Lavash – the flatbread cherished and consumed by Iranians across the ages – is now on one of UNESCO’s key cultural heritage lists.
The baking and sharing of lavash is an ancestral Iranian tradition that also exists in various forms in the Caucasus and parts of Western and Central Asia. Skills and rituals surrounding the preparation, baking, storage, and use of flatbread – variously called lavash, katyrma, jupka or yufka – are shared by many countries across the region.
Now, five of these countries – namely Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey – have inscribed this singular element of their heritage on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Armenia preceded them: it listed the bread all the way back in 2014, as it is also an integral part of Armenian heritage.
To UNESCO, “the practice, transmitted by participation within families and from master to apprentice, expresses hospitality, solidarity and certain beliefs that symbolize common cultural roots reinforcing community belonging.”
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization) set up the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009 to raise awareness of cultural practices around the world and recognize the unique know-how and traditions of communities it identifies as repositories of cultural diversity.
Lavash, baked Caucasus style, using a ‘saj’, Kish Islands, Iran. Video: Abhith EP
Persian lavash is a soft, thin, unleavened sheet of bread made with wheat flour, water and salt. The dough is kneaded and formed into balls. These are rolled into thin layers and stretched over a special oval cushion that is slapped against the hot walls of a traditional conical clay oven, or tanur, heated by charcoal or wood. The dough immediately sticks to the burning clay walls, bakes after 30 seconds to a minute, and is peeled off the tanur wall.
Unlike lavash, katyrma, jupka and yufka are traditionally baked on a flat or slightly concave, disc-shaped iron griddle called a saj that is used in the Caucasus and Central Asia for baking flatbreads.
Freshly baked lavash is soft and flexible, but dries out quickly and becomes brittle and hard. The dry form can be used for long-term storage, sprinkled with water prior to consumption to make it softer. Lavash is commonly served wrapped around local cheeses, greens or kebabs, or used to scoop up food to eat.
Making the bread is traditionally a family affair in rural communities, involving at least three family members or neighbors, each playing a distinctive role in its preparation and baking. Besides being part of everyday meals and being shared with relatives and neighbors, lavash has a social and religious function for the people of those communities. It is not just a staple, but also a symbol of cultural identity at weddings, births, funerals, various holidays and prayers.
In Azerbaijan, for example, the bride is welcomed into her new home with the yufka flatbread symbolically placed at her feet as she enters – a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the couple. In Armenia, lavash is placed on the bride’s shoulder as she enters her new home, signifying luck, wealth and the new life she will give birth to.
In Kazakhstan, katyrma is a key part of the culture of nomadic populations, for whom the ability to bake quickly – without an oven – was essential, given the great distances traveled. It has also been part of a religious tradition, observed to this day: it is only baked on Thursdays and Fridays, the days of rest and worship, in memory of those who have passed away.
Likewise, jupka is considered sacred by the people of Kyrgyzstan, and is an integral part of their most solemn ceremonies. These nomadic people believe that sharing the bread provides a better afterlife for the deceased.