Khalil Kamal makes sure he regularly visits Kuwait’s popular Souq al-Mubarakiya, where he enjoys his favorite kebab meal with onion, rocket and freshly baked Iranian bread.
The smell of the bread wafts through the market as it bakes in a traditional oven at the al-Walimah restaurant in downtown Kuwait City.
The restaurant’s Iranian baker takes one of the many dough balls lined up in front of him and spreads it over a cushion, using the pad to stick the dough against the inside wall of the clay oven. Once ready, he uses a long stick to reach in and pull out a steaming rounded loaf, served piping hot to customers.
For decades, Iranian bread — known as taftoon — has been a staple of Kuwaiti breakfast, lunch and dinner tables. For Kuwaitis, their bond with Iranian culture remains unchanged, despite the growing regional tensions between the Sunni-ruled Persian Gulf countries and the Shiite Islamic Republic.
Iran sits just across the strategic Persian Gulf waterway and its culinary influences are strong.
“Iranian bread is the only bread we’ve known since we were born,” 60-year-old Kamal told reporters.
Hassan Abdullah Zachriaa, a Kuwaiti of Iranian origin, opened al-Walimah in 1996. Its tables are spread across a courtyard, surrounded by wooden columns and entryways.
Zachriaa, in his 70s, said that the restaurant puts out between 400 and 500 loaves of Iranian bread each day.
“The big turnout in Kuwait for Iranian bread stems from the fact that for decades, our mothers used to make it at home,” he told reporters. “We then started to buy it from bakeries and stand in lines to get it fresh and hot in the morning, noon and evening.”
The flatbread is offered alongside many dishes popular in Kuwait, such as al-Baja, lamb bits stuffed with rice; al-Karaeen, cooked sheep feet; classic chickpea plates; or beans and cooked fish.
Almost all restaurants in the old market have their own traditional clay ovens where either Iranian or Afghan bakers work.
Derbas Hussein al-Zoabi, 81, a customer at al-Walimah, said that many Kuwaitis were raised on Iranian bread.
“Since childhood, Iranians baked bread for us ... and we used to eat in the morning with milk and ghee,” he said, referring to clarified butter.
Other than at street markets, Kuwaitis can buy Iranian bread from cooperates, where people line up in the early hours of the morning and again in the evening to get the freshly baked goods.
Some bakeries even have designated segregated entryways for men and women.
Some Kuwaitis customize their orders with spreads of sesame, thyme and dates, and many come prepared with cloth bags to keep the bread as fresh as possible on the trip home.
Bakeries specializing in Iranian bread began popping up in Kuwait in the 1970s and have since expanded to more than 100, Union Co-operative Society deputy chief Khaled al-Otaibi said.
“These bakeries produce 2 million loaves of bread a day to meet the needs of Kuwaitis and residents,” he told reporters. “They receive fuel and flour at a subsidized price so that bread is available for not more than 20 fils [less than US$0.07].”
However, the price can go to up to 50 fils depending on the amount and type of additives, including sesame and fennel.
Taftoon has remained popular in Kuwait, despite escalating tensions in the past year between Iran on one side and the US and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia on the other.
“Bread has nothing to do with politics,” Zachriaa said. “Iranians live here, and there will be no shortage of this bread that is very desired.”
Shiite Iran maintains good relations with Kuwait, unlike its strained ties with other Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Heritage specialist Jassem Abbas said that regional politics do not have a major effect on the social lives of Kuwaitis.
“Despite the current tensions and what has happened in the [1980 to 1988] Iraq-Iran War, Iranian bread remains a top favorite,” he told reporters.
About 55,000 Iranians live in Kuwait, according to the Iranian embassy, while Shiites make up about one-third of Kuwait’s 1.4 million native population.
“Politics does not ruin friendships between people,” Abbas said.
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