As I walk through the restaurant door, I am overwhelmed by the sensations of home. I have never been to Iran, but my memories of growing up have a distinct Iranian flavour. I greet the waiter in broken Farsi and ask for a table. The taste of the foreign words on my tongue is addictive; I don’t get the chance to use them very often. With me are my boyfriend and his friends, another couple. I’ve dragged us all the way across London, from Embankment to Shepherd’s Bush, to spend the evening at a Persian restaurant. I’m fidgety with excitement, like a kid at a birthday party.
A trio of Iranian gents one table over playfully demands to know where we’re going when we step outside for a smoke. The men have pregnant-round bellies and tuck their napkins into their collars. They’re well-dressed and a little beyond middle age, the way I’m used to seeing Iranian men. They ask if the food’s that bad and then shout across the room to the owner—a friend, it seems—who rolls his eyes in a way I imagine means, “Screw you, you old jokers.”
When the food arrives, our new friends want to know what we think of it. The question, again, sounds like a demand. Most things Iranians say sound like demands.
After I excuse myself to the bathroom, a familiar smell hits me as I descend a black spiral staircase to the basement. The scent is strong enough to throw me back a decade or two. It’s the fragrance of a Persian kitchen at rest. Just a whiff tells me the dish that’s been simmering there all day. My mind conjures the image of fluffy Persian rice, garnished with strands of saffron and huge dollops of butter, and a meaty stew full of fresh herbs and fat butter beans. Ghormeh sabzi. It’s the kind of dish that a Persian won’t serve up unless it’s been stewing over a flame for hours.
I’d like to be able to say that Iranians, and their cuisine in Iran, are the same as all this, that this is an accurate portrayal of the country, casually dropped into a West London restaurant. But the truth is I don’t know. My understanding of Iran, its culture and its people, is made up only of my experiences in the expat community—and most Iranian expats I’ve met left their country twenty or thirty years ago. I ache to know this place, Iran, and for my ponderings and observations to be made up of more substance than a night like this.
“You’re doing it wrong.”
At fourteen years old, hearing these words from my father—whatever the reason for them—has a tendency to cause tears. It’s a stage of life where I’m constantly temperamental, and Dad and I struggle to negotiate each other.
My primary concerns at this time are music, boys and friends—in that order. I’m an only child, and my dad has limited experience in dealing with Western teenage girls. It’s the weekend, and he has, daringly, decided to embark on a cooking lesson with me.
I don’t cry this time, though. I’m focused on the task at hand, because it’s at this age I’ve begun flirting with my Persian heritage as a fascinating sideline to the everyday. Moments of insight into my father’s life before my birth are rare, and I’ve already learned to appreciate them. He doesn’t like to talk about the past, about his upbringing or what he remembers of Iran. But food is the thing that always prompts those rare conversations. His memories of food are the ones he deems safe, the ones he doesn’t mind sharing with his teenage daughter.
“You have to cut off the stems just where they begin,” he says, elbowing me out of the way to chop the spring onions himself. “Otherwise, you end up with stringy bits in the stew.”
It occurs to me that there are worse things than having stringy bits in ghormeh sabzi. Then I realize that I’ve never found any stringy bits in any Persian dish I’ve ever eaten. It’s in that realization that my understanding of Persian food truly begins.
In all the places I’ve visited during my years of travelling the world as a writer—from the tourist hot-spots to the borrowed countryside homes—I have never found another culture that takes quite as much pride in its food as the Persian one does. Choosing the right produce, sinking into the rituals of preparation, decorating the family table and, finally, serving a gargantuan meal with dazzling hospitality; these are time-honoured Iranian specialities. Every dish is a celebration of the country’s rich history and culture. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a painstakingly wrought ceremony, allowed to be nothing less than perfect. A place’s food can evoke the symptoms of its culture—and this is especially true of Iran.
Iranians are hospitable guests and remarkable hosts, and such reputations are not a matter of class. The poorest families in the slums of Tehran and Mashhad fall over themselves to serve their best meal on their finest crockery, even for an uninvited guest. This is part of the bend-over-backwards form of hospitality called tarof, a tradition that is followed without question by those raised in an Iranian environment. It’s so ingrained that it took me until my twenties to learn there was a dedicated word for it.
Tarof requires a special brand of attentiveness and observation. Accurate judgments of a person’s reaction to a situation are crucial. When I was young, my Iranian cousins and I, although all raised in the West, joked about the secret formula of how much to eat during dinners with Iranians. Too little, and they’re convinced you didn’t like the dish and will race for the kitchen to cook you something else. Too much, and they’ll keep loading up your plate until there’s no more food. Then the empty plates present a reason to make more food, because clearly you must still be hungry.
It’s impossible. A first or second no is considered polite banter and will have no impact. When you get to the third or fourth rejection—if handled with the appropriate measure of delicacy—they’ll think about believing you. The ability to navigate Persian hospitality requires some fine-tuning if you’re used to the self-conscious stylings of British food culture.
It’s commonplace to cater for double the number of guests attending for a meal. This happens daily in Iranian households across the world, and it’s a habit that reveals the most fundamental components of Persian hospitality: kindness, warmth and, well, gluttony. More than enough food appears on the table, always, just in case an unexpected visitor drops in at dinner time.
Quality and variety are just as important as quantity. A typical Persian dinner spread will feature an oversized plate of rice, a meat dish balanced with just the right mix of herbs and spices, a pile of flat-breads, an overflowing bowl of maast-o khiar (Greek-style yoghurt brimming with diced cucumber, fresh mint, salt, and pepper), and a simple salad, often made in the Shirazi way (diced cucumber, tomato and onion—hold the lettuce).
In essence, Iranians don’t make meals, they make feasts. The dinner table in a Persian home is the place that defines it best.
My memories of childhood are defined by my heritage. My father was born in Iran and is the youngest of seven children. He and his brothers and sisters are now spread out across the world, but no matter where you are, to be part of this culture is to hold two vital components in particularly high esteem: food and family. I was raised in Britain, but throughout my life my relatives have infused me with the importance of these concepts. My dedication to them lets me know that I am Iranian at my core. No matter which other connections to Iran may have been lost for my father and me, food, like family, is not one of them. We still have the appetites of true Persians.
My parents have come over for dinner, and my father is lurking in the kitchen, as he always does. Whenever I make Persian food, it’s his unspoken duty to shuffle around uncomfortably, peering across the tabletops to supervise my work. Any attempt at conversation is punctuated with his practical, well-meaning interjections.
“Stop, don’t put the coriander in yet. Wait until it boils.”
“Don’t add too much water, let me see.”
I protest like a grown-up daughter should, but, truthfully, I love having him here in my kitchen. This typically Persian interference over food is one of the few ways he openly honours his Iranian heritage. And mine.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him pick up a pomegranate from the fruit bowl. He holds it in his palm for a second, delicately, then gives it a hard squeeze. He runs his fingers over its tough, pink-red skin and frowns slightly. The look on his face tells me he’s thinking of Iran, remembering something.
“Are you okay, baba?” I ask.
He nods, slowly, without looking up, and pauses a second before speaking. “Do you know that pomegranates are everywhere in Iran? They grow on trees all over the place.”
“I didn’t know that. Do you like them?”
I busy myself with stirring pots and adjusting temperatures as I speak, conscious of how easily these moments can be lost. If I seem overly interested, if I ask the wrong question, he’ll quickly back out of the conversation—a sarcastic comment or a bad-taste joke to conclude the exchange.
“Yes,” he replies, transfixed by the pomegranate in his hand. “We call them anar in Farsi.”
I nod with measured interest.
“In the summer, we used to buy them from the street stalls in Tehran, your aunts and uncles and me. We’d push the skin until all the seeds popped, then suck all the juice out from one little hole in the top. Real pomegranate juice, nothing like the pre-packaged stuff at Sainsbury’s.”
“Really? How do you do it?” I ask.
“Come over here.”
He puts a pomegranate in my hand and we stand there together, squeezing at the sides of the fruit until we feel the seeds go slack under our fingers. I pull a sharp knife from the block and pass it to him. Just one small incision lets everything begin to drip out. By the time we’ve finished sucking on the juice, our chins are sticky and rouged with pomegranate. Seed escapees are stuck to the bottoms of our feet and scattered across the laminate of the kitchen floor.
My dad looks like a naughty child, standing there with his stained face and gleeful grin. He looks happy.
We’re still sticky with pomegranate when we sit down for dinner. At the table, feasting on the food of my father’s homeland, I feel more connected to him, and to my heritage. It’s how I always feel after one of these moments with him.
Food and family. That’s what Iran is to me.
And that’s okay for now.
Originally published in the NOMFICTION anthology by Little Fiction | Big Truths. Image above by Moyan Brenn (CC BY 2.0).