By Maryam Keramaty
In 1978, I left 4 Padidar Street and boarded an airplane to the United States. When the wheels left the runway in Tehran, it seemed like the end of one chapter, and as an eight-year-old I didn’t look back. Now, at fifty, I do. I retrieve memories and feel longing for home. Longing to speak fluent Farsi, savor homemade rosewater ice cream, and eat plump, fresh-picked mulberries with my father. But there was a revolution and Iran vanished. I cannot seem to bring that richness, that life, back.
I want to be that eight-year-old again. The girl who has friends in a bilingual school, picnics on the river rocks with my parents, sister, and family friends, and day trips on winding roads through Alborz Mountain. I want to be the four-year-old who curiously watches tadpoles in the mucky backyard pool, plays with many cousins at large family gatherings, and sleeps under mosquito netting on the back porch. I want to be the young girl who is still Iranian.
Life in Medford, Massachusetts, is different now, but I still remember, remember enough to ache. The school bus driver who adored me, the majestic weeping willow tree in the front yard, and kesh, a schoolyard game I played with friends. The richness of the life I left is palpable. I want to see noon e sangak, stone bread, come out of the oven at the neighborhood bakery, smell sumac on my beef kebob and basmati rice, and taste the soft, sweet figs picked in our backyard. These memories come only in drips, as if to quench my thirst for only a moment. Can I ever quench this thirst? Can I retrieve Iran?
Seated at the kitchen table I share with a roommate, I open a gold wooden box, one that holds treasures from another time. I reach into the box and pick up my small perfume bottle from a “make your own perfume” kit. The bottle is no more than two inches high with a flowery round sticker: “Persian Spice.” I take a sniff, with hopes the scent will evoke memories, but there is nothing. It has been over four decades, after all.
I jingle the tarnished tribal Iranian necklace passed down to me from Grama, my American grandmother who visited Iran when my sister and I were born. Small spear-shaped trinkets dangle, and red and blue stones are embedded in silver shapes. I put the necklace on, half hoping I will be transported to a place, and the feeling of home. Nothing.
I stand to spread a small square cloth on the kitchen table and run my hands over the tan and beige paisley pattern and the hundreds of white tassels that hang from the edges. The texture is worn, with coarse, thick cotton threads. It doesn’t take me back. It feels like just a tablecloth to me. No memories, again nothing. My hopes for Iran to come to me are dashed.
These objects don’t bring my Iranian identity back to me, but now I remember spontaneous encounters with Iranians do. The interactions bring a feeling of surprise and generate warmth in my whole being. My heart opens; emotions swell up in me.
One sunny spring day on the community bike path, I notice a perplexed man who seems to be looking for something. It is Seezdebedar, the thirteenth day after Noruz, the Iranian New Year. The green clump of wheatgrass in his hand is the giveaway that he is Iranian. He is looking for a body of water to throw the wheatgrass in for good luck. Salam, Ayde shoma mobarak. Hello, and Happy New Year, I say. His name is Balash. I feel Iranian.
Babak owns the Iranian grocery in Watertown. I introduce myself, hesitate with my words, and tell him my dilemma with the language. When his customers come in, they choose from the tea, rice, dates, halvah, and chickpea cookies, and I hear Farsi here and there. I purchase lavooshak, dried fruit leather, dried mulberries, and dried squash seeds for my father. Ghodafez. Goodbye. I promise Babak that I will come back to practice my Farsi. I feel Iranian.
I crave to feel Iranian again for more than a few moments. I want to feel a grand reawakening, to feel fully alive, to feel Iran coursing through my blood. When I try to bring back this culture, my place of belonging, a culture that was mine, that was me, I’m not sure if it is retrievable. It may be futile; I may not be able to completely reclaim that part of myself.
The day my father returned from a trip to Iran, I sat in anticipation, kneeling in front of his suitcase on the rug in the living room. My father brought gifts, gave updates on family property there, how his siblings were, and when he could bring our Persian rugs back to the States. With relatives speaking in Farsi and my mother passing golden-colored tea around the room, I felt Iranian. But when I flipped open the top of the suitcase, the smell of my childhood home completely overwhelmed me. I was transported to Iran. I was there. I wept visceral tears that went unnoticed. Ache. Longing.
This experience stayed with me. The smells from the suitcase brought me closer to Iran. Now I decide a journey through my sense of smell in the kitchen might be a place to feel Iranian. I gather pomegranate sauce, walnuts, chicken, and rice. Tea, rosewater, and saffron. Sumac. Yogurt, seltzer, and mint. I have chosen a five-part menu: polo, rice; fesenjoon, a pomegranate and walnut dish; doogh, a beverage; sohan asali, saffron and honey candy; and chaee, tea.
I cook what I know and have seen family members cook. But, unlike my relatives, I rely on recipes. I regret not paying attention to my father and my grandmother, Maman, as a young adult when they cooked. Both have passed. My experience cooking Persian food is close to none. For these dishes I rely on an Iranian woman’s blog, a New York Times clipping from my mother, and things my father has told me.
I check on the basmati rice still soaking from yesterday. I empty it into a colander and rinse one more time. I measure eight cups of water in my big pot, turn the heat up to high, and set the basmati rice next to it on the countertop.
Basmati rice and tadik are staples of the Iranian diet, eaten at lunch and dinner. Tadik is the crust of cooked rice on the bottom of the pot, up to half an inch thick, made with vegetable oil and often with thinly sliced potatoes. When it’s cooked right, the bottom becomes crispy and golden orange. Perfect tadik has not come easily to me. I remember Maman’s secret was to use a lot of oil.
As children, the most sought after item at family dinners was tadik. My younger sister, cousins, and I scrambled to it, drawn to its color, crunch, and flavorful oils we would lick off our fingers. Going back for seconds was allowed, but then my mother insisted we get a plate and eat some of the main dishes. My father, my aunts, and Maman perfected tadik. I regret not paying more attention when they cooked.
The rice goes in the pot. Next, I add two tablespoons each of olive oil and butter. I pile the rice in a pyramid, away from the edges of the pot, and poke some holes in the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon. Then, I wrap a dishtowel on the lid and knot it on top to trap the condensation. I allow to steam for thirty-five minutes, then remove the lid, face down into the steam, and feel the droplets on my face. In the steam from basmati rice, I feel Iranian in whiffs, in wafts, in ephemeral swirls.
The warm house, the steamy kitchen, and the fragrance of basmati rice cooking on the stove transport me. The smell is breathtaking and brings me to Maman. Her great care and love in preparing meals for her family is memorable. For example, to make sheereen polo, or sweet rice, she carefully laid slivered orange peels on paper towels, and with short fingers, and much patience, rolled the ground beef into tiny meatballs. Little did I know the smells in her kitchen were planting memories for me.
This, a favorite dish in my family, is made with pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and chicken. My mother found the recipe in the New York Times, and I pasted it in my recipe binder. I realize the need for a good Iranian cookbook.
As I toast the walnuts in a pan over medium heat, I imagine my grandmother patiently chopping walnuts with a knife; I feel unauthentic but use a food processor anyway. Then I add two cups of water and a cup of pomegranate syrup, and simmer with the lid ajar for forty minutes. The pomegranate syrup is the sourest thing I’ve ever tasted and is strangely sweet as well.
Next, I saute an onion in a heavy pot, add a quarter teaspoon of turmeric and four chicken breasts until cooked on all sides. In go the pomegranate sauce and walnuts, and I cover the chicken, adding water if necessary; add sugar to taste; leave out the dash of cinnamon because it sounds strange. I put my nose in the pot: steamy, warm, sweet, and nutty. I inhale and exhale. Inhale again and feel transported to Maman’s small apartment in the States, cozy and Iranian. Iran smells like a blend of saffron, sumac, and rosewater. Saffron to color the rice, tart sumac to spice the beef kebobs, and rosewater to flavor baked goods and ice cream.
Next, I make doogh, a concoction that perfectly complements Persian cuisine. It is one of those Farsi words Americans can’t master; it is nearly impossible for them to make the rolling “gh” sound in the back of their throats. When I do it, I feel Iranian. Doogh is found bottled in Iran and here at the Iranian grocer. It is a healthy drink with a sour flavor, a tickly bubble, and a salty zing. I pour a glass of club soda, spoon a few tablespoons of whole milk yogurt into the glass, and stir vigorously. Then, salt to taste. I crush mint leaves between my fingers and sniff in the refreshing and bright scent. Add to the doogh and taste. Authentic and pure Iran.
I imagine my father pouring me a glass on our table by the patio in Iran. It doesn’t seem like a drink a child would enjoy, but my memory wants to tell me I did. I imagine my father teaching my mother how to prepare the drink in her adopted home. I imagine my younger sister tasting it and not liking it. These speculations are one way I stay connected to my Iranian identity. I am playing with memories, using imagination to fill the empty spaces. For as long as it takes to drink the doogh, I feel Iranian.
4. Sohan Asali
Next, I make sohan asali, saffron and honey candy. I put sugar, honey, saffron, and slivered almonds in a small pot over medium heat. The recipe says to stir often until the sugar is melted. My grandmother’s sohan was a smooth, dark orange and very hard candy with crushed pistachios on top. Sohan reminds me of family parties, where there were more desserts than my eyes could see: chickpea cookies, fried dough filled with honey, and delicate fried hexagon cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar.
I turn up the heat and stir; then I turn down the heat. As I really have no idea what I am doing, I just keep stirring. The sugar remains granular and white. Maman could tell me what to do; my father would know what I’m doing wrong, probably not being patient enough. I resign myself to the state of the sugar mixture and drop it by tablespoons onto a cooking sheet lined with parchment paper, knowing it is wrong, all wrong. I sprinkle crushed pistachios on top and allow to cool. This sohan is white, granular, and soft. I deem it an excellent effort though I feel like a fool. I missed the chance for my father to show me how it’s done properly.
I prepare authentic Persian black chaee tea. My father used premium Ceylon tea, which is similar to English Breakfast. Today I use tea in a maroon and gold box. I take in the familiar earthy smell of the tea leaves. Then, I add two tablespoons to a small white teapot on the stove, pour in the hot water, and allow to steep for five to seven minutes.
You could not visit someone in Iran without being offered a cup of tea and then a second cup, and a third. In fact, visits get quite long because of lengthy goodbyes, because of the chaee and tarof. It is a ritual where a host insists you stay in their home, and you say you must leave. And the host will insist you stay. You could be offered more fruit, dessert, and tea. Even if the host has run out of time, or is tired, or really wants you to leave, tarof reigns. It applies to everyday negotiations as well, like paying for a taxi, or buying a meal, for example. This can go on for three rounds, the hostess insisting and the guest resisting. The rituals of chaee and tarof my relatives continue to use today make me feel Iranian.
I pour the tea over a tiny sieve into a mug, because I am ill-equipped; Iranians use an estakan, a glass about three inches high and an inch and a half in diameter. The estakans in my memory are rimmed with gold and come with a small white saucer. The color of the tea matters. Depending on how long it steeps, I may need to add hot water to make it lighter.
I put a sugar cube in my cheek, sip the tea as the granules melt and coat my mouth. Today, I don’t have any gaz, a sticky white candy with pistachios and powdered sugar that pairs perfectly with chaee.
Next, I cue up the Iranian music, press play, and turn up the volume. The crisp and vibrant strums of the setar transport me to my late aunt Mehry’s living room. The finger picking energetic and alive. A small drum provides a steady beat. I felt Iranian when the setar, my relatives, and a spirit of celebration filled an entire room. Now I do too, if only for the length of the song. I sway my hips, raise my arms in the air, and rotate my wrists in that seductive Iranian way. I become one with the strings and feel the movement in my belly. My breath quickens. I regret I can’t understand the words in the song, Chaharmezrab, Mahur. Not understanding touches an emptiness inside of me, of not quite belonging. I feel Iranian for the length of the song.
The music continues and I sit in my chair. I gaze at the patterns of the tablecloth and drink my tea. The meal was a half success, just like me, half Iranian. If my father were still alive, he would surely say the fesenjoon was watery. I say it is very tasty and authentic, the big triumph of the day. The sohan asali, unfortunately, was a complete failure. My future as a successful cook rests on learning from my relatives, finding the best Iranian cookbooks, and following the recipes my father told me from his memory. The items on the to-do list were to get estekans from my father’s house, ask my aunt for a good cookbook, and though I lost my chance to make sohan asali with my father, maybe my aunt Nahid will show me. I will need to buy more chaee, sugar cubes, and gaz.
The cooking is done, and those trickles of Iran, well, they’ll have to be enough for now.
With many relatives passed, I wonder, will I carry Iran for the rest of us? My intention is to retrieve Farsi, the Iranian language. I promise myself to do more than just celebrating Noruz once a year. I intend to share Iran with my teenage nephews so they know their rich heritage.
Will I carry Iran for all of us? Will I return to the country one day and stay with my second cousin, Fereshte? I imagine sightseeing in Tehran; would I weep at the sight of the architecture, the sound of the language, and the taste of the food? It has the potential to be an emotionally challenging experience, or would it be comforting to be home? Furthermore would it feel like home?
Would I feel Iranian?
Is Iran—and feeling Iranian—something that always needs to be chased? Seeking or crafting an experience is not the same as feeling Iranian naturally. That chapter has closed.
This is the way for now: sometimes feeling Iranian.
Maryam Keramaty received her bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from Simmons University and a graduate certificate in public relations from Emerson College. Currently, she is a student at Grub Street in Boston, where she is studying the craft of writing the memoir and personal essay.
We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.