We expected something special when my grandma told everyone to go to bed early and be ready to help her with work at the orchard the next day.
Each year right after the end of school, we would pack up and spend the summer with grandma. She lived in a big old house with my aunt and uncles. Everyone called her Khanoom Jan. She ruled the birooni as well as the andarooni with her strong presence and loving gestures. Almost every week she had a project which involved everyone in the family and we all had to take part and do something.
Many years have since passed and I am only now beginning to realize how she used home-made cooking to keep the family together and pass on her precious experiences and family traditions.
In the old days — before Sadaf ready-made food products came to market — everything was made at home. Khanoom Jan owned an orchard in the outskirts of the city and from early spring to late summer we would go and pick the best fruits of the season and bring it home to eat and make the most delicious meals for the winter. Khanoom Jan would make qaysi (dried fruit) with sweet apricots and jam with the sour ones. Large dark plums were used to make lavashak (fruit rolls). Almonds and walnuts were spread over a cloth to dry in a corner of the yard and later shelled by all of us and stored in hand sewn cloth bags.
On one side of the orchard there was a train track and on the other side fruit and nut trees marked the boundaries. The main part of the orchard was taken up by different varieties of grapes, planted in deep rows. At the end of each row, by the water dividers, there were a few more old fruit trees.
With so many beautiful and productive trees, we had endless fun at the orchard: Climbing trees to reach for the biggest and brightest fruit, hiding from everyone for hours and reading (giving grandma a scare!), watching trains go by from the seclusion of a tree, escaping the afternoon heat in the breezy canopy of an old apricot tree, dreaming, shaking trees at harvest time, charting our growth line and carving the names of the ones we loved on the trunks… those were our summer days.
Just as we arrived for our summer stay, it was time to pick qoureh (sour grapes) which was dried and then grounded into a powder in a haaven (mortar). A few weeks later when the qoureh had become juicier but still tart, we would put it through hand held presses to extract the juice which was stored in bottles for winter, mainly to flavor stews. As the grapes rippened into sweet golden drops, they were used in making a variety of things such as vinegar, molasses and — best of all — raisins.
Helping to wash the grapes was the most fun. We would carry big straw baskets full of grapes to the pond in the middle of the yard and submerge it in water, give it a good shake and pull it out. Then we would take the basket around the yard a few times to shake off the water and deliver the baskets to where my mom, aunts and Khanoom Jan were sitting. In the process of washing and delivering the grapes, we would lose some grapes. My brother and I were envious of my uncle whose job was to dive in the pond and bring up the fallen grapes while we had to pick up the damaged bunches from the yard and place them in clay vessels in the corner of the yard to be made into vinegar later.
Khanoom Jan would measure balls of twisted double yarn by the length of her arm and cut each piece exactly the height of the ceiling to the floor of the storage room. My mom, aunts and sometimes their cousins while engrossed in conversation or gossip, would take bunches of grapes, open the double yarn and place a bunch in the middle at a right distance from the next bunch. It was my older uncle's job to take the trays to the dark storage room and hang each length of the yarn from the lines of big nails on the ceiling, starting from the back of the room. Sometimes it took a week to finish all the different size and varieties of grapes that were made into raisins for snacks, cooking and baking. It was such a joy to work, play, and be a part of the activities of grownups — all of us so close together.
On each side of Khanoom Jan's kitchen there was a platform and in the corner there was a built-in haavan (mortar) used to grind coarse salt, pepper corn, cinnamon sticks, turmeric and many other spices into fine powders. Working the haavans, pounding the pestle and shaking the alak (round sifter) without spilling was a challenge as we played around! Entrance to the house was through a long, dark and cool dalon (passageway) which led to a large sunny yard with many plants and flowers. The contrast of light and shade was quite remarkable, especially when the air was filled with the essence of freshly ground spices, the smell of mint and dill drying on the balcony, the scent of potted geraniums that lined the pond and the jasmine plants full of tiny white blossoms.
We started each day by going to Khanoom Jan's room for breakfast. A large copper samovar was tended to all day long. Tea was always brewing and our favorite foods were ready. She never made any of us eat anything we did not like and went out of her way to cook what we liked. I remember when she made rice, she used two or three smaller pots to make sure that we all had enough tahdig (hard fried rice in the bottom of the pot). She also added a few drops of rose water to the rice while steaming it. The aroma of steaming rice would fill the house and we would go to the kitchen often asking her about lunch.
In the back or her kitchen there was a large storage room filled with jars of tart cherry jam, spices, dried herbs, bags of nuts and raisins, bottles of lemon juice, grape juice and sherbets, dried and candied fruits, as well as bread, cheese and yogurt which were also made at home. Following Khanoom Jan to the kitchen meant that a handful of goodies would be ours if we stayed around long enough! The old-fashioned kitchen had its own smell which even now, I remember so clearly.
But the smell of tomatoes was something else. A long walk away from our house, there was a tomato farm. Khanoom Jan would make a few trips to the farm in late August before she decided it was time to make tomato paste. She would make arrangements for two deliveries and enlist the help of her nieces and nephews. As soon as the tomatoes were delivered by donkeys, we would start washing, pressing and seeding.
The smell of ripe red tomatoes mixed with the smell of burning wood, would take over the house. As the tomatoes were pressed we took bucketful of tomato juice and pulp to the tanoor (clay oven) room and pour it into large copper pots set up over the wood-burning fires. We added more pulp through out the day as the liquid was reduced and the second load of tomatoes arrived in the afternoon. By late evening we were done with pressing and clean-up would start. My uncle, Khanoom Jan and my mom took turns staying up all night watching the fire and adding more liquid and salt to the pots. We fought going to bed and woke up early in the morning and rushed to see the dark, thick paste placed in containers. We loved licking the tomato paste off the pots and pans. The house smelled of tomatoes for days.
A week or so later, it was time to go back home loaded with healthy fresh supplies of food for the rest of the year. Sitting on the train surrounded with boxes, bags and jars of food, I would think of Khanoom Jan, the loving ways she took care of us, her energy and her special scent. It was not just the smell of food that I associated with her, but the scent of her warmth and the unique way she made us all feel part of her life by being a central figure in our lives.
On occasions when I think of my childhood, grandma and memories of Iran, these colorful images and breathtaking smells of the past come alive in my mind — special smells and vivid colors that were part of my childhood. I would watch the yellow flare of the fire change to red embers as the tanoor (clay oven) was readied for baking bread while the smell of maayeh khamir (yeast starter) filled the house.
Maybe my daughter will finally understand when she hears me say that juicy pears, red ripe tomatoes, dark cherries, green herbs, purple plums, golden grapes and aromatic apples (sib-e golaab) here in America do not taste or smell as good as I remember them from home.
xAle (pronounced khaa-leh, maternal aunt in Persian) is an old timer who grew up in Iran when words such as miraab, maayeh khamir, aab-anbaar and haavan were part of daily life. Through stories and remembrances of old days, she will be sharing with us part of our past.