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Little lamb to fessenjoon
Why my father became a vegetarian

March 25, 2002
The Iranian

Everytime we are invited to an Iranian mehmooni (party), everything goes smoothly until dinner time. That's when my dad almost always causes a scene. How, you may ask? Does he get drunk and start swinging from the chandelier? Does he loudly proclaim his pro-monarchist political belief in front of a crowd of left-wing intellectuals? Or does he give the hostess a funny look before exclaiming: "Gosh! I hardly recognized you with that new nose.''?

Well, none of the above. You see, the reality is much, much worse. My father's sin has nothing to do with public drunkenness, political incorrectness or lack of tact. It has to do with food. Specifically the delicious Iranian dishes the hostess has usually strained herself to prepare since morning. Or at least that's what she wants us to believe when we all know full well the only strain she had to endure is to dial the phone number of Mr. Kabab Bar and Grill for a timely delivery order. But that's another story.

The Golden Rule at an Iranian mehmooni is to stuff yourself silly with three servings of everything the hostess offers, pausing between chews only to utter loud enough for everyone's benefit : "Bah bah, khaanoom, dasstetoon dard nakoneh! Che dasstpokhti!" (Wow, madam, I hope you are not tired from your efforts. What a hand you have at cooking!) And this is precisely the rule that my dad breaks. Every single time.

When dinner is served, baba surreptitiously backs up in a dark corner, hoping to blend in chameleon-like with the wallpaper, so that no one notices he does not have a plate. But inevitably the hostess, like a hawk circling mercilessly above a helpless bunny, will be able to spot him at a distance.

Quickly, she lunges at my dad with a plate filled with 10 tons of steaming hot, juicy, tender, and aromatic chunks of lamb, beef and/or chicken. That's when I feel my cheeks flush and my temperature rise because I know what is about to happen.

-- "Aghaaye Tehranchi?" the hostess will exclaim (at first sweetly, thinking this is just a bit of old-fashioned taarof), "Befarmaayeen shaamettoono bokhorin." (Mr. Tehranchi, please have some dinner.)

My dad shifts nervously from one foot to the other, in manner of Indian mystic doing his first walk over strip of hot coals.

-- "Merssi khaanoom, shomaa kheili lotf mikonin." (Thank you madam, you are very kind.)

He takes the plate and stands there, like a deer caught in the headlights, while the hostess sadistically stays before him, waiting for him to take the first bite. Baabaa stares at his food then gazes at his tormentor. She looks back with a cruel smile, glee in her eyes. It is the ultimate battle, each person waiting for the other to flinch first. Finally, my dad gives up, and proceeds to pick miserably at a bit of berenj (rice), giving her a phony enthusiastic nod of his head as if to say "yum, yum."

-- "Bah bah khanoom, dasstettoon dard nakoneh. Kheili khoob bood." (Wow, madam, you have outdone yourself. It is very good.)

-- "Eh vaa Aghaaye Tehranchi, shomaa ke cheezee nakhordin. Be gooshthaa ke lab nazadin!" (But, Mr, Tehranchi, you haven't eaten anything. You haven't touched your meat!)

At this point, baba lowers his eyelids, like a schoolboy caught unprepared on the day of a pop quiz. He mumbles in a low voice, hoping not to be heard:

-- "Merssi khaanoom, vali man goosht nemikhoram." (Thank you Madam, but'I'don't eat meat.)

A dead silence ensues. Then the classic five stages of grief, starting with denial.

-- "Bebakhshid...'Shomaa GOOSHT nemikhorin? Mageh misheh?"' (Excuse me? You don't eat MEAT? That's impossible!)

Next comes anger, as the hostess comes to believe my father's reticence is a personal affront to her cooking (or rather the cooking of Mr. Kabab Bar and Grill, but still!).

-- "Aghaye Tehranchi, mazerat mikhaam az shomaa, dasst pokhte man kheeeeeily (Emphasis NOT added) baddeh. Shomaa be ghazaaye man meyl nadaareen." (Mr. Tehranchi, my deepest apologies to you, my cooking is veeeeeeeery poor. You cannot stand my food.)

My father, who is almost in tears of embarrassment at this point, feebly protests:

-- "Na khaanoom ekhtiaar daareen. Dasst pokhte shomaa kheili ham khoobeh. Ozr mikhaam, man bekhodaa goosht heech mogheh nemikhoram." (No Madam, you are mistaken. Your cooking is very good indeed. I apologize, but I swear I never touch meat.)

Usually, some sort of bargaining ensues. Other authorities are sometimes called in (such as the ammeh, mother, or sister of the hostess). These Iranian ladies take turns in offering my dad to cook something for him, "exclusively", right on the spot, so he could have dinner. When they see it is no use, the ladies just retreat mortified into the fourth stage which is the mourning period.

Strangely, though, nobody ever manages to arrive at the acceptance stage. That is because nobody can really believe my father could be a vegetarian! I mean, come on, this is a fad that can marginally be accepted from Westernized youngsters (those dishonourable traitors to their cultural legacies) and maybe from a few women on a diet ("Man regime-am!"). But from an old-school, old-fashioned Iranian man from the good old generation? Impossible! How could it be?

Well, here is the chance to put the record straight once and for all. Maybe after I tell you this story, all you Iranian ladies out there will finally accept that my father is not trying to be an impolite brute at your mehmoonis. He has simply lost his taste for meat, long time ago.

To make a short story long, my father used to spend his childhood summers away from Tehran, in the charming villa of his Khaaleh Bozorg (aunt) in Rasht. He always speaks so fondly of those days, where he led the idyllic life of Rousseau's Emile, gallivanting about with his tribe of cousins in the midst of nature, smelling the fresh country air, climbing trees, swimming, running and playing.

At that tender age, baba already displayed a sensitivity and good-naturedness that made him stand out from all his other, rougher playmates. This especially endeared him in the hearts of the household adults. In particular, the Naneh of the house had a very soft spot for her little Nader, which was of course deeply reciprocated.

"Aakh, Naneh-Sefidam, khodaa biaamorzeh,'' my father sometimes utters with a sigh, to this day. Naneh Sefid, a ruthless tyrant who ruled her kitchen with an iron fist (which she did not bother to conceal in a hypocritical velvet glove) always had a special treat hidden away in the pantry for my father. Some shomaali sweet or dish that the other kids would beg in vain to have a bite of.

But Naneh Sefid hit the little rascals on the hand and chided them: "Nah! Ino baraaye Nader dorosst kardam, shomaa dasst nazanin."

Outside of Naneh Sefid, the other creature that brightened my father's summer days, was a little lamb that had been given to him by Haaj Aghaa, my father's uncle. Baba and his babayee became the best of friends, both being kindred spirits. Baba took his responsibilities very seriously. He would take care of his pet in every respect: Bathing him, brushing him, feeding him, petting him.

The first thing he would do in the morning when he jumped out of bed, and before Naneh Sefid could even get him to sit down for a delicious breakfast of fresh noon-o-panir-o-chayee, was to run to the barn and greet his babayee, make sure he was properly fed, clean, and happy.

As you know, in every story, there has to be a hero and a villain. Enters the villain: Cyrus, Haaj Aghaa and Khaaleh Bozorg's son, my dad's cousin. Cyrus, to put it kindly, was more of the athletic than cerebral type. He was always jealous of my father, who was constantly praised by the household adults as the model kid. (Note to Iranian parents everywhere: Please don't burden your kids with such a heavy cross to bear!)

My father was everyone's little angel, good at school, polite, clean. He never got into trouble while Cyrus would always get his ear pulled for not having done his homework, or doing too much sheytun-baazi. Cyrus was particularly weary of the favour bestowed on my father by Haaj Aghaa in the form of the precious little lamb.

Though no one ever found out exactly how he went about it, Cyrus managed to become the catalyst in the dreadful episode that I will describe below.

One evening, at the conclusion of a delicious dinner of pollo khoresht fessenjoon, in which the whole extended family of uncles and aunts and cousins had partook, my father jumped from his seat as was his habit and ran to the barn to visit his babayee. But, curiously, he could not find little lamb anywhere.

So he came skipping back to the main house, where everyone was still sitting around, sipping their tea, and exclaimed with all the innocence of his five-year-old heart: "Babayee-eh man koo?" (Where is my lamb?)

This was the moment that evil Cyrus had been waiting for. Loudly and distinctly, his words falling each and everyone like sharp knives into the frail little heart of my father, Cyrus replied devilishly: "Babayeet kojaasst? Khob, Babayeett inaahaash! Khiaal kardi allaan shaam chi khordi?" (Where is your lamb? Well, he is right here: What do you think you just ate for dinner?) And he pointed to the still-half-filled fessenjoon dish on the dinner table.

My father slowly looked from his cruel cousin's finger to the fessenjoon dish. He could not fathom what the evil Cyrus could possibly mean. Where was babayee? Certainly not in the fessenjoon, which was only filled with food. What did fessenjoon have to do with my father's little friend, with his sweet smile, his cherubic white wool coat, and his hesitant but loving "Baaaahhhh... Baaaahhhh"?

Then, my father's stomach suddenly twisted in a knot. It was the beginning of his suspicion -- the suspicion behind a terrible, awful thought. The fessenjoon was filled with meat. Brown, hot, juicy chunks of meat. And my father remembered in the bazaar how he had seen the butcher slaughter countless sheep. Then Naneh Sefid would buy the meat and say how she would prepare such and such dish for the evening.

But my dad had never imagined for a moment that his own little babayee would ever meet such a fate. His babayee was not food! He was a friend, his best friend! All these thoughts flashed in my father's head at the speed of lightning.

The adults and children sitting around the table had suddenly gone terribly quiet after Cyrus's announcement. But just as suddenly, they all burst out laughing after seeing my father's discomfited face. It was all a big joke to them: Bishouraa! (Jerks!) All except for Haaj Aghaa who angrily stood up and banged his fist on the table, instantly quieting these insensitive hyenas.

The seriousness of Haaj Agha's reaction confirmed in my father's mind that his worse thoughts were indeed true: His babayee was gone, gone forever, and he had been murdered! He himself had been an accomplice in the murder of this pure, innocent soul. He had eaten the flesh of his friend, and he had enjoyed it, like a bloody cannibal! Suddenly, the room started spinning very fast around my father and he fell into Haaj Aghaa's arms.

Amazon Honor SystemFor the next few days, little Nader had a complete emotional and physical breakdown as he alternated between hysterical sobbing fits, catatonic episodes and ferocious vomiting streaks. Not even his Naneh-Sefid could console him. That day, my father lost not only his taste for meat forever, but also his innocence.

The babayee/fessenjoon episode planted the first seeds in his heart of the realization that the people around you whom you love and you think love you back, can betray you in the most cruel, heartless way.

So from now on, ladies, if you ever have a big Iranian mehmooni, don't feel insulted if a small, thin man with a balding head and timid eyes discreetly backs into a corner when the food is being served. Just take his word for it! Your dasst pokht is indeed unequalled under the sun (except maybe for Mr. Kabab Bar and Grill). It's just that my father still carries in his heart the memory of a good friend who died long ago. You see, after all these years, he is still at the mourning stage.

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Niki Tehranchi

By Niki Tehranchi

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