Thursday, May 1, 2014


The last time I posted here I was just about to leave for Kurdistan. Since then I have left a long silence. It's not because life has been dull. More, perhaps, that each day has been so packed, so intense, that i have not had the distance to reflect and write about it.

I am in New York as I write this, in fact in Brooklyn staying with a friend. For the next couple f days I will be seeing friends, attending the James Beard Cookbook and Journalism awards event (I'm on the cookbook committee) and attending a committee meeting. It's a privilege and a treat to come to NYC three times a year for the committee. We're a thoughtful bunch who try to do a good job of managing the judging process, all of which is done by independent judges living all over the US and Canada. The awards ceremony is where it all comes together...

But what have I been doing for the last month? The answer is that I have been in Iraqi Kurdistan, and for most of my time there being hosted and taken care of by the lively and generous members of a large extended family from Halabja. I had very little access to the internet, but that was not what kept me from posting, not really. It was instead the fact that I was entirely immersed in where I was, unable to distance myself enough to shape a post properly, and feeling oh-so-fortunate. I made lots of notes, about events, people, the food, the language (Sorani Kurdish), and more. That raw material, plus my photographs, are what I will rely on as I digest all that I've seen and learned, write stories, figure out recipes, etc, for my Persian World book. All that lies ahead.

Apart from memories, notes, and photos, I brought back some Kurdish rice, some spices, and also a box of "gazo", made at a shop in the Sulaymaniya bazaar. It's called "gaz" in Iran and is a special kind of nougat, chewy and not overly sweet, made of a resin exuded by insects onto the leaves of a plant that grows in the Zagros Mountains, plus egg white, sugar, pistachios, and a little rose water. A friend in Toronto loves gaz, so I asked her over to help open the box and have a taste. The box was nailed shut. When we got it open, it was filled with flour, the gazo packed in there, protected and kept fresh by the flour. You wash a piece, tear/pull it in half, since they are large, and then share and eat with pleasure.

Of course since I had bought the box new at the sweet shop (Tofiq Halawchy), sealed up and wrapped in plastic, I had had no idea that it was full of flour (I've since learned that this is the traditional way of storing it).  This means that I had travelled back from Iraq via two days in Istanbul, through two sets of customs checks, with a box full of white powder...  No harm done as it turns out, but perhaps a lesson: I should have asked to see what was in the box when I bought it, don't you think? There's a spy/thriller/mystery novel plot lying in wait here perhaps!

I cried when I parted from the family because I was going to miss them, their warmth and our connection. I still have Kurdish phrases echoing in my "mind's ear" and am looking forward to leaping into recipe work and writing, starting next Monday.

Meantime it's May Day, a day for celebrating working people internationally, and, if you are in France, for giving small bouquets of lily-of-the-valley (muguet) to friends. At this time of year, La Fete Des Muguets, the streets are lightly perfumed with the scent of the small posies that are sold on street corners to passers-by.

Perhaps the weather will warm up and the sun come out in Toronto and elsewhere. This spring Toronto is at least two weeks behind, with all plant life except the bravest crocus flowers holding off until Mother Nature confirms that warmth and sun can be relied on. The lilies of the valley that are usually a carpet of green by now in my front yard, with first buds of flowers showing on spindly little stems, have barely begun to surface from the cold earth. Yikes!

Happy May Day everyone...


Kathy said...

It sounds like you've had quite an adventure and come away with so much. I'm looking forward to seeing pictures and reading your stories. Glad you didn't get nailed for the "white powder" ;)

stuart itter said...

Would have been great fun if customs had found the flour. Or, even more fun, if the packages were stolen from you along the way because of white powder that was not flour. In either case, you might have ended up MIA for a while.