Iraqi bakeries make dough while they can

Times Staff Writer

Business couldn't have been better in the narrow shop where Hussain Ali Rasheed's three workers raced to keep up with the demand for Baghdad's most basic need.

As lunchtime approached, a crowd of old men, women in black robes and children waving 1,000-dinar bills clamored for their daily khubz.

Rasheed distributed the floppy disks of browned flatbread from a cloth-covered table and stuffed the bills he was given into a drawer.

Behind him, kerosene ovens hissed as the three young men negotiated a 4-foot-wide passageway like acrobats. At the rear, one kneaded dough into palm-sized balls, taking about five seconds for each. Another patted the balls into pizza-sized rounds, which he laid, one at a time, on a small pillow used to stick the dough onto the inside of the oven. The third plucked the finished khubz from the ovens with tongs and tossed them in stacks onto the table.

The scene is replayed each day in thousands of shops in every neighborhood of Baghdad.

It's one of the few fortuitous turns in Iraq's long ordeal of economic sanctions and war. The collapse of heavy industry may have breathed new life into a culinary staple that is as ancient as Babylon and as basic to Iraqis as the baguette is to the French and the tortilla to Mexicans. And at least until the economic recovery that has long been predicted arrives, virtually all the bread Iraqis consume will be made by hand.

Nowhere up or down the socioeconomic scale is a meal complete without khubz or its slightly more refined relative, the two-pointed, leaf-shaped samoon. Among the working class, the staple dish of rice and thin stew can't be eaten without khubz, which serves as knife, fork, spoon and napkin.

"It is not maybe. It is must," Ahmed, a bodyguard who preferred to use only his first name, said as he ripped out a square. He held it between his thumb and fingers, using it to pinch off a piece of chicken leg and sweep up rice, sauce and okra into a two-bite pouch.

Some Iraqis turned away from khubz during a period of Westernization in the 1970s and 1980s when manufactured bread became popular.

The United Nations sanctions of the 1990s reversed that trend. Factory output withered, and then-dictator Saddam Hussein's monthly food basket program began, providing every household 30 pounds of flour per person.

Some housewives turned back to the traditional method of baking khubz in the upturned clay cylindrical oven called the tanoor.

Those who didn't bake might give their flour to friends or take it to the neighborhood bakeries, which, like Rasheed's, sprang up around the city to fill the niche.

Today, virtually all the bread consumed in Iraq is made by hand.

In rural areas, women cook khubz outside in wood-fired tanoors built like barbecues with brick insulation. Butane appliances are used in the home, either inside or outdoors, but the high cost of fuel and the inconvenience make the local bakery a better option for most urban families.

The origin of khubz is lost in prehistory. Food historians think the tanoor, known to scholars as tannur, arose in Mesopotamia and that the name is related to the Semitic word for fire. A similar cylindrical clay oven, the tandoor, is used to bake bread and roast meats in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Surprisingly, after 4 1/2 years of U.S. presence in Iraq, the word khubz remains as rare in the English-speaking world as the bread itself.

U.S. soldiers have been the first to introduce it into the American lexicon with a spelling that would be incomprehensible in Arabic, lacking the throaty consonant "kh" that is hard for Americans to say or even hear.

"I awoke to, 'Mista, Mista, hobus?' " blogged Marine Jake Wood on his experience of being posted with an Iraqi household. "When I opened my eyes this little girl was holding a piece of hobus bread her mom had just baked for me."

Americans are more familiar with the pita, which has become a mainstay stateside. It is closer to the Iraqi samoon, a stylized pocket bread that is often filled and eaten sandwich-style. Like a pita, every samoon is a lot like every other one.

In contrast, khubz, the Iraqi form of the flatbread that comes in different shapes across the Middle East, has the touch of the human hand.

Every piece has its own thickness, chewiness, color, size, taste and texture.

Kept in an airtight box, it remains pliable all day, but once flopped on a table begins to turn crispy here, stretchy there, in a transformation that is different with each piece.

Though it has made it all the way from prehistory more or less intact, khubz is not guaranteed a future should Iraq's gradual recovery once again pull the country away from its traditions.

Khubz at its most rustic, in fact, is linked closely to Baghdad's current hard times.

A pile of hand-gathered branches and twigs outside the roofless brick and stucco shack are all that advertised Fatima's bakery.

Inside, the mother of two threw some eucalyptus twigs on the fire at the bottom of the tanoor and waited for its walls to turn white. Then she and her aunt took turns patting the balls of dough.

Unlike Rasheed's white Syrian and Turkish flour, theirs was the coarse brown of the countryside. And unlike Rasheed's crew, they used bare hands to slap the sheets of dough in the tanoor and retrieve the blotchy, browned bread.

Together, they can make 100 a day, Fatima said, compared with Rasheed's 4,500.

But people come from all over the city for its natural flavor and the supposed health benefits of traditional cooking, Fatima said.

She started her business about a year ago because her husband was unemployed. She wants to improve her kitchen, but hasn't been able to save enough money.

"What can I do?" Fatima asked. "I am helpless. If I can't bake this bread, I will not be able to get food for me and my children."

With simple curiosity, Fatima asked what was the point of a story about her.

Told it would help Americans understand Iraqis, she replied slyly, "It's OK that Americans understand us, but we need some help."

For example, she said, she could really use some cream to soothe her oven-parched hands.

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doug.smith@latimes.com

Times staff writers Usama Redha in Baghdad and Charles Perry in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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