By Nora Farahdel
It’s important that the base is always the same. It’s simple, really: onions, turmeric, and beef. Everything is interchangeable from that point; building blocks to a fusion of flavor and experience. Persian food is both complicated and simple; comforting yet mind-bending.
Iranian family meals were a key component to my childhood. We’d gather around a table full of steaming dishes every week, exploring different rices and stews, enjoying each other’s simple company. Iranian food culture goes beyond just eating: it’s made of the conversation, laughs, and emotions shared over a meal. It’s talking about your day and eating rice at record speeds, licking your plate clean when you weren’t even hungry to begin with. I hold these moments close to my heart–they’re essential to who I am.
My earliest memories are of my mother’s cooking–she is a master of the art. I would watch as she cut, sauteed, and boiled, each ingredient telling a story. She’d move so quickly I could hardly tell what she was doing– surely some kind of magic. I could always smell the heavenly aroma of her cooking from across the house: it was enchanting.
But I didn’t always love it. Like many kids, I was once a picky eater–even with my mother’s cooking. I was headstrong and disliked strong spices and intense flavors. My Iranian culinary heritage was unimportant to my life and a nuisance to my meals. I remember so clearly when this all changed.
My mother made Ghormeh Sabzi, a Persian herb stew with kidney beans and beef, one of many traditional Persian dishes. This was a particularly controversial dish for me: it was smelly, a weird color, and absolutely undesirable. I dreamed of buttered pasta and chicken nuggets, of neverending ice cream cones and gummy bears. I was embarrassed to bring my smelly lunches to school, and I certainly wasn’t interested in this green pile of goop.
The perfect spoonful of Ghormeh Sabzi was prepared for me.
“You’ve never had it like this before,” my mother told me.
She slowly described each ingredient in this one bite: trusting herbs, comforting kidney beans, strong beef, brave onions, and tangy lemon. I could see the spoon full of food sparkle and glitter in front of me, materializing into fireworks of pure celebration. Once I took the bite, I could envision every ingredient at work: I could feel each element at play inside of me.
How could I have not seen it before? I was embarrassed of my ignorance. Because it wasn’t just food – it never was. These recipes were passed down from generations of Iranian women in my family. Persian cuisine is a connection to my culture, the string tying me to my roots. My parents left Iran to flee religious persecution against Jews, immigrating to America in search of something better. These recipes are what we have left. A home devoid of these traditional Iranian dishes isn’t a home at all. I feel so grateful that my family chooses to remember their past this way.
Each meal brings us back to where we came from, regardless of our current location and circumstance, we remember our Iranian identities. We go to grocery stores in search of spices and herbs, vegetables and grains, in order to fill our table with a sense of belonging. My mother spends hours cooking without complaint, just to provide her family with the same food she enjoyed in her home country. Iranian cuisine is an act of love. Indeed, each part of the process is meaningful and completely overwhelmed with love.
I envision Ghormeh Sabzi as a time-traveler, a magical being that has seen so much. Surely, it has eyes and a soul and the ability to remember. It has fed entire parties of people, whole families for lunch, and even unknowing travelers stumbling upon a Persian restaurant. I feel so special that it has chosen me today, that I am a part of its story.
I looked to my mother’s knowing eyes, sparkling with mischievous delight. Her mission was accomplished.
“I knew you would like it,” she told me.
And I would. For days and weeks and months. For heated Shabbat dinners and slow weekday meals. For the tattered stove in my college apartment. For my own home one day, my own family. For my permanent sense of home: where I belong.