Yazidi pie filled with memories of New Year in Iraq

Diyana Gundor was born in 1996 in Al-Shikhan, a township in the Ninevah region in northern Iraq, where she lived until her family moved to Australia as refugees in 2017, after fleeing the Islamic State. She now calls Wagga Wagga home, but she keeps a part of her life in Iraq with her. 

In Yazidi culture and religion — a monotheistic faith that worships the angel Tawusî Melek or the Peacock Angel — sharing food plays a vital role in strengthening family ties and celebrating festivals and holidays. Diyana explains, "As a young girl it was important that I learn how to cook because my culture loves to share traditional foods with different communities." 

Back in their Iraqi home, her mum Nazi cooked fresh food was cooked three times a day. Because Diyana is the eldest daughter of four children, Diyana's mum began to teach her from when she was 8 about how to prepare common meals. Eventually, cooking became Diyana's daily hobby. 

"School in Iraq is only from 8 am until noon, so after enjoying a home-cooked lunch as a family around the table and doing my homework, I would help mum in the kitchen with dinner," Diyana says. On weekends, Diyana would also assist her mum by chopping vegetables and adding spices and herbs to meals for taste, flavour and colour. 

As a young adult the first complete dish she learned from her mum was chicken biryani. "[Mum] taught me to how to measure ingredients to perfect the balance between salt, pomegranates and olive oil, to intuit the dash of spices and herbs required, and how to read recipes to create traditional Yazidi dishes," Diyana says. 

It was also customary for family members and neighbours in Iraq to gather on a Sunday and share up to 10 different types of food while sitting on the floor either at each other's homes or the Lalish Temple, a holy place for Yazidis. 

"Unfortunately, since moving to Wagga Wagga, I have not been able to recreate this deep sense of community, as we don't have family members here and the locals, with the exception of two other families, are from a different culture and religion." 

Yazidi New Year celebrations 

The most important Spring celebration in Yazidi culture is the New Year holiday, known as Ser Sal. It falls on the third Wednesday in April and is meant to commemorate the creation of the universe and honour nature and fertility. 

"We colour eggs, decorate our doorways with red poppies that bloom that time of year and all the families come together to share the food and the happiness, to drink, dance and play games," Diyana says. 

"Not having family and friends in Australia means we celebrate only as a small family unit in our home, but we do call our relatives on that day who mostly live in Shekhan." During Ser Sal, they eat the same foods they grew up with in Iraq, like dolma, chicken biryani, and for dessert, sweet baklava and kataifi. 

Diyana's favourite food served during Ser Sal is kubba mosul, a meat pie made of bulgur dough that's mixed with spiced ground beef and stuffed with ground lamb, fresh onions, and optional raisins, pine nuts or slivered almonds. The dough mixture is rolled into a ball then flattened into a circle, about nine inches in diameter. 

"It's considered the oldest and most authentic food in our region not only cooked by Yazidis but also by Iraqi people varying ingredients in a way that they enjoy." 

Diyana started learning how to make kubba mosul when she was 19 and she and her younger brother Haji decided to cook and share traditional Yazidi foods to showcase aspects of their heritage during a multicultural day at school in Wagga Wagga. 

"Using mum's recipes and help, we offered Yazidi foods to school friends and families, and we loved it so much that as a family we hired a stall at the local farmers market and each Thursday afternoon beginning at 1:00 pm until 6.30 pm we freshly cook and sell Yazidi food to visitors," Diyana says. 

Because of kuba mossul's popularity, especially with western locals, Diyana asked her mum to teach her how to make it on her own. "Since then, I have changed it slightly by altering spices and adding green peppers," she says. 

Diyana is now a TAFE student and works in childcare in a part-time capacity, but every Thursday morning, she gets up at dawn with her mum to make savouries and sweets for the day's markets. 

"The communities support and response to the food has been overwhelmingly positive, which has inspired my ambition to open a fresh food restaurant with my family in Wagga Wagga, for which I have been preparing by taking a number of cooking courses," Diyana says. 

Other popular traditional foods Diyana's family serves at the Riverina Producers' Market include a yeast flatbread, which most people love to enjoy with a baba ganoush dip, stuffed spinach leaves, Turkish borek, rice kubba patties, and for dessert, sweet baklava or Turkish simit sweet bread bagels. 

Finding Yazidi food spices has been easy, Diyana says. "We either buy them locally from stores or we travel to Sydney and stock on spice supplies in bulk for our pantry." Diyana also says that she's tried and loves Australian meat pies and hopes to one day learn how to make them, but for now, her food philosophy entails her culture's food. 

"What I see is people mostly of my generation not paying attention to family and cultural food-based customs and traditions," Diyana notes. "For me, traditional food is a very wonderful thing, in how it keeps me connected to my roots, provides me with a sense of stability in an ever-changing world and brings the whole community together. 

"What I love most is when we gather around the dining table as a family, to chat and ask how everyone is and then enjoy our ancestral food. For that reason, I prefer my cultural food practices for now." 

By Elli Iacovou

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