Although my father had left years earlier, the rest of his extended family did not transplant themselves from Iran to America until the revolution. Almost the entire clan now lives in Los Angeles, the home of one of the largest Persian Jewish communities in the world. They have a rich culture there--complete with their own grocery stores and television stations--that makes it possible to live as though still in Tehran, except for the sadness of exile and fortunes lost and that their new Jewish Ghetto is more widely known as Beverly Hills. My gentle poet aunt Guiti translated a proverb for me that she has been working hard to take to heart:
Regret of the past and fear of the future are the twin thieves that together rob you of the present.
She proceeded to declare herself a bad student. Oren and I flew down to LA yesterday to pick up a more practical, new-to-us car. We then headed to the apartment my grandmother used to shared with my grandfather, who's gruff, cancer-addled voice I remember repeating over and over, "Les fleurs. Les fleurs sont belles" as he tried to drill into me the importance of learning French. The apartment is on a quiet, tree-lined street just blocks from Rodeo Drive. The small garage is filled with cars with six-digit price tags, but the bright interior hasn't been updated in decades. Though seemingly happy and comfortable with so much family nearby, I can't help but feel sad as I wonder what my grandmother, who doesn't drive and who has spent a lifetime taking care of everyone else, does on days when no one comes to visit.Yesterday she clearly spent it in the kitchen, into which we were barely allowed. There wasn't much conversation, since she hasn't had much need for English in her twenty-eight years here and my even sparser Farsi is limited to the few French words incorporated into the language. The two aunts, who live a few blocks away, arrived a bit later with their husbands, big Manny and little Manny, and two of my cousins. I remember from visits to this apartment as a child the the ritualized social hour that centers around tea, tangerines, pistachios, and dried fruit. Nothing has changed except the volume of our protestations that we want to save room for dinner and of the questions about when there will be babies. This my grandmother knows how to ask in English.Dinner for the nine of us consisted of a huge green salad, a cold corn salad, a heaping platter each of Saffron-Barberry Rice and Dill-Lima Bean Rice, the perfectly crunchy disk of fried rice from the bottom of each pot, roasted chickens, and salmon. There was a lot of food and everything was delicious. Although you can find this sort of perfect white rice in Persian restaurants, I have rarely seen the flavored dishes on menus. Along with dates, figs, tea, and pistachios, this is the delicious food of the Tehran ghetto, transplanted to the epicenter of American affluence.I remember watching my dad make these and a few other Persian dishes when I was growing up. Though I often helped my mom and set out to follow recipes I found in her books, I don't think I ever asked how to make Persian food until much later. I loved the food, just not the foreignness of their ways, the over-the-top adoration, or the sadness that hung over my Persian relatives. When I did start asking the steps for fluffy, perfectly separated, flavor-rich rice, I somehow failed to get enough detail or record it well enough to succeed in making it myself. With this in mind, I set out at dinner to learn the secrets. Though I haven't yet tried this recipe, here's what my two aunts and grandmother passed along in the kitchen last night.First I was told that it helps to have a Persian rice cooker. Apparently this is a different device from your standard rice cooker, since those will not produce the crunchy bottom everyone loves. My grandmother uses ordinary pots, so I will have to wait until my next trip to figure out what exactly identifies a Persian rice cooker. In the meantime, any good large pot should work.Here are the steps they gave me. As with most recipes passed down orally through the generations, the proportions are only guidelines. They always make enough for big groups and leftovers, but you can adjust to your appetite.
Perfect White Persian Rice1. 2/3 fill a big pot with water and bring to a rolling boil. The more water for your chosen amount of rice, the better.2. Meanwhile, thoroughly rinse your basmati rice three times with clean, cool water. 3. Add several tablespoons of olive oil and a good amount of salt to the boiling water, stir, and add the rice. The olive oil keeps the grains from sticking together and the salt gives it flavor.4. Cook the rice, uncovered, at a boil, until a test grain is cooked about halfway through.5. Pour the rice through a fine mesh strainer or thin kitchen towel to drain and quickly run cool water all over the surface to lightly rinse.6. Coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil and pour back enough of the rice to form about a quarter inch thick layer covering the bottom of the pot. Gently press the rice into the bottom. Pour the rest of the rice into the center, forming a mound. Do not level out the rice. Pour a little water (maybe half a cup?) over the rice to further moisten. Spread a clean dish towel over the top of the pot, cover with the lid, and wrap the edges of the towel over the top to keep away from the flame. Turn heat on low and cook until rice is fluffy and fully cooked. This may take only a little while, but I got the impression that cooking it longer will do no harm and give you a thicker crunchy layer on the bottom.7. Carefully pour rice into a bowl or platter. Turn crunchy bottom onto a platter and serve."Flavorings"Saffron-Barberry Rice is one of my favorites and also one of the easiest to make. Simply mix some ground saffron threads or powder into the half cup or so of water that you'll pour over the rice for the second half of cooking. You may need to use a little more water to distribute the saffron well enough so that the rice comes out with some grains white and some yellow. While the rice finishes cooking, rinse the dried barberries in cool water until clean--this may take about seven rinses. Saute the barberries--I'll say 1 cup for guidance, though this should be enough for a large pot of rice--with about three tablespoons of olive oil (enough to coat the berries and make them shiny) and about a quarter of a cup of white sugar. Start with less and go to taste, but they are quite tart and I was amazed to see how much sugar was required. Saute over medium heat just until the sugar disappears. You don't want to cook the berries, as they will brown. When the rice is finished cooking, mix in the barberries and serve.Dill and Lima Bean Rice is another classic that my dad made often. I'm not a huge fan of Lima beans in general, but this is a great dish. For this variant, mix a good bit of fresh dill with the rice when you drain it halfway through cooking (enough to make it look pretty green). Scatter some whole coriander seeds into the oil in the bottom of the pot and proceed as above. Mix warm Lima beans in with the rice when done.Another variant includes mixing in tomatoes, lentils, and ground cardamom. The trick is to spread the layer of rice in the bottom before mixing in the tomatoes and lentils, as they burn easily.
Some of the Barberry Rice my grandmother sent us home with today is pictured above. We also now have a big container or already oiled and sweetened barberries in the freezer, ready to go. I hope my endeavors to make these traditional dishes in the future turn out as well. Tonight we ate them with salad and grilled fresh wild white salmon (a fantastic new fish at Whole Foods). All are relatively easy, impressive, and delicious accompaniments to fishes and meats and go well with yogurt sauces.