When I was small, Persian food used to scare me
May 21, 2003
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
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
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
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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