The guests will be here in a matter of hours and I’m only halfway done with dinner. Sweet aroma of basmati rice, sautéed onions, and saffron fills my kitchen and the windows are fogged with steam rising from all four burners. I want to cook the best for my friends, I want this meal to be perfect, and as my hands do the work, memories of a kitchen I used to know fill my mind, except now it feels as if the remembrance belongs to another life.
In a small town of Northern Iran, not far from the Russian border, we lived in an old house with a large garden that separated the kitchen from the living quarters: A dimly lit room with two wood-burning stoves and a bread oven — tanoor. There was no sink; the water needed for cooking came through a rusty faucet on the concrete wall and drained into a hole on the tile floor.
It is impossible to picture the place without the presence of its old cook, who bustled about and ordered people around as if the dingy place was his kingdom. Grownups called him by his first name Hassan, but the rest of us were told to call him Karbelaii Hassan — in honor of his pilgrimage to Karbala. Not only do I see his frail shape bending over the stove, but I can still hear his asthmatic breathing, a condition that should have prohibited his presence near a smoky fire.
Each morning, before we left for school, Karbelaii Hassan sat in the sun with a round tray of rice grains, searching for pebbles, sand, or other foreign objects and I knew next he would soak them in salt-water. “To make a rice with long, fluffy, and separated grains, you must let it soak for many hours,” he said time and again.
Most days, as soon as lunch menu was decided, Karbelaii Hassan took his shopping basket and headed for the town market in search of ingredients: Fresh lamb, eggplants, rhubarbs and green herbs. Sometimes I wonder if freshness was the secret behind his unbelievable creations, then again, I am not sure if magic wasn’t a basic ingredient.
Whenever I had a free moment or if grownups bored me with their political debates, I would take refuge in Hassan’s kitchen where he let me sit at a safe distance from the stove and watch. “In order to become a good cook, one must first learn how to give a heart and shed a tear!” he said on more than one occasion. As a child, I was not familiar with that old expression and thought by “giving a heart,” he meant to have a passion for eating and, no doubt, the tears had to be from those onions!
There were also occasional treats. When he shelled walnuts, sometimes he stretched his aged palm and offered me a few before grinding the rest in a stone mortar. He had sautéed the onion and chicken and I watched his skilled hands in awe as he took the right amount of ingredients without a need to measure: Lemon juice, sugar, and saffron. The minute he took down the bottle of pomegranate paste from the shelf, I could already taste my favorite sweet and sour chicken, fessenjan.
When I was old enough — around twelve — I pleaded for cooking lessons only to find out that Karbelaii Hassan may have been a great cook, but was not a fun teacher. He started his lessons by making me clean the rice, fetch water, and even wash dishes, but it would be many months before he finally let me near the stove. And his measurements were another story! He asked me for “enough” of this and a “bit” of that; and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he added spices “as needed”, salted foods “to taste” and expected me to know exactly how much pepper he needed when he asked for a “dash”. My first month as a cooking student proved to be nothing but burns and cuts, garnished by the disappointing fact that my rice tasted saltier than the Caspian Sea!
Despite a kitchen that lacked modern amenities, Karbelaii Hassan’s gourmet meals had gained him moderate fame. For all he cared, the measuring cups and the entire metric system belonged to amateurs; his skilled hands made no mistakes and his lessons went far beyond meal preparations. He had never heard of cookbooks and I doubt if he was literate enough to read one, but when I asked him how he had learned to cook, he only put a fist on his heart.
“Food is a funny thing in that its value multiplies when divided,” he said, “And the more people you share it with, the more valuable it will be.” As I drain the rice and add butter, yogurt, and saffron for a crispy tah-dig, I am more conscious of a major difference between my own ethnic cuisine and that of others. Persians can only cook for a crowd as we have absolutely no recipes for two, four, or even six and, regardless of how little one may have, good food is only good when shared.
My grandmother lived alone in her final years, yet at every meal, she was prepared to receive company. “My hands are not trained to measure small amounts,” she used to say with pride, “Besides, there needs to be enough in case someone should drop in.” And, she couldn’t be more right because we wouldn’t miss a chance to drop in and benefit from her immeasurable love as well as her generous hospitality.
As much as I prepared, life has proven that future couldn’t be predicted, all the same, after more than three decades of living in a place where no one ever “drops in”, I continue to cook enough for an army. No doubt, my wise old teacher Hassan — wherever he may be — is proud of me for remembering his most valuable lessons; for now I also cook without a recipe, give a heart, and even shed a tear.
I reach into the tiny jar of ground saffron for a “pinch” and next grab a “fistful” of sugar to be stirred into the boiling mixture before I take a spoonful and savor the sweet taste of a goodfessenjan. It will never be the same, but deciding it’s close enough I raise my spoon to the blue sky beyond the window and whisper, “This one is for you.” Comment