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Food

Extra-terrestrial cravings
When I was small, Persian food used to scare me

May 21, 2003
The Iranian

My Armenian co-worker was trying to describe to me a dish from his country involving sweetened eggplants, a type of Armenian jam. I know what you will say: Sweet eggplants jam? Yuuukkkkk... Anyone who’s tasted Khoresht Baademjoon (a concoction of fried eggplants generously doused with salt, onions and other seasoning) could not fathom eating eggplants for breakfast.

My cousin, who overheard this conversation, quipped that when God was teaching people how to cook, Armenians were standing at the back of the line. But I think there’s no accounting for taste. And we Iranians should be very careful when criticizing other people’s seemingly extra-terrestrial cravings.

After all, my husband relishes carrot jam, as do a lot of Iranians. I am sorry but the first time he brought home a jar of carrot jam, I looked at him incredulously and kept peeking in his grocery bags to see if he had brought home a pet rabbit as well. After all, I could not imagine any other creature who would crave carrot jam!

I grew up on all kinds of jams: Strawberry, Raspberry, Blueberry. I even confess to a curious taste for orange marmalade, which no little girl in her right mind should have had, since it is more bitter than it is sweet. But spreading a puree of carrots on my morning toast was too far out, even for me.

I guess my husband would have gotten along with my high school friend Sherry, who used to gross me out whenever we went to the local Persian bakery by ordering basstani akbar mashti (a very creamy type of Persian ice-cream) with carrot juice. And I am not talking about eating a scoop of ice cream and then taking a sip of carrot juice. I mean she would pour the carrot juice into her ice cream, much like a “café glace” except it was “carrot glace” in this case. I had to really control my gag reflex when I saw the ice cream slowly melting and mixing with the thick carrot juice to form this creamy carrot syrup. Yeeeessshhhhh...

Sherry was a model of good taste compared to my other friend Armita. Although my first observation of her peculiar diet came when one morning at breakfast, she put a slice of hendooneh in her noon barbari with panir, making it into a watermelon-cheese sandwich (!!!), this was nothing.

Her family had a traditional “dombalaan” barbecue every summer. I innocently went over there thinking we were gonna have another normal barbecue. Everything seemed right. The meat looked and smelled delicious. Armita’s dad would run in carrying another couple of huge “sikhek-kabaab” and we would all devour the succulent meat. Until Armita turned to me and explained what it was I was eating. Let’s just say the contestants on Fear Factor have nothing on me.

When I was small, Persian food used to scare me. It just looked so unappetizing to a little girl who had grown up with a love for simple foods such as cereals, and spaghettis. What’s more, I had developed a kind of neurosis at a young age, like I was the Woody Allen of the kindergarden set, insisting that my khoresht not touch my white rice, lest it makes it “dirty.”

And I refused to drink “dough”, thinking to myself what person in their right mind would drink salty solid yogurt as a way of quenching their thirst. As for kalleh paacheh, don’t even go there! I think the Scots are tied with the Iranians on the contest for grossest sounding and foulest smelling recipe. Kalleh paacheh, literally translates as “head and thigh”, they for haggus (sheep’s inside boiled in its own carcass).

No matter how much my parents pleaded with me, I would refuse to eat stuff that did not look familiar. After all, I had been on the receiving end of many nasty tricks played on me by adults who wanted to “expand” my horizons. My aunt Nessa once cooked me a meal from her native India, which was some sort of vegetable and rice.

I delightedly took a bunch of those colorful red and green tidbits in my rice, thinking it was bits of tomatoes and cucumbers, only to find out my tongue had caught on fire. Who in their right mind would feed a 7 year old spicy Indian peppers??? I jumped 6 feet off my chair, as if to join Mary Poppins’ceiling tea party.

When I landed on my feet, a shot of adrenaline propelled me to the kitchen sink where I opened my mouth and let the cold water run in, in manner of drunk frat boy chugging beer at a keg party. Of course, water is the worst thing to drink after hot peppers, but nobody bothered to explain that to me.

Another sad scenario was my other aunt Niloo taking me to a Chinese restaurant when I was 8 where she proceeded to order for me what she promised would be an unforgettable culinary experience. At that point, my idea of a culinary experience would have been a Big Mac and Vanilla milkshake, things that were forbidden to me until I was old enough to make my own money.

Of course, Aunt Niloo neglected to tell me that the meat I was munching down on were frog’s legs. These, I remember, were so fried and doused with sauce, that I never actually got to taste the meat. (In case you were wondering if they do taste like chicken). Which is a good thing considering.

All I could imagine was those documentaries they showed us at school where in slow motion, the frog would extend its snake like tongue to catch and swallow flies. Flies!!! That’s what I felt my stomach must be full of, after I had ingested those insipid frog’s legs.

I was not the only child to have suffered from culinary persecution. It seems the trends continue for little tykes of the next generation. My friend’s mom was telling me the other day, during her days as a kindergarden teacher, she would always recoil at the weird snacks given to the lone Iranian kid in the class, which had no nutritional value whatsoever and would have pleased only an 80-year-old kadkhodaa from a Samad tale.

While the non-Iranian kids would bring apples, vegetables, cheese and milk in their snack bag, the Iranian kid would bring EVERY day the same weird mix: A bunch of fried “sosseess” cut up and mixed with pollo. Poor kid could not touch his food and just looked longingly at his luckier classmates, until my friend’s mom stepped in and told the Iranian mother to get real.

So what happened to me in my adult age? After all that, you would think I turned into the most cowardly food eater, sticking to a strict regimen of meat and potatos.Strangely enough, I turned out quite the opposite.

I can make fun of my husband all I want, he does it back to me on account of my hunkering for goat cheese, goose liver pate, and the famous jeegar (liver). (And no, I do not eat it with fava beans and a nice chianti... .SSSssslllllrrrppppppp).

Today I eat at Indian, Japanese and Thai restaurants as often as I would at “safer” fares like Mexican, Italian or French. My husband and I both enjoy sushi, which is so great, but I don’t think he would have joined me in eating Ostrich meat and Shark steak, probably some of the strangest things I have ever dared to order.

As I said, there’s no accounting for taste. Maybe I’ll even splurge on that Armenian sweet eggplant jam. Who knows? If I like it, I can put it right next to my husband’s beloved jar of carrot jam.

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