Talking Kurdish bread culture with the Mayor of Little Kurdistan, Shirzad “Zee” Tayyar
I’m sitting across the table from Shirzad “Zee” Tayyar at Edessa Restaurant precisely eight years and two days after first meeting him. Edessa helms a small selection of stores, restaurants, and a mosque off Nolensville Road, known colloquially as Little Kurdistan. It’s an easy area to miss, given the chaotic nature of driving down Nolensville Road, but after one taste, impossible to forget.
Tayyar and I hardly knew each other back then; the same could be said now. Still, he’s friendly, animated, caffeinated, and generous to have met me on a Friday afternoon after group prayer and before rush hour. He’s a bit of a local celebrity, and I think we might have picked the wrong booth. We’re seated by the front door, and I count no less than five people breaking conversations to say hello, shake his hand, and wish him well. I note out loud that he’s pretty famous. He brushes it off, laughing, “These are all my second cousins and my dad’s friends.”
Back in 2016, Tayyar hosted informal yet informative Little Kurdistan food tours. A few times per month, a group of 50 or so would meet in front of Azadi International Food Market & Bakery to taste Kurdish cuisine. The walk and talk consisted of 4-5 food stops plus a visit to The Salahadeen Center of Nashville. A few friends and I went, and the feeling of being handed a right-from-the-oven samoon – a deflated football-shaped yeast bread – for the first time is now a core memory of mine.
We’re at Edessa to talk about Kurdish bread culture, specifically the Kurdish bread available in Nashville. Oddly enough, between us on the table isn’t bread at all but a selection of sticky sweets: Kadaif (noodles baked in butter and pistachios, topped with lemon sugar syrup) and Turkish Kunefe (shredded wheat with a gooey cheese filling, pistachios, and sugar syrup on top).
“My sister makes this,” Tayyar says, pointing to the Kunefe. “If I weigh an extra 100 pounds next you see me, we know what it’s from.”
Do I think the men can make the same kind of bread as tastefully as the women can? Absolutely not. No. There’s no way. I hate to bring this up because it feels like I’m continually bragging on my mom, but she was known for her bread.
-Shirzad “Zee” Tayyar
From Iraq to Nashville (with bread!)
Tayyar and his family moved to Nashville from Northern Iraq in 1993 as refugees, fleeing genocide, persecution, and oppression by Saddam Hussein. They joined what was, at the time, a small diaspora of Kurdish families. The émigré community included those from his home country of Iraq and Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Tayyar quickly points out that Edessa’s menu is representative of the owner’s Turkish origin, varying slightly from his mother’s Iraqi-style cooking. Describing all Kurdish food as the same is a mistake because each home country has regional idiosyncrasies.
The Salahadeen Center, the local Kurdish Mosque bookending Little Kurdistan, was built in 1998, and the community has since grown significantly. Twenty-thousand Kurds now live in Nashville -the largest Kurdish community in the United States. The old-world food traditions are still practiced today, most notably perhaps in the abounding bread offerings.
We argue over who is paying the tab and make our way out the door of Edessa, and across the parking lot, to our first bakery stop: Zaytun International Market. Their crispy, sesame-topped naan bread is made fresh daily. Consider yourself lucky if you happen to be there when the naan is pulled from the oven, condensation building in its plastic sleeve. One of Tayyar’s relatives is a head baker, and her handiwork is beautiful to taste and touch.
House of Shawarma
A few doors down, we walk under the bright red awning of Newroz Market. Home to House of Shawarma in the back, a no-frills eatery known for its shawarma, of course, as well as perfectly crisp falafel. It’s busy today, like most days, with folks lining up at the counter to order simple-yet-spiced combinations of protein, rice, and vegetables. The filling isn’t exactly the point – the pro move is to have everything wrapped in the perfect, made-in-house flatbread. It’s not quite a tortilla, yet not as thick as naan. You can buy a pack to-go, and I see a few folks wisely doing so.
The counter, slightly reminiscent of a traditional southern meat ‘n’ three thanks to the three-sided glass case holding half a dozen menu offerings, butts into Newroz’s bakery window where stacks of Barbari lay in wait. Barbari is a thick, yeast-leavened flatbread commonly topped with sesame seeds or caraway. Tayyar tells me it’s common to find this as one of many bread options on breakfast tables within the community. It’s the perfect vehicle for eggs, tahini, mast-o-khiar (Persian yogurt and cucumber dip), and a few bites of joji (cheese).
Little Kurdistan is at the intersection of Nolensville Road and Elysian Fields. If it’s your first time in the neighborhood, arrive hungry and spend a few hours exploring. Lunch at House of Shawarma is a no-brainer, but follow your nose (and gut) to the other stores on the block for some of the best bread, condiments, cheeses, olives, pastries, and candies in Nashville.
Baking was traditionally a woman’s job but is now a shared responsibility between the sexes, depending on where you shop. Tayyar notes the generational female wisdom required to turn very few ingredients – water, salt, flour, yeast (depending on what you’re making), and not much else – into one of the cornerstones of Kurdish food culture. His mother is a bit of a bread-baking legend in the community. Now retired from the commercial kitchens, the only way to eat her bread is to get a lucky invite to her home table.
“Do I think the men can make the same kind of bread as tastefully as the women can? Absolutely not. No. There’s no way. I hate to bring this up because it feels like I’m continually bragging on my mom, but she was known for her bread. When my mom was baking, whichever store she was at was getting all the business because of how well she would make it.”
Samoons at Azadi
Next in our flavorful journey through Kurdish bread culture is Azadi International Food Market & Bakery. Beloved for its personal-pizza-sized mozzarella-topped samoons, Azadi is a gold mine of hard-to-find spices and condiments and my go-to for buying quality olive oil in bulk.
Walking in, I’m gobsmacked by the smell of yeast slowly rising. Upon closer inspection, employees are actively baking flatbread by placing the dough on the interior walls of the tandoor oven. The bread is done when it releases, retrieved by a gloved hand before it falls to the oven floor. It’s a spectacle to watch.
The cheese-topped samoons are the one thing I, without fail, grab when I’m in the neighborhood, but they also come topped with za’atar, making it a tricky either-or choice. Otherworldly delicious when warm, but the bread takes on a quality of its own at room temperature – chewy and dense, with the toppings’ flavor more concentrated.
If we were to keep walking in a straight line, we’d end up at the Salahadeen Center, effectively the end of Little Kurdistan’s commercial boundary. As Tayyar walks me to my car, we plan to meet again with our families at his mother’s house so that I can watch the master baker in action. Once a month, she makes bulk quantities of bread to share with her family and, occasionally, lucky friends.
I’ve been given a golden ticket because he has hyped her skills. I’ll wait in anticipation, but until then, there’s a bag of still-warm cheese-topped samoons to get me through.
East Nashville-based small business owner Maria Ivey is a ‘let’s put it in the ground and find out’ gardener, dog mama, and musician’s wife who believes in Duke’s mayonnaise and voting in every election. When not working eight days a week at her ‘real job,’ you can find her in the kitchen tasting and testing or on the porch having a nice sit.