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Nashville, Tennessee’s Newroz Market sits on a side road off of Nolensville Pike, the commercial strip that is the hub of the city’s immigrant economy. It’s lined with weathered storefronts for businesses like Hibachi Grill Café, Patel Brothers Grocery, and Pupuseria Salvadoreña. A turn onto the dubious-looking Elysian Fields Court leads to a scrappy parking lot and a couple of stores with squiggly Arabic script and colorful posters of food lining the windows.
A no-frills sign announces Newroz Market International Foods and, just inside the sliding glass door at a sparkling case next to the cash register, there are trays of tender, perfectly sweet baklava that is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. The secret is that it’s made fresh every day just a few yards away, by Iraqi Kurdish immigrants. Newroz is the lesser-known neighbor to the more famed Azadi Market, which has benefitted from an appearance on Andrew Zimmern’s show Bizarre Foods. But it was Newroz, not Azadi, that was recommended to me by a Persian friend who grew up in Memphis, so that’s where I’ve spent my time shopping for Persian ingredients and food since my family and I moved here.
This market's location is at the center of Nashville’s Kurdish community which, at a number that’s roughly 15,000, is the largest in the United States. Kurdish refugees fleeing the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein found their way to this southern city, my new home, with the help of Catholic charities, and once friends and family were anchored here, they kept coming to what eventually became called “Little Kurdistan.” Now the strip mall that once held only a mosque is home to a Kurdish salon, clothing store, and several food markets that sell everything you could possibly need to cook a Middle Eastern meal.
At the back of the store is a wood-fired oven, like the ones used in Iraq and Iran to make airy, delicate flatbreads. On the most recent morning I visited, a man was sliding a pallet of dough into the oven while a young woman in a patterned hijab and a smiling young man with a bright apron and a short beard were packing puffy, diamond-shaped bread rolls into plastic bags. I asked what kind of bread it was and, before I could get all the words out, the man thrust a fresh, hot roll into my hands and said “Try, it’s good, samoon!” (The soft, yeasty samoon is a regional bread of Kurdistan served alongside foods like hummus and kabob.)
I was invited into the kitchen, where it was almost all women. They were friendly but made it clear that they did not want their photos taken, something I remembered from Iran where an older religious relative said she did not want her image seen by men she didn’t know. The women were making tannour bread by throwing discs of dough down onto the sides of a circular oven with a flame shooting out of the middle. Later I was offered a warm round of tannour, raised all over with toasty brown ridges, and a dish of thin Iraqi hummus for dipping. At the stove, another woman was stirring a large pot of sugar syrup and another of sweet cheese filling for baklava.
Ah, that baklava. The ladies in the kitchen turn out eight different varieties: Some filled with the sweet cheese I saw cooking, some with ground pistachios, and some with crunchy, shredded filo. They come in florettes, squares, and delicate fingers. Riger, a Kurdish employee from Iraq who everyone pushed forward to talk with me because of his good English, explained that baklava is the first food to cross the lips when breaking the fast at the Muslim holiday Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the last day of Ramadan. (People also order large trays of the stuff for weddings.) I selected a sampling of several different kinds, and sat down to taste them in the dining area, right next to a wall painted with a mural of the Iraqi countryside.
My young friend with the beard was quick to bring me a large plastic cup of sweet black tea, saying “You must drink tea with baklava.” He was right: The tea balances the sweetness of the pastry, and the two combine to produce a sunshine-filled sugar and caffeine high. Next to me, a group of women posted images to snapchat of their luscious shawarma sandwiches: thinly sliced beef and chicken, pickled and fresh vegetables, stuffed into samoon.
Beyond the food court, the store's shelves are stacked with all kinds of tempting foods, including countless varieties of imported rice, the funky, sour fermented yogurt condiment called kashk, and under glass at the counter, dark red Kurdish saffron that smelled amazing. I had only enough time to grab a few items on this recent trip, so I chose slender green raisins, moist, dark dates from Iran, thick labneh yogurt from Turkey, and Bulgarian sheep’s cheese “from the high-mountain regions.” With a Styrofoam box of extra baklava on the seat next to me, and the rest of my tea in the cupholder, I hit the road, happily buzzed, eager to return soon. I can’t imagine Nashville without Newroz, Little Kurdistan, and the diverse immigrant community that is thriving here. Just as much as Music Row and the famous Broadway honky-tonk strip, this to me is the beating heart of the city.
In response to the recent proposed immigration ban, Louisa will be holding Persian dinners in February and March to benefit immigrant and refugee rights non-profit organizations. For details on the dinners, visit lucidfood.com.
Louisa Shafia is our Writer in Residence this month—read how writing her cookbook brought her closer to her Iranian heritage, and the Middle Eastern origins of ice cream. Stay tuned for more from her on the site.