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
Something strange happened the last time I was in Shiraz
By Naghmeh Sohrabi
May 4, 2001
I turned scarlet and white when her question changed from the rhetorical
"You know my name" to the slightly admonishing "You do know
"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
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
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
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
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
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?"
"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?"
"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
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
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
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
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
When it is ready, you take it off the fire and place it on a large round
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.