Ever since I came to the United States as a teenager, watching my mother work around the kitchen, I have been fascinated by the art of cooking. Persian cooking is an art, and a table laden with Persian dishes is a delightful sight. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, but the taste is also quite exquisite. There are many different tastes that no single adjective can describe.
The old-fashioned Persian cooking of our ancestors had no exact measurements. Ask any professional Iranian cook and the only “measurements” you will hear are “a dash of this and a pinch of that”. You have to experiment with each recipe to acquire that very special taste each dish requires. It was Maede Mazda who published the very first cookbook of Iranian cuisine in English, called In a Persian Kitchen, with exact measurements.
I spent my last year of high school in Washington, D.C., attending Woodrow Wilson High School. I was living at home, and it became a habit for me to follow my mother around the kitchen grabbing and measuring whatever she was about to put into the pot. It was then that this cookbook got its start, with my mother's recipes, all written down in precise cupfuls and spoonfuls. Years later in Tehran, she would call and ask me to look up a certain recipe for her, now recorded in my handwritten book.
Four years later, in the true Iranian tradition, I graduated from Wilson College, and moved back to live with my parents, with no cooking experience whatsoever. Mother knew that, commuting from New Rochelle, New York to New York City and working a full day at the United Nations would leave me tired, if not exhausted. She did everything for me.
Two years later, I met and married my husband and after a delightful honeymoon in Europe, we headed for Tehran. Although this was meant to be my annual leave from the United Nations, my husband had to prepare for the foreign service entrance examination. It was with great sorrow that I resigned from my job.
My parents-in-law insisted we stay with them until we could have our own place. Little did we know that we would be living with them for fourteen years. The U.S. Aid Program to Iran, popularly known as Point Four, was in full swing. Both my husband and I applied for positions and started working for the program. The foreign service exam was being administered for the first time and it would be some time before the test was available. It was l954 and very few Iranian women had professional careers outside the home. It was not a common thing to do, but I was determined to work. Finally, the entrance exam was administered and hundreds of young men took the test. Only twelve were accepted and luckily, my husband was one of them.
We were blessed with our first child, Bibi, in June of 1956. I took maternity leave, and with my precious mother-in-law's supervision and the help of the nanny (Nan Aghah) who had raised my husband, I was able to return to work. Once 1958 rolled around we were assigned to Bern, Switzerland. Lo and behold, I found myself, for the first time in my life, all alone in a kitchen with a family to feed! I needed help and guidance and there was no one close by. It was at this time that I vowed to put together a cookbook to guide newlyweds and others who needed to run a kitchen without prior experience.
It took a long time for me to fulfill my dream, but I was never idle for a moment. For years I collected recipes, worked full time, or went on assignments abroad. The cookbook was a project I put off for retirement and when I retired in February of 1994, I immediately began taking steps toward accomplishing my goal.
When we lived in Bern, my parents were still living in the United States. After my father's assignment in New York came to its end, my parents visited us on their way back to Tehran. My mother came to my rescue and taught me a great deal about cooking. I also asked my mother-in-law to send me some of her special family recipes, which I treasure to this day.
I made a habit of keeping every recipe with the name of the person who gave it to me. Although I do not remember every person I have met during my adult life, there is magic in the names associated with the recipes I have collected. If I use a recipe from Barbara Johnson, whom I met forty years ago in Bern, I can easily visualize her in my mind's eye. It's a very special bond I have with these old friends, most of whom I have not seen since I left Switzerland in 1961.
Life in Bern was quiet and lonely at the outset. We were the most junior members of our embassy and did not know anyone. At the few parties we attended, the first question I was asked was “Do you play bridge?” So I decided that if I have to play bridge to find friends, I will learn bridge. I made some inquiries and found out there was a Swiss lady who taught bridge. For two afternoon sessions a week, she served tea and cake and brought together four beginners. Having played a French card game since childhood called belote, which is very similar to bridge. I picked up bridge after three or four sessions.
By that time, I had already met the Ambassadress of the Philippines, Evy de Castro. She was president of the International Bridge Club and said to me “Don't pay that lady any longer, come and play with us.” Bridge get-togethers were held in the early afternoons every week, so I needed to serve them cakes, cookies and small snacks. This is how I got my start in baking and preparing small hors d'oeuvres. Once a month, the group would get together with the husbands for dinner at one of the members' homes. This was potluck-style dinner.
Before I knew it, I had 24 people to dinner in our small apartment; my first experience with British diplomats and their tradition of men and women separating after dinner so the men could smoke while the ladies powdered their noses. Our apartment had a curtain between the living room and dining room and our only English guest got up and closed that curtain after dinner!
I remember my first bridge dinner. I made stuffed cabbage. Everyone loved and devoured it, then asked for the recipe. I offered to make it one day in their presence. When I did, seven ladies showed up, and I distributed copies of the recipe. I also sent stuffed cabbages to the families of my bridge partners. My American friend Evelyn Mangeng said, “I shall never make this at my house.” Her husband, Frank, always cleaned up after meals, and stuffed cabbage involves frying which often splashes oil and makes a mess!
We were still living in Bern when our second daughter, Minoo, was born on April 10, 1959. When we returned to Tehran in 1961, again to live with my in-laws, there were four of us. I soon began work as an English teacher with the very popular Iran-America Society. Later, I took a full-time administrative position in the same organization. On May 15, 1964, our son, Ali, was born. I resigned from my job to take care of my family.
At this point my husband and I decided we wanted to stay in Tehran and be near our parents, so he accepted no foreign assignments. He then transferred to the Iranian Oil Company and a few years later transferred to the Imperial Court as Chief of Protocol. In the meantime, I stayed at home for a little over a year and then started an eleven-year career with the National Petrochemical Company of Iran.
With a home loan and the design services of one of Iran's most distinguished architects, my brother, Nader Ardalan, we started building our very first home in 1969. For the very first time in my life, I could prepare food in a bright, beautiful and large kitchen of my own. Our house was located in a large family compound in a suburb of Tehran called Shemiran. This was the garden of paradise purchased years earlier by my father-in-law, with running streams, majestic 200-year old sycamore trees and a variety of fruit-bearing trees.
All my husband's siblings, except for my brother-in-law, Dr. Reza Malek, who was a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, built homes there. There were five homes, plus quarters for the help and their families. In all, about forty people lived in the compound. I was usually the first person to leave the compound each morning, dropping off the children and going to work. In the afternoons, I would sometimes bake for the children. Every recipe had to be doubled, if not tripled. The smell of cake attracted young and old to our house…
In all my forty-six years of married life, I can honestly say that I have never, ever, bought dessert from a store, or just served ice cream at a party. One of my good friends, Oranoos Esfandiary, used to say, “When you go to Pari's for dinner, always leave room for dessert.” Even when I was exhausted from work, I remembered her words and always made dessert for company. Everything in our house was always homemade including baked goods.
Over the past forty-six years, I have been very generous with my recipes. If you ask a certain Mr. and Mrs. Khazai, who met me many years ago at a memorial service for a friend where I had made “Bowtie Pastry” (see page 136), they will tell you I took their address and mailed them this recipe the next day. Years later we ran into each other. They remembered me, came and said hello and thanked me for the recipe they had received in the mail.
All these years I was asked repeatedly “Why don't you publish a cookbook?” This was always in the back of my mind, but I kept putting it off as a project I would undertake during retirement. This is the time to fulfill my promise, to myself, my family, relatives and friends.
As I start this project, I see the thousands of young Iranians, who due to political reasons are spending their adult lives away from their homeland. Unlike their ancestors, who were accustomed to having help, they have professional careers, raise families and manage their homes on their own. This is why I offer a combination of recipes, with an emphasis on Iranian food. Since I have held a full-time job and run a home for the past fifteen years, I will attempt to present you a sampling of each, saving the time-consuming Persian recipes for special occasions.
I plan to offer you ideas and suggestions that will help you, especially if you are running a home as well as pursuing a career. I hope this will be a starting point, a guide for you, if you are away from your family members or loved ones who would normally show you the way around a Persian-American kitchen. You will find many recipes that are not typically Iranian. I have presented my best recipes here, regardless of their origin.
The Persian phrase “Mehman hadyeye khodast” means a guest is a gift of God, and indeed Iranians go out of their way to provide their very best. This means the most beautiful room in the house is set aside for guests and the best food is always prepared for company. It is said that a farmer will slaughter his very last sheep for his guests, or sell the only carpet he owns to lay out a banquet for his guests.
With this in mind, lets begin our journey together.
ABGOOSHT MORGH (Abgoosht with Chicken)
1 chicken, skin removed and cut into pieces 1 large sliced onion 1 cup white beans 3 medium potatoes 8 cups cold water 1 tablespoon uncooked rice 3 tablespoons oil 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper
1. Wash chicken pieces and sauté in oil in a skillet. Remove and set aside. 2. Sauté onions in the same oil until golden. 3. In a separate pot, place beans and rice. Add chicken to this pot. 4. Add water, salt, pepper and fried onions. Bring to a boil, skim and remove foam. 5. Cover and cook on low heat for 45 minutes. 6. If beans are not tender, remove chicken pieces. 7. Add whole potatoes and cook remaining ingredients for another 30 minutes. 8. Add the chicken pieces back to the pot and serve.