A girl like me belonged in the kitchen and meanwhile my new guesthouse had paired me with their cook for a few days. Ali had a thick mustache, wore grey polyester shirts and cooked for wealthy families in Tehran where he lived in the off-season with his wife and four children. It was an adjustment to be in the kitchen with a stranger, a man, after growing used to the meticulous calm of housewives. When I knocked on Ali’s door at the time he’d mimed to me with his fingers, but he answered wearing only a pair of pale, green underpants. While I leant over the sink to scrub my hands he picked soil from his fingernails with a kitchen knife. When I tried to determine what he wanted to be paid for teaching me to cook, he just shrugged his shoulders and looked up at the tall, black-domed ceiling.
Standing in our matching blue rubber sandals, leaning awkwardly against the turquoise tiles, we began to plan our first day’s menu which we argued about immediately. Guts and organs that we could throw on charcoal or slow, delicate wedding recipes. Heart kebabs and tongue in yoghurt sauce vs sweet rice with chicken and candied orange peel. With one hand dialing his mobile phone and the other snapping a CD of screechy music into the oil splattered stereo, Ali ordered me into the courtyard to untie bundles of herbs from the market and pick the leaves one by one – a task that took me nearly two hours – while his hairy arms pounded dainty flecks of saffron with cubes of sugar and sawed hunks of meat into quarters.
It became a routine that I soon found charming; my tug on on Ali’s brass door knocker, a fumbled answer in frayed boxer shorts, a disgruntled negotiation of the day’s menu followed by relentless pounding and chopping in fat kitchen sandals. During the course of four days we made swampy ghormeh sabzi from hunks of mutton, dried limes and the fenugreek, chives, parsley and mint that I’d minced for hours, halim e bademjan from kilos of slow-fried aubergines that we’d mashed with teacups, and at last, shirin polo – a platter of rice poured with sugar syrup and adorned with candied carrots and slivered orange peel. Working hard and saying little, stomachs growling and brows damp, we ended each session piling amber bowls and shiny plates high on a tray and carrying them to a shady alcove where we ate, tearing meat from bones, spooning sauces onto rice, watched by a squadron of cats.