When my mother’s parents left Teheran for Rhode Island in 1954, they must have known that some of their traditions would be washed away. Their children would marry Americans. The hookah would be set behind glass in the drawing room instead of brought to the table with tea. My grandmother Etty (short for Ehtaram), would trade her doreh—a circle of women who meet to play cards and gossip—for weeknight bingo games with her American neighbors.
But one thing that did not change was the food. Etty spent hours over the stove to produce hearty cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef and turmeric, chelo kabab (skewered young chicken sprinkled with sumac and served with grilled tomatoes), and khoresh bademjan, a stew of eggplant, tomatoes, and lamb, seasoned with dried lime. They brought these tastes with them, and in turn, they anchor them both in the place they are and the one they came from. The perfect pot of rice, polo, capped by a golden tahdig (“bottom-of-the-pot,” the crispy rice crust) is a point of Persian pride. When they’ve achieved an aesthetically flawless version, my mom and aunt still present the just-flipped-from-the-pan tahdig to my grandmother.
And so my grandmother never imagined that her granddaughter would define herself with a new, unfamiliar, American word: vegetarian. To her dismay, I simply can’t stomach meat, and haven’t been able to since the day my vegetarian father held my eight-year-old hand to pet a cow, introducing the animal as my future dinner. In Persian families, serving meat is a sign of wealth and social class. How could I have been raised to snub this tradition, the centerpiece of the meal? Didn’t I come from a good family?
How could I have been raised to snub this tradition, the centerpiece of the meal? Didn’t I come from a good family?
I tried to make up for my bad behavior at the dinner table by finding other ways to make my grandparents proud. I earned straight-A’s, tied my thick hair back, and carried my grandfather Yusef’s tea leaf-speckled chai to the table, with a cube of sugar to clench between his front teeth as a filter for the steaming amber drink. I was Etty’s number-one helper in the kitchen. I’d use my sharp eyes to pick out each discolored grain of the rice she rinsed. When I’d ask how much saffron or butter to add, she’d just say, “You know, just enough to make it taste right.”
And yet, each time we sat down at the table, she would conveniently “forget” my dietary preferences, spooning extra gondi (meatballs) onto my rice, shouting at my mother when I refused to clear my plate. I instinctively inched away from her in my seat, shoveling hot spinach and noodle soup into my mouth, cooling the burn with mint-flecked yogurt.
I ate around the meat dishes she had spent hours preparing, and when she’d try to trick me by holding a piece of beef behind the serving spoon, proclaiming the stew vegetarian, I felt a combination of anger and shame color my cheeks. I wanted to please my grandmother the way my brothers could, mopping up the fleshy juices of ghormeh sabzi with lavash bread, running fingers around their plate’s remains, but I couldn’t bring myself to swallow. Bach, bach, bach, my grandpa would say, patting his belly at the end of a meal, Farsi for yum, yum, yum.
Etty heals with food, circling the crowns of our heads with sprinkles of salt to ward off bad spirits, insisting on her chicken soup and dark tea to recover from a flu or bad day. She cooks when she doesn’t know how else to help, and as a point of pride. When my grandfather fell ill, Etty held court in the kitchen, her fingers recalling combinations of herbs and measures of spices with expert ease. She’d shoo my young cousins and me out of the room and allow my mother and aunt to hover, responding to their worry with bites of pancakes packed with dill, parsley, leeks, and scallions, and doling out morsels of unsolicited advice. “See, the onions must be brown, to make the kuku taste sweet,” she’d say, noting a step that her daughters still neglect. “Onions take time.” I listened from the foyer to the hiss of the frying pan, waiting to be called to carry plain rice and beet juice to my grandfather’s armchair.
It’d been a long time since Etty had occasion to make it, so she compensated with some magic combination of tradition, memory, and improvisation.
One autumn, when my uncle announced his engagement to a blonde, Polish nurse, I helped Etty prepare a special meal of wedding rice with candied orange peel and almonds. We set out trays of pistachios, honey-swollen dates, and jewel-like dried apricots. I tried valiantly to imitate how nimbly her fingers rolled bitter grape leaves into date-studded dolmeh, but she was quick to re-roll my loosely-packed bundles into tight cigars for steaming. The most important dish was the celebratory fesenjan– a duck stew made with crushed walnuts and pomegranate molasses. It’s a traditional dish, but it’d been a long time since Etty had occasion to make it, so she compensated with some magic combination of tradition, memory, and improvisation.
The sauce was brown and thick like mud, and a few minutes before, my stomach had turned when I watched the raw duck go into the stew, but the aroma was heady and sweet. I couldn’t resist sticking a finger into the pot when Etty’s back was turned. It was rich, aromatic, delicious. I held the taste of the fesenjan under my tongue as I prepared a dish of rice and toorshi (pickled vegetables), lamenting the plainness of my plate.
In college, I tried over and over again to recreate the flavors of my grandmother’s kitchen, sans the chicken, lamb and beef. I burned pot after pot of rice. I suffered numerous flesh wounds—Persians peel without fear, knife facing towards the chest—and wasted expensive ingredients, disgusting my friends with gobs of muck that I assured them was the right hue and texture. Part of the reason it tasted nothing like the real deal, I knew, was the absence of the rich depth of animal fat, but there was something more missing. I felt uncomfortable cooking this food; I lacked the confidence Etty would show at the stove.
One winter back home, I discovered a glass container of pomegranate molasses in the cabinet. I’d only ever seen pomegranate molasses used once before, for the engagement stew. I looked at my tofu.
I kicked my mom out of the kitchen; her rice was already steaming.
I felt uncomfortable cooking this food; I lacked the confidence Etty would show at the stove.
Channeling tradition, I browned slivers of onion, crushed and toasted walnuts with determination, and simmered the fragrant mixture with pomegranate molasses until the kitchen was full of the festive scent. I crumbled a block of tofu into a different pan, and hot droplets of olive oil danced their approval.
I presented the tofu fesenjan to my mom, who wrinkled her nose at it. “I don’t know … you try it first,” she said, standing back. It was good: sweet, sour, nutty, slightly crispy … but maybe a little too sweet and sour. The dark, rich note lent by an ingredient I wouldn’t consider was clearly absent. Still, it was interesting and flavorful, and maybe the next-best thing. My mom allowed us to scoop some onto her rice.
After dinner, I called my grandmother to tell her of my innovative take on her native food. “No, divooneh, no tofu in fesenjan!” she laughed.
I put my mother on the phone. “Tell her you liked it,” I urged.
“Madar, you’ve got to try it.”
She agreed to indulge me if I invited her over, a test of the language I was learning to speak and understand.
I woke up early Saturday and pulled back my hair as I sweat over the stovetop. My tahdig emerged in soggy pieces; I tossed it in shame. But the rest of the rice came out almost right, fluffy and plump, topped with a crown of saffron-tinged oil.
With three pots on the stove, I dipped a pinky into the bubbling sauce. It wasn’t quite right, but it wasn’t half-bad. I flung open the doors of the cabinet. I knew the stew needed a slight kick, something to complicate the flavor. My fingers danced toward the cayenne, a spice never used in Persian cooking – the food is full of spices, but rarely spicy – but, banking on the power of heat to add depth to the sweetness, I threw in a dash, creating a new conversation between flavors. I was afraid my grandmother would find the spice off-putting, even offensive, but the cayenne tasted right, just the thing to elevate the pomegranate’s sweetness to a level of intrigue.
I set the table with the china she had handed down to me, and folded and unfolded napkins until the doorbell rang. She sat down before the food was served, something rarely witnessed, and threw a skeptical glance at the pot. I served her first, a portion of salad shirazi next to a heaping serving of rice, with my fesenjan ladled generously over the top. I held my breath and watched her lower the spoon from her mouth. “Bach, bach, bach,” she said, grinning as she leaned back into her chair.