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Cooking with words

When I was a student in London, with only a hotplate and a bedsitter washbasin for a kitchen, I discovered the paradoxical pleasure of reading a good cookbook while I ate my tin of beans. My stomach was filled, my imagination stimulated, and all for pennies. Something like phone sex, I suppose.

But sometimes a writer who touches the subject of food can go to a much deeper place and nourish the soul; a place where food becomes a metaphor for love. Or life, or knowledge. Where flavors link to instincts, or memories too fragile for words. Think of "Like Water for Chocolate" or Salman Rushdie's pickles.

Naghmeh Sohrabi's story today enters that territory, and I can't offer you any better recipe than Goljan's Bread. -- Ashpaz Baashi

Goljan's bread
Something strange happened the last time I was in Shiraz

By Naghmeh Sohrabi
May 4, 2001
The Iranian

I turned scarlet and white when her question changed from the rhetorical "You know my name" to the slightly admonishing "You do know my name?"

"Ummm" I said, pursing my lips, trying to look as cute and pathetic as possible.

"Of course. Of course I know it. It's Golnar."

She just looked at me. Her eyes have the ability to be either highly expressive or completely blank. They were the latter. I decided to add a dot: "Golnaz?"

Same look. Same expression. "C'mon. I know there's a Gol in it. I just don't know what comes after that."

"Goljan," my cousin said nonchalantly on her way to the kitchen.

"Of course Grandmother. I knew that."

And I did not. Had no clue. I had heard her called many things before. She was Nanuw Farhad (Farhad being her first-born son), Nanuw Azari (Azar being her last-born daughter), Daie (not related to the soccer player. The dialect's word for dayeh or wet-nurse) and to me, she was just plain Maman-bozorg, Grandmother. A generic name.

Strange that now, when there is no longer a reason to distinguish between them, now that she is my only living grandparent, I feel the need to know her name. Of the four grandparents, the first is only a story to me, the second instilled in me a love of books, from the third I inherited a fierce secularism, and the fourth is named Goljan.

My mother's father, Abul-Qasem died when she was 9 years old. He just knelt by the joub by the pavement and dropped dead of a heart attack. Of his life, I know he was a rug-mender (thus his last name, Roufougar), that he chose to take my grandmother's last name (thus my mother's maiden name is not Roufougar), and that he took a second wife, one of my grandmother's friends.

My mother's mother, my Maman Fakhri known to others as Fakhr-e 'Azam, threw him out of the room and locked him out when he broke the news of his new acquisition to her. Still, she raised her own four orphans and his other wife's son on her own, never remarrying.

"I couldn't be bothered" was her response every time we asked her why.

My childhood memories are wrapped around her image. She infused in me a love of reading, not out of some grand idea about the educational value of reading but because it was the only way she could get me to sit down and eat my food.

Maman Fakhri's house, even to this day as it lies decrepit and crumbling on Islami alley, is the tangible reservoir of my past. Her death in the summer of 1994 more than my parents' immigration in 1988 made me feel uprooted and unsettled.

Maman Fakhri's house also sheltered my father's younger siblings, the children of Sohrab, son of Qobad and Maah Khanum (Lady Moon).

I can't say I was very close to my father's father. He was an amazingly frank man: He once peered into my face with his thick thick glasses and said, "My, you have a big nose." Until recently, I would've told you he was a farmer, in love with his land.

My own memory of him is his stubborn insistence to work his land in the village of Qalat, outside of Shiraz, despite his ailing health. I only recently learned that until the age of 70, my grandfather had a lumber store in Shiraz and had various servants take care of the land.

Only when business went bad did he come back to Qalat and work the land himself, taking care of his hilly fields of sour pomegranates and figs. I remember him most vividly sitting on the terrace of his house, smoking from his plain-glass water pipe.

He was for all intents and purposes a secularist, never sharing everyone else's bliss when the 1979 revolution occurred. Even though he spent 11 months out of a year away from our village until he was around 70, he thereafter refused to budge from Qalat even to visit his children who now lived in Shiraz or to let his wife, my grandmother, come to Shiraz for medical purposes.

"Her place," he would say, "is here with me," indicating a spot next to him.

Frankly, I never saw my grandmother sit next to him. I actually don't recall her ever sitting. I can't say I have that many childhood memories of her, my father's mother. She was mostly part of the beautiful scenery of our village.

My grandparents' house was deep inside the village, right by a roaring river and the view from the large terrace that functioned as a living room in the summer, was that of the mountains of Qalat.

Part of this scenery was my extremely quiet grandmother who would go back and forth in her traditional clothes: 2-3 fully pleated skirts worn on top of each other, a smock worn on top, and a bright blue thin scarf, pinned at her chin revealing her white/gray hair which was always parted in the middle.

My grandmother was usually the first person to greet us when we visited the village (my grandfather was often working in the fields) but I cannot recall a single thing she may -- must have -- said to me.

The time I spent in Qalat as a child was a time spent outside, near the various waterfalls, in the pomegranate orchards or when inside, it was spent playing yeh qol dow qol with my cousins. Unlike my grandfather (who once expressed disapproval at my being a leftie), she rarely made a comment to me about my activities and I tried not to have to address her:

I was too embarrassed to call her Daei or Nannuw, since I did not speak the dialect, too embarrassed to call her Maman-bozorg, since that just made me too much of a Tehrani, an outsider. I just tugged at her sleeve if I wanted anything.

When my grandfather died in December of 1995, this silent woman became my sole grandparent. When I returned to Iran in 1998, I was fully conscious that she was now the only living link to my father's childhood and to my own history. I tried to address her, to engage her in conversations:

"So, how's your leg?"

"It hurts."


"Have you seen a doctor?"


"Has he given you medications?"


"Are you taking them?"



"You should stretch out your leg."


She'd move her weight to one side, move her left leg out from under her and stretch it. Then silence. I had nothing else to say.

On the phone, things got more difficult:

"How are you?"

"Fine. How are you?"

"Qurban-e shoma," I'd say in an attempt to sound authentic.

"Khoda nakonad," was and is her unfailing response.

"How's your leg?"

"Not bad."


"So, I spoke to your son," I'd say even though I had not spoken to my dad in a week or so.

"Yes, he called. How were they?"

"Fine," I'd say desperately searching for the next sentence Silence.

But then something strange happened the last time I was in Shiraz.

As I was about to leave, my grandmother put her hand in a cloth bag she had hidden somewhere in the huge expanse of her various layers of clothing and gave me several pieces of candy, toffee-like chewable Iranian candy in white and red wrappers.

She just stuffed them in my hand. When I got back to Tehran and unpacked my bag, I realized she'd not only stuffed my hand with candy, she'd stuffed my bag with little edibles that I closely associate with our village:

Berenjak, sumaq, tokhmeh, Oregano that grows in Qalat's mountains, raisins, and dried figs from my grandfather's not-yet-abandoned-but-slowly-getting-there fig trees. All put in a white cloth bag tied up with string. I can't really say these are a few of my favorite things but they became my emotional link to my grandmother.

I realized all those awkward silences had acted as emotional bridges between us. She knew I was trying to make her my grandmother -- something I had never done before -- and she became my grandmother in the ways she knew how.

Goljan, daughter of Keshvar and Abd al-Husayn was born either in 1301 or 1302. She was the only daughter of three children. Habib and Aziz were her brothers, interesting in their own right. Habib would hold classes for the villagers, teaching them to read and write.

Aziz converted to Christianity through the influence of British missionaries that lived in Shiraz. I always though the lone and oddly not out of place church up in the village, near the Small Waterfall that belonged to Uncle Aziz came into being after his conversion.

But some say the British built the church on that land, that Uncle Aziz became the keeper of the church, and converted to Christianity shortly after. Goljan herself is not very clear as to when exactly she got married.

She got engaged to my grandfather at the age of seven but the marriage was not consummated for another 5-6 years after my grandfather, Sohrab Sohrabi, did his military service.

"So you got married when you were seven? How did you feel?" "That's how things were done back then," she shrugs.

She gave birth to six sons, only three of whom lived, and four daughters.

Two of her daughter were married off in a fashion similar to their mother's: at the ages of 13 and 14.

To make sure her other sons didn't die as infants, Goljan nazr kard, and when each was born, took them to Shah Cheragh, a shrine in Shiraz, and per tradition shaved their heads under the navdun, and pierced one of their ears as a symbol of their servitude, ghulami, to God.

My grandmother has had white braided hair since I can recall but she says when she got married she had "golden hair this thick," indicating what one would consider thick braided hair with her hand.

Her braided hair is now held up with a rather large safety pin. She washes her hair with mud and always covers it with a bright blue scarf. "It's my favorite color," she said recently when I told her I've never seen her wear anything else. It was the first time, I realized, I had heard her state a preference.

I say I have no memories of my grandmother. That she blended into the scenery of my childhood. I say that and I lie. I do have a memory of her and it is of her making bread on the cement floor of their house's huge terrace.

I can see her vividly, crouched beside a hole on the floor, which served as an oven, ojaq. She and a woman hired expressly to help her bake bread are rolling dough and flipping the thin, half-baked bread. The smell of bread hovers over them as do I.

The bread is normally left to dry in a cool shaded room where it is also stored. Right before a meal, my grandmother would take as many as she needed and sprinkle them with water from a bowl. The bread would soften and thus be placed on the sofreh.

But here, this one time, the bread was soft and warm, and my grandmother took one out of the fire, placed it on a plate and offered it to me. How do we store the memory of taste? I remember how it tasted. My one memory of my grandmother.

Last time I saw her, I asked her for the recipe. Here it is, mostly in her own words. For best results, bake it near a roaring river, crouched in the heart of jagged mountains in a hole in the middle of your terrace.

Recipe for Goljan's Bread or Nun Tunuk
(Thin Bread)

Ingredients: Flour, salt, water.

You take the ingredients and combine them to make dough.

After that you light a fire. You take a chuneh, a chin-size amount, of the dough, and open it on a board with a rolling pin (or tir-e nun).

It needs to be as thin as a piece of paper. You place your tuweh (a wok-like pan, "with a handle on one side," she stresses) on the fire and put the paper-thin dough in it.

When one side is baked, you flip it with a nagardun (nun bar gardun or bread flipper).

When it is ready, you take it off the fire and place it on a large round flat basket.

You stack the bread on top of each other and let it dry.

When you need bread, you sprinkle it with water and you serve it.

This bread keeps for a very long time.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Naghmeh Sohrabi

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