I was recently moved to explore Kurdish food after I read Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past. An American of mixed Jewish ancestry, Sabar tells the fascinating tale of his father’s ancient Jewish Kurdish town, Zakho, in Northern Iraq.
His father, Yona Sabar, is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at UCLA. He immigrated to Israel in 1951, as part of the airlift of the Iraqi Jewish community, and, later on, he came to the US. Preserving the Aramaic dialect of the Jews of Zakho and their oral literary traditions has been his life’s work—a monumental task that saved his mother’s tongue from extinction, at least in academia.
Professor Sabar’s mother, Miriam, was instrumental to his early work. An illiterate immigrant, she was his keeper of memory, so to speak, of the ancient words, songs and stories of the Kurdish Jews of Zakho. More than a mere depositary of memories, she also brought with her the food traditions that were passed from generation to generation for thousand of years.
After reading his book, I wrote Ariel Sabar that I was inspired to explore Kurdish food traditions. He generously emailed me some of his savta (grandma) Miriam’s recipes, which his aunt, Ayala, compiled into a family recipe book. Kadeh, a leavened bread filled with cheese, was among them. I decided to give it a try, as it is both bread and vegetarian.
Historically, not all Jewish communities followed the tradition of eating dairy during Shavuot. Today, though, it is the custom in Israel to serve a rich dairy menu during the holiday meal: dairy casseroles, blintzes, cheesecake, burekas and cheese breads, to mention a few. Kadeh is now one of these holiday dishes among Israelis of Kurdish heritage, but I was unable to determine whether it was a traditional Shavuot food in Kurdish Iraq. Regardless, it fits the bill not only because of the dairy, but also because of the bread offering called for during Shavuot in the Temple.
I used Miriam’s recipe as a base for the kadeh I made. There are different versions of kadeh, not just Kurdish, and their shapes and cheese fillings can vary. I used several fillings, sweet and savory. I baked some with the more traditional mixture of feta and farmer’s cheese. Then I added strips of sun-dried tomatoes to this mixture. Others, I stuffed with Gouda and sautéed mushrooms. I served my last savory batch, filled with a mixture of Bulgarian feta cheese and Gouda, with chickpea soup—a delicious, rustic, vegetarian meal. For the sweet variations, I used two fillings: Yemenite date haroset and chocolate.
Like Ruth the Moabite, Savta Miriam, for whom you feel nothing but love and compassion, was an immigrant in a strange land. Throughout history, displacement caused loss of language, literary traditions and folklore. With his mother’s help, Professor Yona Sabar saved his mother tongue from extinction in academia. And while lessons in Aramaic are offered in Israel today, it is nonetheless on its way to extinction as a spoken language.
The traditional dishes Miriam lovingly prepared for her family will continue to have a life of their own for generations, even beyond her immediate family and community. Food speaks to us. It is a language of endurance with which we weave stories of life, tradition and heritage. And, sometimes, when we are at a loss for words, our food speaks for us, too.