I’ll start by announcing that this is a post where I bury the lede. Some good and interesting thing(s) happened recently but in order to tell you about it, I first have to tell you the story of how it all came about.
You guys, I had a delicious sholeh zard post scheduled for today but I’m bumping it to next week because instead I want to share the news that this coming Sunday I’m giving a non-political ‘show and tell’ talk about my trip to Iran, at De-Construkt — an art space in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The title of the event is: A Homesick Journey to Iran – A Hyphenated American’s Nostalgic Visit Home
The ‘show’ part will be a slideshow of photos and video snippets; the ‘tell’ part: the stories that go along with the images. There will be Persian music and Persian food will be served. Ooh yeah!
Do you want to hear how this whole thing came to be?
De-Construkt is run by my friend Laura who is an artist and an inspiration.
Laura had been away on a long off-the-beaten-path journey across the world around the same time as I had been on my journey to Iran and it was only just a few days ago that we managed to get together — right around the golden hour, at the beautiful Brooklyn Promenade — and finally catch up and talk about our adventures.
Laura is one of those rare people who truly listens, so I was kind of giddy with the pleasure of sharing the stories of my trip, sitting on a bench in one of my favorite parts of Brooklyn with one of my favorite people, and the visual feast of a pink and golden sunset and the Manhattan skyline. One minute I was wistfully saying “I wish I could do a show and tell about my trip” and next thing I know, Laura is saying: “let’s do it” and then we were really doing it! Laura finished watching the sunset, then she quickly wrote a to-do list for me on the back of her grocery bill, gave me a deadline, and off we went!
And that’s how the talk came to be. And now I’m both excited and nerve-wracked!
Here’s the synopsis of what the talk is all about | Here’s the invite on Facebook | Here’s the date, time and place: Sunday August 24, 5 pm at De-construkt | And here’s the address: 41 Seabring Street, 3rd Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11231
I hope those of you who live nearby can come!
My happy-go-lucky ameh (paternal aunt) who lives there picked me up at the airport: coiffed, fully made-up; spiffy and snazzy in her leopard-print head scarf and dangerously high heels. After an emotional greeting and the hustle and bustle of getting the luggage we settled inside her car — me in the passenger seat she behind the wheel — when she turned to me and said: “Do you want to go to a party?” Turned out, that night was one of her ‘doreh’ parties with a few hundred (ha ha slight exaggeration) of her closest girlfriends.
[What is a ‘doreh’? When a specific group of friends have parties at regular intervals, typically monthly, each taking orderly turns to host the event at their house, it is called a doreh. It is not unusual for Iranians, specially those of a certain generation, to have at least one and oftentimes quite a few doreh social circles.]
But back to our story! So … my aunt, with one hand poised on the wheel of the car and one hand about to turn on the ignition, turned to me and said: ‘mikhai berim mehmooni?’ How could I say no to such an offer! So off we went. Barely having set foot on the soil of the magical city of Shiraz, and here I was, being whisked off to a proper Persian party straight off the airport. Ah, the fun turns and twists of life.
And here I must take a slight turn from the narration as well to tell you that driving (or being a passenger in a car for that matter) in Iran is not for the weak of heart. I say this without any exaggeration. Driving in Tehran was the worst but the smaller cities were not that much better. Slightly less terrifying, yes, but still, sufficiently terrifying! I’ve got to give kudos to my aunt who deftly maneouvered her stick shift car in the unpredictable traffic with utmost blase concern while continuing our chatter.
Last year around this time, my mom and I set up a Fig & Quince table (of goodies and books) at the Children of Persia 9th Annual Walk. (All ‘ye Metro DC area folks who like a good cause & delicious Persian food: Mark your calendars for their 10th Annual Walk.)
For our goodies we offered: Persian mixed trail (ajeel); Persian honey almond saffron brittles (sohan ‘e assal); and 3 types of Persian pickles (torshi.): 1) mixed veggies pickles (torshi makhloot); 2) eggplant pickles (torshi ‘ye bademjoon); and 3) grape pickles (torshi’ ye angur.) The pickles were the first to go, and fast! Everyone loves a good torshi.
The eggplant and mixed-veggies pickles were my mom’s tried and true (and stellar, I might add) recipes – but making torshi ‘ye angur (grape pickles) was a novel one for us both. Its recipe one I’d found while scouring Najaf Daryabandari’s Persian cookbook (a masterpiece) for information and inspiration. (I actually had the honor and pleasure of meeting the gentleman on a few occasions during my trip to Iran. Full story: soon!)
I was excited about pickling grapes and my mom was game as well but she was rather skeptical about whether it would taste good. Turned out, the result was just wonderful. Sweet, sour, a little bit salty, and crunchy. In a unique, pleasantly palatable way.
Want some good news? Aside from its favorable taste and texture, grape torshi is ridiculously easy to prepare. Requiring not so much a recipe as know-how. So simple in fact that I won’t even bother with the usual recipe format and will just do a step by step pictorial.
By way of ingredients all you will need are: white vinegar, salt, sterlized airtight glass jars, and a good batch of nice, dent-free, firm, crunchy (no smooshy ones, oh no no no) red or black grapes. We used black grapes, as you can see.
Gently wash & dry grapes. Taking care that none of the grapes separate from the stalk.
Allow grapes to dry completely. (Leave to drain in a colander, or, lay on cloth.)
With a kitchen scissor, cut the grape bunch into separate stalks, each stalk having at least 3-4 grapes on it.
Fill pickling jars with a few grape stalks. (Don’t stuff the jar – leave wiggling room for the grapes.)
Add vinegar (enough to cover grapes, leaving some room at the top.) Sprinkle with a dash of salt. Close lid.That’s it. Your job is done.
Now, according to the original recipe, it’ll take a month before this pickle has ‘settled’ and is ready to serve, but we tried it only one day afterwards, and honestly, it was good to go!
Definitely try this. It’s an interesting way to enjoy grapes and with its melange of sweet, sour and salty taste, it makes a unique condiment that goes quite nicely with meat or a rich dish.
During my trip to Iran, I saw people who had dogs for pets but none who had cats. I’m sure many Iranians do keep cats as pets, I just didn’t meet them. I did see a number of ‘pishi’ cats though when I was out and about wandering around. Specially in Tehran. (By the way, a cat is called ‘gorbeh’ in Farsi, but ‘pishi’ is a cute somewhat childish slang for cat — the Persian version of “kitty,” I guess.)
But anyway, here’s goes the very short story of a particular Persian cat:
One time, I got to go to this place called Bagh ‘e Mouzeh ye honar (Iranian Art Museum Garden) — a beautiful space with (among other things) a sprawling garden with mini replica installations of famous Iranian monuments. In the Ellaiyeh neighborhood in the north of Tehran. Right around the Professor Hessabi intersection.
Iranian Art Museum Garden has several facilities and attractions but on that particular day, one of its greatest most irresistible draws was a cat …
A cat taking a sun bath, napping soundly and adorably, sprawled on a metal sculpture.
Everybody and their aunts, including yours truly and accompanying relatives, stood transfixed, staring at this cat, going: awwww! And we all took pictures. It was impossible to resist the impulse to immortalize the cuteness.
I couldn’t help snapping a photo of this family who, like the rest of us, were gobsmacked by the cute kitty cat.
I went back to the Art Museum Garden quite a number of times. One time there, I saw a huge production which turned out to be a shoot for a commercial.
But never again did I see a maloos pishi catching some sun-soaked Z’s on the sculpture.
And that’s the end of the tale of this particular Persian cat given to languidly reclining in a park. A slumbering pishi dreaming of mahee and panir and moosh.
Have a lovely weekend & may you slumber soundly & dream of your favorite thing.
Note: Excerpts and a few photographs (plus some outtakes) from an article that (as mentioned here) I originally wrote and photographed for publication on Brownbook’s Tehrangeles issue (online article is here) are reprinted here with their permission.♣
Give me a sun, I care not how hot, and sherbet, I care not how cool, and my Heaven is as easily made as your Persian’s. — Lord Byron ,1813
That Lord Byron! What a Romantic! And he sure seems to have liked sipping sharbat. And who can blame him? But for the uninitiated, let’s first review what sharbat means.
Persians make and bottle various types of sweet, fragrant, colorful syrups by cooking fruits or flowers or herbs in dissolved-sugar water. When ready to serve, a bit of the syrup is diluted and stirred with ice cold water and one ends up with a pretty and refreshing drink that is a popular Persian beverage generically known as sharbat. In Iran, offering guests a tall glass of some type of sharbat (with ice cubes) to ward off the heat of the summer is a standard of good housekeeping and an expected trademark of up-to-par hospitality. At least amongst the old-school Iranians.
But sharbat comes in many more wonderful flavors: quince, pomegranate, lemon, rhubarb, strawberry, mulberry, blackberry, raspberry or even key lime are each enchanting in their own particular way. One can also savour sharbats made with mint, rosewater, saffron, chicory, musk willow, sweet briars, palm pods, citron and orange blossom – ingredients that reflect the poetic nature of Persian cuisine. Whatever the flavor, sharbat hits the spot during the dog days of summer, reviving the body and soul, and in some instances even offering some type of medicinal benefit.
What is the work of the thirsty one?
To circle forever ’round the well,
‘Round the stream and the Water and the sound of the Water,
Like a pilgrim circling the Kaa’ba of Truth
God’s wrath is His vinegar, mercy His honey.
These two are the basis of every oxymel.
If vinegar overpowers honey, a remedy is spoiled.
The people of the earth poured vinegar on Noah;
the Ocean of Divine Bounty poured sugar.
The Ocean replenished his sugar,
and overpowered the vinegar of the whole world.
Our featured Persian beverage, Sharbat ‘e sekanjabin, is perhaps the oldest type of Persian sharbat, tracing its roots at least as far back as the 10th century, as noted and praised in the canons of medicine written by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) the Persian polymath.
The name ‘sekanjabin’ is an Arabized version of the original Persian term, ‘serkangabin’, a combination of the Persian words ‘serkeh’ (vinegar) and ‘angebin’ (syrup, sweetness), literally meaning ‘honeyed vinegar’. True to its name, sekanjabin is made with vinegar and honey.
Sweet and sour and infused with the heady scent and flavor of fresh mint, this sharbat was not only popular with the Persians, but also copied and favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans who knew it as oxymel.
The recipe is satisfyingly simple: after boiling honey and water, vinegar is added and the mixture is left to simmer. Fresh mint leaves are then added and the syrup is left to cool for at least an hour, or up to 24 hours for a stronger minty flavor. Sekanjabin, like all types of sharbat, is shelf-stable for a good year if stored in a cool, dark place.
Like all types of sharbats, sekanjabin is served diluted with ice water in a glass or pitcher — as a perfect sweet and sour palette tickling summer cooler cordial. (For a modern twist, sparkling water can substitute flat water.)
‘Kahoo ‘va Sekanjabin’ | Crispy Lettuce with a Sekanjabin Dip
A distinct feature of sharbat ‘e sekanjabin — rendering it unique amongst all the other types of sharbat — is that it can also be served undiluted as a dip and eaten with crisp fresh romaine lettuce leaves. This combo of crunchy lettuce and minty sweet and sour sekanjabin — known as “kahoo va sekanjabin” — is a delicious and healthy snack perfectly suited for hot weather. The very embodiment of summer for most Persians.
To make this, undiluted sekanjabin syrup is poured into a dipping bowl and lettuce leaves are arranged, petal by petal, around it. To eat, dip the lettuce into the sharbat – just as you would dunk a cookie in coffee.
Try it! But beware: Heads of lettuce will vanish fast!
“The one who tastes, knows. The one who tastes not, knows not. Don’t speak of a heavenly beverage; offer it at your banquets and say nothing. Those who like it will ask for more; those who don’t aren’t fit to drink it. Close the shop of debate and mystery. Open the teahouse of experience.”
Thankfully, the tradition of making sharbat (while perhaps somewhat old-fashioned) survives and even thrives in Iran, at homes and in cafes. And many families continue to gather and enjoy the summertime pleasure of munching and crunching on Kahoo ‘va sekanjabin.
For the Iranians in diaspora, making and enjoying sekanjabin, the most ancient of Persian sharbats, to sip as or with lettuce as a dip, could be a delicious way to pay homage to and assuage their nostalgia for their ancient heritage. For everyone else, it’s just a sensible thing to experience as one of the fun pleasures of summer.
I have a treasure trove of pictures and stories to share from my recent epic trip to Iran and while I’ve been remiss in diligently posting those, I’m getting the wheels spinning by starting this series of “Iranian People” — where I’ll share pictures of the everyday average ordinary Iranians that I hung out with, met, befriended, or otherwise engaged with during my trip. Just ordinary Iranians, doing ordinary things. Such as, for example: laughing, smiling, or otherwise displaying a glimmer of a sense of humor! Ah: those tricky tricky Persians! I tell ya!
I can’t help but smile every time I look at this cover photograph. I love this little girl so much! Her name is Arezoo and she is smart, funny, cute, brainy, girly-girly to the max, opinionated, charming, fierce and sweet; and she’s part of a family that’s dear and close to mine and I got to finally meet her when I was in Tehran during my Iranian Odyssey.
One time, my friends Haleh and Laila (Arezoo’s auntie and mommy, respectively) picked me up, took me to their home (after we’d first gone for an early morning hike and breakfast up in the mountains with their entire family, but that’s another story altogether) and they cooked up a storm — making some of their specialties, so that I could photograph it and share the recipes with you. A few times, yours truly got up on a chair to take overhead shots of the food (which as many of you know, is par for course in food blogging territory.) Mimicking my actions, Arezoo also got up on a chair and started taking photos – proving that sometimes, imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery. I was charmed!
And I’ve heard – to my delighted amusement – that these days she still does this when mommy or auntie or grandma cook. Ha ha, a food blogger in the making! (Note to Arezoo joon: email me the pictures! I’ll post them! ps: You are the cutest! Love you!)
This is my friend Haleh, and here are two pix I snapped of her when we met up one sunny spring day at the Seyhoun Art Gallery in Tehran — where I was interviewing the owner of the gallery. (At the time, Seyhoun gallery had Reza Afasari‘s solo “Sealed Letters to Myself” painting exhibition.) Afterwards, Haleh took me to the House of the Artists (an art hub in the middle of a beautiful Persian garden) where we checked out lots of artwork; had a very nice lunch where I tried a tamarind drink for the first and probably last time in my life, and we almost went to see a rooftop staging of a play as well but left that for another day. Later on, Haleh and I also ended up taking a short memorable trip to Yazd together that was a blast. Getting a chance to finally see and hang out with this lovely childhood friend was one of the immense pleasures and rewards of this trip.
Mind you, I’m touching lightly on all these various topics (Iranian artists, the interview, art galleries in Tehran, trip to Yazd, rekindled friendships, etc.) but definitely hope to write at length about each.
Before moving on to the next photo, please do observe how my friend’s scarf is perfectly kept in place. Seemingly held by invisible fairies? The women in Iran had techniques — defying the laws of physics and gravity and slipperiness — which enabled them to wear their headscarf just so and have it remain in place. Meanwhile, yours truly had to fuss and muss and ineptly do and re-do my scarf’s knot or else pull it forward as it slipped at every opportune and inopportune moment.
Now I have a few more stories and pix from my Iranian odyssey coming up in just a bit and right below, but first, I’m going to go on a tangent and get on a soap box. TLDR? (No, no, please stay and do read!) Here, have some yummy Persian food served by this poised and friendly Iranian chef at a popular self-service restaurant in Tehran to fortify you while I take a teeny tiny detour and rant a bit.
The Tangent and the Soapbox
Even though I go on and on around here chirping about the beauty and glory of the Persian food and culture and people like a naively oblivious Disney cartoon character, I’m keenly aware that for an awful lot of folks their mental image of Iran and Iranians comes from the mass media and if so, they probably harbor extremely negative ideas about the country and its people. Aside from a desire to preserve my lovely mom’s recipes, the main reason I started this blog and have had the motivation to merrily chug along is an attempt to do my bit in helping balance a frustratingly tilted perception that at best is myopic, and at worst, is dangerously unfair to a culture that is ancient and remains a rich and beautiful one and to a people that are friendly, hospitable, and nice (just ask Anthony Bourdain!) thus leading to (excuse my language) ignorant yet sadly prevalent prejudice. Ignorance such as some people even actually wondering: Do Iranians have a sense of humor? Do Iranians laugh?
If you think those are absurd questions I can only say that I wish it were so. A year or so ago, I was listening to a podcast Dinner Party Download (one of my very favorite radio programs – you should totally check out their episodes) interview with Marjan Satrapi — the artist and filmmaker behind Persepolis — the groundbreaking autobiograhical graphic novel series and the Oscar-nominated animated film — where she mentioned how someone once came up to her and said that before reading her books she didn’t think that Iranians had a sense of humor or laughed. Here’s a transcript of that part of the segment:
Dinner Party Download: Turning to Iran and the way it’s perceived by people, Westerners, me included, we typically hear very little about Iran. What do you find about Iran that people are surprised by?
Marjan Satrapi: In a book tour an old lady who read one of my books came up to me and said: ‘oh, you know, I’m no longer scared of the Iranian people,’ and I said “how come?” and she said: “because I didn’t know that you could laugh that you had any sense of humor.” … You know, they’ve made it that we are these people that … when we’re talking about Iran it’s either beard, veil, or it’s nuclear weapon. And that reduces us to abstract notions and we stop being human being and if you’re not a human being then of course you don’t laugh and of course you don’t fall in love and of course you don’t like to eat ice cream and … which is dangerous because from the second that people become abstract notions then they are not human beings anymore and we can go and bomb them so I don’t try to change the world with my film but if they can say this country that you are so scared of is the same country a man died because of the love of a woman I think that I’ve done what I had to do …. I don’t want more than that.
I love how she answered this question with emotion, intelligence, and understated passion. It honestly gives me goosebumps! I am of the same school who believes change and progress comes with art and artists and the banding together and communication between us civilian normal people. Do go and give Episode #164 of The Dinner Party a listen. It’s quite fun and funny actually and totally worth it. (The Satrapi interview segment starts at the 13:25 mark. There’s also a priceless interview with the delightfully grumpy Fran Lebowitz in this same podcast which you truly do not want to miss.)
And with that, end of tangent. Stepping down the soap box. Back to our regular programming! With pretty pictures and me chirping per usual! :)
So, this is a photo of the artist Rasoul Akbarlou posing in front on one of his beautiful calligraphy artworks – at the opening reception of his exhibit at Mah Art Gallery where he graciously allowed me to take his picture. This photo does not do justice to his artwork, which I was not alone in my group in finding stunningly beautiful.
There are lots of art galleries in Tehran and every other Friday, many have their “eftetahi” – that is art opening receptions. Some Tehroonies have a fun ritual of making the rounds of these art opening shindigs: for the art, for the social factor, and for the free yummies served. Oooh, the pix and tales I have and plan to share with you – including the interesting story of how and in whose company I ended up in this gallery! Meanwhile, borrow two legs (remember that Persian proverb) and run and go read this wonderful article about the art scene in Tehran, by the editor of Reorient Online Magazine.
And let’s finally conclude this LONG post with these two awesome and wonderful smiley Persian dudes:
So one day a friend and I headed all the way to a far-flung neighborhood on a rather intriguing fact-finding mission that ultimately led to a heartbreaking discovery. In contrast to the rather depressing conclusion, the neighborhood itself was quite lively and interesting and I was loathe to leave and would have loved to explore its nooks and crannies but my friend and I had to go to another far-flung corner of Tehran.
Just before we were to get into a cab, I noticed this kaleh pacheh food establishment and the very friendly owner and his assistant and asked if I could their picture. They readily and gamely agreed with enthusiasm. Let’s face it: they were hams! I believe we may have all indulged in a fit of giggles as well, as though we were experiencing something hilarious! It was a fun moment in time.
And with that, doostaneh khob, lovely people, thus concludes the first part of this series – my travel pictorial of “Iranian People” — which I hope helps answer questions such as: who the heck are these Eyeraynians and do they even know how to crack a smile? Answer: Some do!
Boos Boos & Have a lovely weekend!