A century ago, Krikor Sarkees‘s grandparents fled the Armenian genocide and settled in Baghdad, Iraq, where Krikor would eventually be born. A few decades later Sita Sarkees‘s father, also of Armenian Christian background, was taken by his parents from Iran to Iraq; she too would grow up in Baghdad. Six years ago, when other people their age would be thinking of retirement, Sita and Krikor left a war-torn Iraq to settle in Chicago, where Sita’s brother already lived—and earlier this year, the couple (he’s 63 and she’s 55) were naturalized as American citizens. Speaking almost no English when they arrived, they’ve been learning the language and the ways of their new country at World Relief Chicago in Albany Park. The diverse array of international grocers in that area and all over the far north side has helped them maintain Iraqi foodways at home, often by adapting the ingredients they find here to make Iraqi food in America.
Sita: We are Armenian, but we were born in Iraq—Baghdad, the capitol. We didn’t cook Armenian food. It was Iraqi, Middle East food. I don’t know what they eat in Armenia—I’ve only seen it in pictures! We cook chicken, beef, lamb, fish. We’re Christian. We will eat pork, but it’s not in the supermarket—only canned pork is. Christian people go hunting in the desert [for wild pig] and they cut it and sell it to their Christian neighbors.
We cook many kinds of chicken. Maybe cooked only with water, then put in the oil with the spice. We have a plastic box in Iraq. You put everything inside it the day before: yogurt dressing, tahini, garlic, and onion—put everything in the box and put it in the fridge. We had electricity, because my brother had a big generator, so we had a fridge. Next day, you put everything in a bag, with little holes, and you put the bag in the oven.
Krikor: We had a fridge, a microwave oven, because we are in the capitol. In the villages, maybe they don’t use the big stove, they used to cook on the charcoal. But now they have ovens too.
Sita: We eat a lot of rice, with everything, rice and salad. Bread, we buy—the Arabic bread, big and flat. But it’s not for every food.
Krikor: We eat it with soup, tashreeb [broth-soaked bread topped with meat or vegetables] —it’s like soup. Not soup, but like soup. Muslim people eat tashreeb with their hands, but we don’t. We eat it with a fork.
Sita: You put the beans in a pot and boil. Boiling, boiling, boiling. And then cut the Arabic bread and put it in the pot. Put the beans over it, and then the onions with oil, and then butnuj [a dried wild mint]—this is famous in Iraq. And then you put the eggs on top. It’s very delicious.
We can find the things we need at the Arabic stores on Devon. They have many Arabic and Assyrian stores at Devon and Western. They have everything.
Krikor: Things can be easier to find here, because in Iraq they are seasonal, but you have them in all the seasons here.
Sita: We can find anything, but the food is very expensive. In Iraq dates are cheap, but here they are very expensive.
Krikor: We have tried some American things, like pizza. I like pizza, but not their way. Not the same pizza.
Sita: We put onions and tomatoes and green pepper on it. Sometimes I put mozzarella cheese, sometimes with beef or chicken.
Krikor: For me, I don’t like Chinese food.
Sita: Because he doesn’t like fish. But I like fish.
I make burek [stuffed filo pastry]. I buy the burek dough already made. On the package it’s called spring roll. I put meat on it and roll it up and put it in the fryer. Sometimes with potatoes. My niece comes, she’s two or three—she likes potatoes. Sometimes spinach. But Krikor is diabetic, so he can eat only the meat.
Iraqi breakfast is very different from how American people eat breakfast—we have cheese, jam, honey, olives. Every day olives and eggs. I buy Greek olives, and do you know the Kiri cheese? I think it is French maybe. I buy that at Tony’s, and now I like the pepper jack cheese. Very spicy.
Krikor: Before I cannot eat the spicy food in Iraq. Now I eat it because the doctor says it is good for you. I have a blood problem, and it is good for your blood.
Sita: Maybe tonight I will make za’atar with tortilla bread. You put oil and za’atar on the tortilla, put in the oven for two or three minutes. Sometimes with the tortillas I put mashed potatoes and cheese and put them in the oven. What we would do in Iraq with lavash you can do with the tortillas. In Iraq we do the dough in the home, but this is easy.
We ate tacos here, for the first time, in Chicago.
Krikor: She likes them, I don’t.
Sita: We have lots of sweets in Iraq. For my landlord, one time he came to look at something in the home. I make a cake. He say it looks very delicious. I say, “I’ll do one for your baby’s birthday, OK?” The marble cake is two colors, brown and white. I looked at Armenian recipes for cakes. He tries it and he says, “Oh my goodness! It was very good.”
Krikor: When we came here, we didn’t know anything about the United States.
Sita: My brother said, “Come, come here, don’t stay in Iraq. It is very beautiful, it is good for you.” When I got here, I didn’t speak any English. I woke up every day and I cried. I cried because I couldn’t talk to people. You don’t know who your neighbors are. Everything was strange for us. I said, “I want to go home, I cannot stay here.” My brother says, “No, you can stay!” Now I speak a little English, maybe 10 or 15 percent I can speak.
Krikor: We were in the dark. But everything is good here. v