Lemon, sumac, unripe fruit, pickles… sour food is overwhelmingly popular in Kurdistan. Hannah and Colleen chat about all the foods that make your mouth pucker and water in Kurdistan. Go grab your jar of pickles and join us in the culinary journey through sour foods in Iraqi Kurdistan!
Here's a Rough Transcript!
Hannah: Welcome to Between Iraq and a Hard Place. I'm Hannah.
Colleen: And I'm Colleen.
Hannah: And we're going to tell you about our life in Iraq.
Colleen: It's going to be fun.
Hannah: I hope so.
Colleen: So, Hannah, what's your favorite food?
Colleen: What flavor is the most prominent flavor in chocolate? Or maybe two flavors?
Hannah: I mean, it tends to be like a little bit bitter.
Colleen: Yes. And probably also a little bit sweet. Right.
Hannah: And a little bit sweet. I really like salted chocolate.
Colleen: So also salty, salty, bitter, sweet. I mean, I feel like one of my favorite foods is a really good cup of coffee.
Hannah: Also bitter.
Colleen: Also bitter. Sometimes can be sweet, not usually salty. But I do like salty foods. Which taste or flavor have we not brought up yet?
Hannah: I feel like Westerners are the most, at least Americans, I'll limit it to Americans. Americans are the most like anti-sour, unless it's some kind of novelty thing. Like sour candy is kind of a thing. But it's like sour candy, it's not like you would eat it all the time.
Colleen: Right. At the same time, we do have pickles. We like pickles.
Colleen: Olives. Some of us. Maybe not you.
Hannah: It's the briny thing with olives.
Colleen: The briny thing?
Hannah: Are olives sour? I don't eat olives, so I really have no idea.
Colleen: But that was one of the biggest differences I feel like in Iraq and living there was the prevalence of sour foods and the enjoyment of sour foods, not just among children. Because I feel like here some of the sour candy stuff kids, you know, elementary age kids get really excited about. And, you know, I remember loving warheads and all of that of being…
Hannah: …sour gummy worms were very popular .
Colleen: …Sour Patch kids, you know…
Hannah: Oh yeah, those things will mess you up.
Colleen: There's like cult followings around these sour candies, which, as an adult, are not nearly as sour as I once thought they were, nor are they nearly as sour as many of the things I ate in the Middle East.
Hannah: It's true. It's almost I think sometimes the sourness was amped up because it was surprising that something was sour.
Colleen: Yeah, we were talking with one of our friends last night about foods that surprised her and she said there was a salad at one restaurant that didn't look like it was going to be sour, didn't have anything in its description that implied that it was going to be sour, but was one of the most sour foods.
Hannah: I always got thrown off by cherry flavored candy or drinks. I was always like, ooh! cherry, that sounds like that's going to hit the spot right now. And so it was usually a cherry drink and it's sour cherry juice, which is like it's like unsweetened cranberry juice, but worse. Where you're just like…. Yeah, your whole face turns inside out. It's sour. And again, maybe because it was like Oh, I forgot that this was a sour thing, but it's gotten me more times than I would like to admit to. Kind of like pistachio ice cream did the same thing. That's not sour. It's a whole different rant. But ice cream that is green should be mint flavored, not pistachio flavored.
Colleen: I agree. But speaking of pistachios, that was one of the most surprising and most sour food experiences I ever had. And probably one of the only things I remember literally spitting out in front of the person who gave it to me. It was on the playground at the school one day during lunch or break or something. And, you know, these kids are sitting there eating these pistachios and they're covered in something that kind of looks crystalline and like it's red and like they're just eating these things one after the other and like, spitting out the shells. They're like, oh, miss, you want some? And I'm like, sure, I'll try it. And so I pop one of these things into my mouth. And I think it was a combination maybe of salt and sumac. Is that what's on them?
Colleen: And maybe more food coloring? I don't know. But whatever it was, was a pistachio in the shell covered in pure sour. Maybe it's also got like citric acid powder or something else. I don't I don't know yet, but it it was so sour that I yeah. I spit it out right then and there and I was like, what have you done to me! This is the worst thing I've ever tasted. And like the inside of the mouth. So the kids are like bright red and they're just eating one after the other.
Hannah: Right. Like candy.
Colleen: Like candy. There was no sugar involved!
Hannah: Yeah, I think that sumac is one of those things that is not common in the US. I had never heard of Sumac until I moved to Kurdistan. Never seen it. Never heard of it. So maybe we should kind of explain what it is. It's a…
Colleen: It's a red powder that's sour!
Hannah: It comes from the bark of a sumac tree. Not like the kind we have in the US. Don't go peeling sumac trees to make this. And they dry it out and powder it up and put it on all kinds of stuff.
Colleen: I mean, it'll be one of the things that you see sitting in a dish on the table at a restaurant that you take pinches of and add to your food the same way we would have a salt and pepper shaker.
Hannah: Yeah. And we're sometimes they come in shakers.
Colleen: In shakers. Yeah.
Hannah: And it's it's kind of a beautiful purply red color.
Colleen: Yeah. It's lovely.
Hannah: It's really beautiful. And kids would bring like pixie sticks, tubes of sumac to school and just eat it straight.
Colleen: Yeah. Oh!
Hannah: Like the way that American kids eat pixie sticks.
Colleen: It makes my teeth almost hurt. Just talking about it.
Hannah: It's sour but it's almost like a like a fruity sour. Like it's not just like it's not just citric acid sour. It's got a little bit of like it's got berry flavor.
Colleen: Yeah. And it, and it can be really good in moderation.
Hannah: Yeah. We have this. I think we've talked before about the wood fire cooked chicken place. And they would coat the outside of the chicken in sumac and then stuff it with onions covered in sumac and lemons. And so the chicken has this like smoky woody fatty sour oniony beautiful… like I would eat one right now if it was in front of me. No questions asked. The Sumac with all of those savory things with it was like, delightful. It really made everything feel very bright and not just like meaty. It added that kind of fruity brightness and on sliced red onions like sprinkled on raw when you eat it that way. That was also really good. And again, I'm not sure of the chemistry as to why. But it was it was still I it was probably my favorite thing to eat in Kurdistan. But not straight for heaven's sake.
Colleen: It's too much then!
Hannah: They also were big fans. Well I mean, pickled everything.
Colleen: Yeah. In Suly it was called tersh, which basically means just sour. Like, that's the name of it. And it's essentially pickled everything.
Hannah: Cauliflower, carrots, occasionally cucumbers.
Colleen: But also sometimes cabbage or other nondescript vegetable matter.
Hannah: Right. It wasn't always identifiable and it wasn't green. Naturally, a lot of times it was like kind of saffrony yellow. I don't know if they put saffron in it.
Colleen: They might have.
Hannah: But it was always like a little yellow tingy.
Colleen: I think actually some of them, they they dye with turmeric.
Hannah: Perhaps that actually makes sense.
Colleen: Because it's really bright yellow.
Hannah: It is very bright. Yeah. Any any time you go to a restaurant or you go to someone's house for a meal, they're there as like a not even a side really. It's like a condiment almost like put this on your salad or on your meat or whatever. It's delicious.
Colleen: Right. If you go to the bazaar and get sandwich, like your options, are raw onions, "tersh", you know, the pickle mix, and some mayonnaisey sauce and sumac.
Hannah: It's almost like if you don't eat the pickles, their feelings are hurt, like you're doing it wrong.
Colleen: Well, and a lot of people, they make those themselves right that, like most of those are bought in the stores. Everybody makes their own.
Hannah: Honestly, the best some of the best pickles I've ever had in my life. I had in Kurdistan, that someone's aunt made like gallons of them and they were trying to give them away and was like, I feel like I've talked about this before, too, but cucumbers stuffed with grape leaves and garlic. And they were the sourest pickles I've ever had in my life. There was no dill involved. It was just straight, sour garlic, cucumbery crispiness. And yeah, we got like a half gallon of them and we'd just sit around and eat them in the evenings. They were delightful. A little bit spicy, too. I think they might have some peppers in them. Yeah.. pickles pickles everywhere!
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Colleen: The other place where sour food also came up is in drinks. And sometimes in food, too. But they've got these. The dried out lemons that they use. I don't know how they make those. How you dry a whole lemon?
Hannah: You dry it? It's very dry there.
Colleen: This is true. It's very dry.
Hannah: Just leave them on the counter.
Colleen: They might just turn into these, but they're usually about the size of…
Hannah: …an apricot?
Colleen: Or like a ping pong ball?
Hannah: Ping pong ball. Yeah.
Colleen: And they're, you know, hollow in a lot of ways. But I mean, maybe some seeds rattling around in there and they'll either stick them in boiling water and make kind of a tea out of them that you can drink or they'll stick them in soups or they'll stick them in even water that they use to make rice out of sometimes.And so you end up with kind of this lemon sour flavor that gets added to a lot of different foods.
Hannah: When I learned how to make dolma, I was surprised at the number of lemons that went into it. And I was even told by the person helping me, like, we don't make ours that sour. And it had like six lemons in it, which they're not… even the lemons there, I feel like are more sour than the ones in the US. Like in the US, we tend to get the big sweeter lemons and there the lemons are a little smaller, they're a little more tart. They also tend to sell them green so that they're even more sour. Also, green oranges was a big thing.
Colleen: Well, and honestly, a lot of the snacks I know that the kids would bring in the spring were green fruits, so green, unripe and apples, green plums were a big deal. And green almonds and like I'd never heard of people eating almonds before they were almonds?
Hannah: Before they were ripe? Right.
Colleen: Like, I didn't know that was a thing that you could do. Still. not something I was a fan of.
Hannah: And from my memory, those tend towards the bitter side of sour, a little bit more. Like the plums were just straightup sour.
Colleen: So sour.
Hannah: Make your teeth hurt, sour. They also had this like it looked like fuzzy asparagus, like a stalk of some wild growing plant.
Hannah: That you would like peel you peel the fuzzy outside off and chew on the inside. And I don't think you're meant to swallow it. You're just supposed to chew on it. Kind of like sugar cane?
Colleen: Some people… no, you can. I think people eat them. Because essentially it's essentially a type of rhubarb. It has the flavor of rhubarb. That's what rhubarb tastes like. And so I actually cut it up once and made a rhubarb dish out of it.
Hannah: So maybe that's what it is. Maybe it's like wild rhubarb, a variation.
Colleen: But it yeah, it's very fuzzy on the outside. And you've got a strip that off.
Hannah: It's lemony and sour. And that I did like! Like I only ever wanted one of them. I would sit there and like, eat them.
Colleen: But those two had a sharpness to them that sometimes was just like, WAAH!. But I mean, if you've had rhubarb, which I know, it's okay, Hannah.
Hannah: There there is also they would eat green chickpeas, which I never had before, but I never even knew how chickpeas grew until ate green chickpeas. And they're definitely a little bit sour and they do taste more like peas when they're green. I had students that took me to the bazaar one time and bought a great big bag of sour plums, dried sour plums. And they were like, you have to try this. This is the best snack. We could eat these all day. And so at this point, I knew the affinity for sour was great.
Colleen: And if they call it sour, you know that it's beyond.
Hannah: Yes. And they were like, oh, they're so sour. It's so good. I was like, cool, I'm not going to like this. So I took one and took a teeny weeny bite. And just like it was like, I don't want anymore. But they ate them like candy. And they were like, I can't believe you don't love these. They're so good. The only thing that I've seen that I think compares is there's like a Japanese sour plum. That is like superduper puckery sour. And that's what these looked like. I'm pretty sure they were not from Japan.
Colleen: Probably not.
Hannah: I'm pretty sure someone in Kurdistan was growing them, but even pomegranates there. They like the sour on the sour side of a pomegranate.
Colleen: I'm not sure I found that necessarily.
Hannah: Maybe it's a Dohuk thing, but I don't know if they would pick them early or what. But they were never like sweet pomegranates that I was used to.
Colleen: Yeah, maybe maybe Suly liked a sweeter pomegranate because we got amazing pomegranates there. But it is a sour fruit. And it is also really popular. You know, the sour foods overall are the favorites.
Hannah: Even the yogurt drink that we've definitely talk about.
Colleen: Oh yeah, doh?
Hannah: Yeah, doh is very sour. It's sour like, it just is. And sometimes they'll add lemon to it to make it more sour. And you're just like, I cannot with this.
Colleen: Yeah. I think I really enjoyed the sour when it was paired with savory foods or even paired with other flavors. It was the sour that was all by itself that I struggled with. Yeah.
Hannah: I brought back Starbursts for my students. And like in the U.S., the favorite starburst flavors are red and pink.
Hannah: Strawberry and cherry. That's like…
Hannah: They are. They're the popular ones.
Colleen: In myfamily it was always the the yellow and the orange ones.
Hannah: So all my Kurdish kids, that's what they wanted. The lemon and orange ones, because they were like, these are the ones that are sour, there are the ones that are good. Which I'm again, not super surprised, but I was like, all right, I'll keep the pink ones. I don't mind. I should have. Now, I kind of wish I had taken, like, sour gummy worms or like Skittles, made sour Skittles a while back.
Hannah: I think would have been very popular.
Hannah: It also kind of explains to some extent, their aversion to super sweet things. I never knew Kurds who were like all about the sugar.
Colleen: Yeah, except in their tea.
Hannah: Except in their tea.
Colleen: And like, I feel like little kids liked the sugar and the sour, sometimes equally. But, yeah, where here. Most kids, you know, taste lemon or something and they, you know, pucker up and they, you know, get angry or they don't like it or they don't want any more of it. There it's like kids will just chew on lemon. Well, that's been a mouthwatering conversation.
Hannah: Yeah. Tell us what your favorite sour foods are. If there's something out there that we should try. Also, if you have any guesses as to what the rhubarby plant thing was that we ate, I really would like to know. I'm very curious about it.
Colleen: I used to know the Kurdish name for it. I can't remember now.
Hannah: Well, you're no good to us here.
Colleen: That's why we need help.
Hannah: Yeah. Let us know your favorites sour foods. And as always, if there's something we haven't talked about that you want to hear about. Let us know that, too. We're happy. Happy to do it.
Colleen: We'd love to hear from you. You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram. And you should check out our blog and complete transcripts over at ServantGroup.org.
Hannah: And it's really helpful for us if you share our podcast or leave a review on whatever platform you listen to this podcast on. It helps us know that people are listening. And you can let us know what you want to hear next. Thanks for listening.
Hannah: We don't have rhubarb in the South. It's too hot.
Colleen: I know I tried to grow it here once and it didn't work.