ChwarChra Hotel, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
Sheikh Abdulsalam Barzani Street
+964 66 2231508
by Thom Yolke
Unless you happen to live in a cave with a dodgy router, it’s more or less impossible to avoid the torrent of unsettling news coming from Iraq at present. The black flags of the Islamic State have unfurled across the country, plunging the whole region into ever greater uncertainty. And yet, it was only in May of this year, just before ISIS (as they were then known) began literally bulldozing the borders, that I found myself having breakfast in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdish territory, was, until recently, a relatively safe and even prosperous place, due largely to the steady flow of oil money that has seen shiny new hotels continue to sprout up on an almost weekly basis. These hotels, I quickly discovered, cater largely to those who want to preserve a semblance of Western continuity. Their lobbies chime with muzak versions of British or American power ballads, and their menus offer Western staples to reassure the far-from-home oil men. I would be staying in a different sort of hotel altogether.
My hotel had the look of a place that had witnessed another era, and survived it. A whitish, boxy building which had begun to flake at the edges, the entrance was adorned with a flickering neon sign, and lined with an eclectic menagerie of taxidermy. Beady eyed goats and lion cubs appeared locked into eternal staring contests. There was a distinctly bohemian atmosphere among the labyrinth of sofas that lined the lobby, as though you could expect to hear two local poets having a heated argument about form while becoming increasingly enveloped in a cloud of shish-a smoke.
On my first morning, I ventured over to the buffet and at first was underwhelmed, but on reflection I realised that’s because I didn’t really know what I was looking at. Some of the options looked familiar enough, sliced pineapple and dates, yoghurt and honey. It was only when I was encouraged with a gesture from the waiter to try a thick creamy substance that I initially passed over, that my eyes were opened. The waiter, not speaking English, nodded that I should combine it with a fine, dark looking jam which I noticed had a golden iridescence to it as I spooned a generous splodge over the fluffy cream. The waiter signalled his approval with a thumbs up and a wink as I sat down. The first mouthful confirmed that it was fresh fig jam, a Biblical fruit rendered into sin. The strong flavour of the jam was complemented by the cleansing neutrality of the cream, which after further enquiries I discovered to be Buffalo curd, also popular in neighbouring Iran and Turkey. Less rubbery than its cousin mozzarella it possesses a paradoxical lightness of flavour with a decadently whipped texture. It occurred to me that this combination was probably an ancient delicacy, enjoyed by the Sumerians or Babylonians who could afford such delights. Being a novice and aware that there were no set limits on quantities at the buffet, I may have slightly overdone the portions. Four helpings later, like any hedonistic Babylonian, I could barely move from my chair, and the sympathetic nodding of the waiter as he collected my bowl told me he was no stranger to this sensation either.
It took me most of the day to recover from the overwhelming richness of the dish, but it didn’t stop me going back for a single helping the following morning, or the next.