Traditional Kurdish cooking varies according to the regions in which the Kurdish people live, and the local economies within this region. However, the cooking of the Kurds, who until the end of the 19th century lived a nomadic or transhumant life, is based on animal husbandry and viticulture. The traditional economy was based mainly on dairy farming, the milling of wheat and the processing of animal products. There is a proverb which sums up the women’s attitude toward life: “There are lambs in the spring, grapes in the fall, and in the winter, there’s me.” At the same time, this proverb illustrates the connection between foodstuffs produced and the seasons.
The interaction between the Kurds and the Armenians, Assyrians and Turks who lived among them is reflected in their food as well. Kurdish dishes show a great similarity to those of the Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Assyrians and Persians. In addition, there are Kurdish dishes which differ across the regions of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey in terms of ingredients and cooking methods but share the same name.
The migrations which occurred because of Iraq and Turkey’s policies led to significant changes in the Kurds’ eating habits. The changes in animal husbandry and agriculture caused an erosion of Kurdish life, and consequently, in Kurdish food culture as well.
We have no written material concerning the food culture and cuisine of the Kurds. However there are some historical sources which allow us to connect the Kurdish eating habits with their earlier history. Preserved sheep bones from 600 BC found in Iraqi Kurdistan, and later digs in Rewandiz and Kerim Şerir have yielded evidence of the shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture and animal husbandry. Later studies have shown that techniques for preserving vegetables and meat had developed.
The book “Kitab el-Tabah” (Foods of Superior Quality), written in the 13th century by Muhammed İbn-el_Hasan İbn Muhammed İbn el Kerîm el-Kâtib el-Bağdadî, shows how the ethnic food cultures of various Islamic societies was achieved. Expressions such as “Indian bread,” “Kurdish dish with pistachios” and ‘Turkmen menu” used in these periods are important elements that define the harmony between different ethnic, religious and social groups.
The meals served at weddings, funerals, festivals and celebrations are of great importance. According to the season, these meals are served either in large halls or in gardens, and the dishes reflect the economic status of the person preparing them. mutton, lamb or chicken served over rice pilaf indicate that the host is well to do. Those who are not so well off prepare the same meal with bulgur pilaf. The meat pilafs served to the large crowd is accompanied by bean stew or güveç, a casserole of meat and eggplant. The pilaf is eaten from common platters, but stew-type foods are served in individual bowls. Each guest eats from the part of the platter nearest him or herself. The same dishes are also prepared for the feasts of Ramazan and the Sacrifice, however only for the family.
Another occasion for the preparation and distribution of food is the funeral ceremony. Upon a death, relatives and neighbors prepare food at the home of the deceased for three days following the burial ceremony. Condolence visits continue for three days after the funeral, and visitors are served bitter coffee and tea. Those visiting in the afternoon are served foods rich in meat. Men and women are served in separate rooms. In a gesture of support for the family of the deceased, visitors bring ingredients such as tea and sugar.
In some regions, the tradition of having a picnic, called a seyran, on the banks of rivers or streams for Newroz (spring equinox) continues. The foods prepared for these picnics include dolma, stuffed köfte and a meat köfte called şifte.
The most basic foodstuffs of the Kurds are milk products such as yogurt, butter and cheese. The most commonly consumed grains and legumes are rice, wheat, lentils, chickpeas and dry beans. The most common vegetables are eggplant, onions, radishes and cucumbers.
The wealthy classes use the same foods as the rest of the people, cost being the main factor determining their consumption. While the main dish of the well-to-do is rice, those of lesser means eat bulgur, known as savar. The most important indicator of economic class is the use of meat. The meals of the wealthy include a generous amount of labor-intensive meat dishes. Stuffed lamb and a stuffed eggplant dish known as Şex Mehşî are considered dishes of the wealthy. Another special occasion dish is lamb (qozî) enriched with herbs and tomato sauce.
The Influences of Arab, Iranian and Turkish Cuisines on Kurdish Cuisine
Iranian cuisine includes many yogurt-based soups. Several dishes make use of barberries, and pilafs flavored with saffron are common.
In Iran, plain pilaf is always served with stew-type dishes. The hard wheat known as savar is much used in Iraq, less so in Turkey, and Iran it is not used at all. There are also differences in the way dolma are made. When Kurds make dolma, they cook all the vegetables together, and may be made with onions, peppers or vine leaves. The Iranian Kurds and Azeris add dried currants to their dolma fillings.
Another of the most basic Kurdish foodstuffs is bread. Considered sacred by the Kurdis peoples, bread is made in many different shapes and from a variety of ingredients. A few of them include:
Nanê Tîrî, a thin bread made in large quantities and dried for storage; when desired it is moistened in order to soften it for eating. The same bread is known among Turks as yufka bread.
Nanê Kulêrê is a type of bun with sesame seeds.
Nanê Tenûrê is a flat bread cooked by sticking it onto the walls of a tandır oven
Nanê Hewramî is a thin bread about 70 cm in length.
The Kurds generally eat seated on the floor, and meals are traditionally served on a felt or ready-made cloth which is either draped over a low round wooden table or directly on the carpet. Hot, cold dishes, main dishes and sweets are all set out at the same time. Main dishes of lamb, beef or chicken are served together with vegetables.
Traditional Kurdish cooking consumes a large part of the women’s day. In recent times, as more and more women work outside the home, people have increasingly turned to an urban-style eating habits. Despite this however, Kurdish families who maintain their traditional lifestyle in the cities continue to have their main foodstuffs such as dried goods, cheese, butter and wheat sent by their close relatives living in rural areas. At the same time, Kurdish cuisine has left its imprint on large cities in the form of kebab, pide, büryan, simit and börek restaurants.