Hunting for Sheep’s Butt in Kurdistan

Published in Gourmet Live 01.18.12
Michael Y. Park recounts his quest for this legendary piece of a**

When my new friend Samad flashed me the now all-too-familiar combination of a hesitant smile and a blank stare of complete incomprehension, I knew that I had no choice. It was time to play my last card.

Above us, a gigantic, honey-yellow statue of the 12th-century Muslim scholar Mubarak Ben Ahmed Sharaf-Aldin gazed beatifically at the horizon, which was filling rapidly with the harsh white light of a Middle Eastern sun. A hundred feet below us, the modern neighborhoods of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil spread out as far as the eye could see, beginning with the bustling hive of the Qaysari Bazaar, one of the oldest in the world. Shouting out in Soranî, eager hawkers and wary buyers lapped like an ocean of commerce against the foot of the massive plateau on which we now stood.

And behind us, dominating that plateau, rose the southern gate of the ancient walled Citadel of Arbil, which claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the world. Over the past 8,000 years, conquering armies of Akkadians, Babylonians, Mongols, Arabs, Persians, and Ottomans had all come to this exact spot in their quest for glory and immortality. In 331 B.C., Darius III of Persia had sought refuge behind the gates of Arbil in a vain attempt to escape becoming the most high-profile victim of Alexander the Great’s ineluctable destiny.

But I was just looking for a good meal. A specific meal, and a special meal, but still just a meal. Much easier, right? Obviously not, because I was now reduced to one last, desperate attempt to explain to Samad what I’d been seeking for days.

So as the bearded, saintly face of Mubarak Ben Ahmed Sharaf-Aldin and eight millennia of epic history bore witness, I spun my backside toward my new friend Samad’s face, slapped it loudly, and bleated, “Baa, baa!”

Samad’s tentative smile broke into a genuine grin. “Ah, yes,” he said. “I know what you are looking for.”

What I was looking for was, to put it simply, a meal straight from a sheep’s ass. When I’d decided to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan for a couple weeks with my old college friend Mark, I asked for food suggestions from Yigal Schleifer, the cofounder of Istanbul Eats and a friend from grad school who’d traveled to the Kurdish northern region of Iraq, which has a separate government from Baghdad and has been largely safe for travelers for years. Yigal shot back with an email about a dish he’d never tried himself, and which he didn’t recall the name of, but that Kurds apparently went wild for. They took the nub of fat from a sheep’s ass, he explained, and turned it into something indescribably delicious.

Sheep butt almost immediately took on a mythical quality for me, and I envisioned a pair of nubile Assyrian priestesses rubbing sopping sponges dipped in hot sheep fat over the plump buttocks of a fierce but flavorful ram in an ancient temple of earthly delights.

But when I got to Iraq, no one seemed to know what the hell I was talking about.

I first tried the slap-my-butt-and-baa act in the down-and-out town of Halabja, the site of an infamous chemical-warfare attack by Saddam Hussein that killed thousands of Kurds (and, disconcertingly, one of the cheeriest, most welcoming places I’ve ever visited). I tried asking the staff and patrons of a hole-in-the-wall shawarma place, encouraged by the fact that the floors and walls were so slick with mutton grease that I nearly lost my balance as I entered. My scant Soranî exhausted, I launched into my routine, to the delight of the all-male clientele. (“Honey,” I imagined many of them telling their wives that evening. “You’ll never believe how Americans order lunch!”)

Still tittering, the guy manning the meat spit handed me generous slices of juicy brown meat nestled in a samoun—the triangular flatbread that’s synonymous with mealtime—and layered it with fresh chopped tomatoes and onions, sliced cucumbers, and sprigs of parsley. It was delicious, but was it sheep butt? That’s when one of my fellow customers finally suddenly decided to reveal he actually spoke English.

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