A Not-Southern Food Trail in Nashville, Where Kurdish Refugees Feel at Home

August 10, 2018

If you’re poking curiously around Nashville’s Newroz Market, it’s likely you won’t escape the old world hospitality of your Kurdish-Iraqi hosts. “Taste, taste!” say the men and women, and the next thing I know, they’re thrusting a hot, diamond-shaped loaf of samoon bread into my hands. I dutifully tear off a piece and let the yeasty goodness fill my mouth.

To visit Newroz, you must leave behind the honky tonks, hot chicken joints, “new Southern” dining establishments, and bachelorette parties of downtown to travel twenty minutes (by car) south to “Little Kurdistan” in South Nashville. This is the center of Nashville’s Kurdish community, which at roughly 15,000 people, is the largest in the country. Kurdish natives began coming to Nashville in the 1970’s, as part of a refugee resettlement program for people escaping Kurdish-Iraqi wars. Another wave came in the 1990’s, during the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein, and recently in the past few years, with people fleeing the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Photo by Louisa Shafia

Walking into Newroz, the first thing you notice is the glass display case, holding round, square, and cigar-shaped baklava, topped with jewel-like pistachios. Keep walking straight down the aisles of bulk bins holding dried fruit and nuts, jars of tahini, and bottles of pomegranate molasses and rosewater, and you’ll reach the lunch counter. Here, a gentleman in an apron will carve you a hot shawarma sandwich of chicken or lamb topped with veggies, pickles, and housemade sauces, and fold it neatly in red and white deli paper. Continue all the way to the back of the store and you enter a kind of farinaceous heaven, the place where I received my floury benediction. A man wielding a long wooden paddle pulls flatbreads like samoon and barbari out of a blazing wood-fired oven mere feet from where you stand. There are cheese-filled breads and za’atar covered breads, all quickly bagged up and placed on racks for the expectant customers who pass in and out.

Samoon, to the left; the furnace to the right. Photo by Louisa Shafia

The Kurdish owners of Newroz are from Iraq, but there are Kurds here from all over the Middle East and Central Asia, a swath generally known as Kurdistan; it touches Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, and Syria. There are many Kurdish markets like Newroz in Nashville, along with casual cafes, each specializing in the food of their region, whether it’s Iraqi bread, Persian stew, or Turkish kabobs.

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Newroz and the other Kurdish businesses are in or around Nolensville Pike, a busy thoroughfare where most of the city’s thirty some odd immigrant communities have set up shop. It’s the “other Nashville,” a parallel city to the one downtown, where between the auto repair shops and quick-cash shacks there are car-length meat smokers on the sidewalk outside Mexican taco joints. You can order a whole cow for a wedding at one of the bazaar-like Kurdish markets (I overheard this), and sample food from Ethiopia to Nepal to Cuba. When President Obama came a few years back to speak about his actions on immigration policy, he came to Nolensville Pike, giving his speech at an immigrant community center here.

A typical Nolensville Pike sighting. Photo by Louisa Shafia

Although many adventurous Nashvillians know about Nolensville Pike, and regularly make the trek out here to get the city’s best pad Thai, baklava, or still-bubbling jar of kimchi, the area is not on most people’s radar, and definitely not on the tourist map.

Coming up on September 1, though, there’s a great opportunity to visit a bunch of Nolensville Pike favorites with the InterNASHional Food Crawl. This food festival, organized by the non-profit Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, is a day when the immigrant-owned food establishments of Nolensville Pike open their doors to hundreds of people, and for the price of a ticket, visitors get a list of markets and restaurants to visit, where they are greeted by food samples and a warm welcome. This year, with the immigrant community growing, and high rents pushing some people out, the food crawl has expanded out to other neighborhoods south of downtown. But any time is a good time to explore Nashville’s international side.

An Inter-NASH-ional Food Trail

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My cookbook The New Persian Kitchen is a winner of Food52's Piglet award. I love cooking Iranian rice and hearing people crunch on the crispy tahdig from the bottom of the pot. I'm passionate about sharing the ingredients and techniques for making Persian food in my writing, cooking classes, and online store, Feast By Louisa where you can find my Persian Spice Set, Tahdig Kit, and other goodies.