The thick white liquid flowed heavenward out of the bottle and onto the heads and faces of the American family sitting at the next table
March 26, 2007
On a Saturday in 1983, when we were still students, I was sitting at the table paying my bills, listening to the Iranian program on television. I heard them advertise a new Iranian restaurant, located in the Town and Country Village in Palo Alto, letting us know that they have the “Best Chelo Kabab In The Area.” I called my sister and a few other friends, and they all agreed to go there for lunch. Starving students on a tight budget, we were going to splurge and eat the “Best Chelo Kabab In The Area.” All nine of us piled into a beat-up Chevrolet Impala station wagon, and started the long journey from Berkeley to Palo Alto. On the way, we were singing “Sepideh dam oomad o vaghte raftan...” on top of our lungs, laughing and feeling generally happy.
We got to the Town and Country Village and realized that the “restaurant” was really just a food stand in the mall food court, where we had to wait in line to pick up our food one by one and go sit in the general sitting area of the food court. Not to worry, we got into the task immediately! I was first in line. I ordered a Chelo Kabab Soltani, complete with dough, onions, and somagh. As the man behind the counter handed me my tray (the one who had dared call his food stand a “restaurant”), he said to me that the Dough-e-Abali he was putting on my tray had a little too much carbonated water in it, that he had already shaken it for me, and that I didn’t need to shake it any further. I paid and returned to the general dining area and picked us a large table. Soon, the next person in our group got his meal and came to join me at the table.
My sister was the third one to come to the table with her tray of Chelo Kabab and dough. We were so happy to smell this divine food, waiting impatiently for the others to join us, so we could start eating. My sister reached for her dough, picked it up, shook it vigorously (as we used to do with dough bottles back home, to re-mix the yogurt and water inside the bottle), twisted the cap, and suddenly a big explosion happened. Dough flew out of the bottle, way up high into the air, and landed first on an unsuspecting American family sitting at the next table, and then on the back of a man sitting two tables over. In what must be the “Super Slow Motion” experience reserved for car accidents and explosions, we saw the surprised faces of the hapless American family (blond Mom, blond Dad, blond Boy, and blond Girl), following the dough trail to the table where the other man was sitting. Oh My God. That table had 10 men sitting at it. They all had uniform black leather jackets, looking almost identical in appearance, with long hair in ponytails (remember, this was 1983, a long time before ponytails became fashionable for men), except for the guy at the head of the table who also was wearing similar clothes, only his hair and ponytail were grey, not jet black like the others’. Back to the “Super Slow Motion” scene, two of us picked up paper napkins off the table and ran to the American family to clean up and to apologize for the mess. I was the lucky one to go to the man in black leather jacket, whereby I started apologizing profusely, wiping his jacket covered with dough. He was so angry, but I guess I must have looked really genuine in my apology, because he was just grumbling as I left.
We went back to the table, sat down, and all shaken up, stared at our food in silence as we waited for the others to pick up their food and join us. At this point my brother-in-law, the jolly food-lover, who was waiting in line with others on the other side of the food court showed up with his tray brimming with Chelo Kabab Soltani, Koobideh Ezafeh, his onions, salad, and, what else? Dough. He was so happy and cheerful. Oblivious to our shocked faces and demeanor, he sat down right next to my sister, and before any of us shaken up souls had a chance to tell him what had just happened, he reached for his dough, picked it up, shook it up vigorously, and unscrewed the cap! The “Super Slow Motion” action reached new heights now, where first we were mouthing “Nooooooooooooo,” as no sound escaped our mouths, and then, as the dough flowed heavenward out of the bottle and onto the heads and faces of the same American family and then landed on the back of the very same gangster-looking guy, we all scrambled on our feet with the napkins, running towards the victims, for the second time in 5 minutes. The American family left quickly and quietly, fearing another imminent dough attack, I guess. I was responsible for walking to the angry man in the black leather jacket, again. This I did with such fear, with leaden feet, and what must have been the most embarrassed look on my pale face. The man was so angry, his face was all red and the venom in his look was so frightening to me. Nonetheless, I pushed forward, wiping his jacket and mumbling words of apology.
The man was aware by this time, that the stuff that kept hitting him in the back of his neck and jacket was white and thick. So, he yelled at me: “What the fuck is this shit, anyway?” By this time the crowd in the food court was all aware of us, looking uncomfortably at this scene, and there was a hushed silence in the room. I was thinking there is no time for silence; that I must offer my explanation as swiftly and as honestly as possible, to keep this man’s escalating anger, really his rage, to a minimum. So I broke into a speedy explanation of what dough was. I told him: “Sir, this is dough--Iranians’ ‘national drink.’ It is made of plain yogurt and carbonated water. I believe there was too much carbonation in the liquid, hence the explosion. I am so sorry. Please let us pay for your jacket to be cleaned.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, well, back at our table, our remaining friends had returned with their trays, laden with Chelo Kabab, and yes, dough. They knew nothing about what had happened, and all they could see was this silence and everyone looking uncomfortably at me and the men at the other table, the man looking enraged and repeatedly saying the F word. So, naturally, this disaster must now take a new dimension, because dough wasn’t the only thing that demonstrated our Iranian-ness in this mayhem. Our honor (namoos) was now on the line, as my 150 centimeter Shirazi friend, Behnam, who had just arrived at the scene, believed. So, just as I thought I had poured my heart out to the belligerent gentleman and his friends, successfully diffusing the situation, and I was ready to return to our table, Behnam ran over and said to the guy: “Fuck? Fuck Who? Fuck You!” Oh My God. The guy stood up, all 6’ 4” of him, stared down at Behnam and said: “No, Fuck You!” My whole life flashed before my eyes. This guy was going to kill Behnam first and then all of us! Over Dough-e-Abali! At this time, a miracle happened. The older gentleman at the table moved his hand slightly and signaled to the angry man to stop and to sit down…and the man did, like a boy obeying his father. I pulled Behnam’s hand and whispered “Shut up, just shut up Behnam” in his ear, and dragged him back to the table, while he was making sounds and movements, daring this guy to come forward!
We sat at our table in silence, looking at our cold Chelo Kabab’s, realizing that the whole food court was now empty of the happy crowd sitting there earlier. We had no appetite and no joy to eat anymore. The group of men at the said table left. My friends said we should leave, too. I just sat there and refused to get up for the next half an hour. I told them that I was sure those men were waiting for us in the parking lot, trying to get even! After much deliberation and looking through the window, sending one of the guys (not Behnam!) out to scout the parking lot, making sure they were gone, we left and got into the station wagon and drove quietly back to Berkeley.
It took weeks before we developed the requisite sense of humor about what happened that day. Now my friends and family always joke around with me about how I tried to “clean up that mess,” from running over with the bunch of paper napkins to the heart-felt speech I delivered on what the *@#) dough was! We tease Behnam mercilessly about his attempt to defend his honor (gheirat), and what poor timing it had in erupting, much like the dough that day! I call my sister and my brother-in-law the “Cultural Ambassadors of Iran,” who promoted our cuisine in the best possible way, hands-on!
Just the same, you should know, I never drink dough again. Comment