photo: Goran Sabah Ghafour)
Naani teeri. (Photo: Goran Sabah Ghafour)

“I open my shop at 6 in the morning,” said Ayed Ahmed, a baker in Erbil. 

“People ask for kulera with cheese and eat it right here with sweet tea,” the 23-year-old explained. “Others ask for plain kulera and take it home to have with their families.”

Other cultures have naan too. The word means “bread,” in several languages, and it can be found in the cuisines of western Asia, India, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Caribbean. 

Unlike some other types of naan, Kurdish teeri bread is so thin that it looks and tastes like a cracker. Thinner still is hawrami naan, although it is soft, unlike a cracker.

Ten years ago selling teeri naan would have been an embarrassment. Only samoon, kulera, and astook were sold in the markets, and all the other types wre made at home. But now practically every street corner has a shop where women make all kinds of naan, especially the teeri, now the most marketable.

Ahmed says the hawrawmi is the second most popular.

Kurdish naan is also affordable. You can buy 10 samoons for a thousand Iraqi dinar, or about 60 cents in US currency. The same amount will buy around eight kuleras or astooks. Forty hawrami go for about 5,000 Iraqi dinar, or $3. 

All types of naan are made of wheat flour, but some bakers make another type called naani jo or naani sukari for people with diabetes. This variety is dark, made from barley flour and is not sweet at all. 

A pile of fresh-baked kulera naan. (Photo: Goran Sabah Ghafour)
A pile of fresh-baked kulera naan. (Photo: Goran Sabah Ghafour)

Fresh-baked naan is often healthier than bread sold in malls, according to one health professional.

“It’s fresh, clean, and needs the least yeast,” said Dr. Avin Kareem, an expert in nutrition. “Teeri naan is the healthiest one, because it does not need yeast at all and does not upset your stomach.”

The young man in the bakery picks up the last of the money. Five hundred dinars. 

“It’s mine,” I say. Doo naan, bas hendek zyad bibirzhe. Supas. “Two naans, but make it well-done. Thanks.”