The world we live in shapes how we view ourselves—and how others view us. But what happens when there’s a mismatch between cultural narratives and individual identities? In our monthly series The Blend, writers from multicultural backgrounds discuss the moment that made them think differently about these dominant narratives—and how that affects their lives.
I’m a first-generation American who barely speaks Farsi, and I struggle with many of the traditional Iranian beliefs. The one thing I’ve always believed, though, is that learning how to cook my mother’s delectable Iranian recipes is the least I could do to keep my heritage alive for future generations.
Over the years, I have attempted to make a few dishes but never really gave Persian food the time and commitment it deserved, partially because it can be intimidating the first time. It only took a few weeks of being quarantined by myself and feeling disconnected from family and friends to crave the comfort of my mother’s home cooking. I decided now was the perfect time to learn.
Any Iranian will tell you that food is what brings our big thirty-person families together. It’s how we show our love for one another and how we celebrate almost every occasion.
I was first introduced to the rich flavors of Persian cuisine through my mother when watching her in the kitchen. From the sizzling sound of the dough hitting the hot oil in the frying pan while making zulbia (Persian donuts) to the distinct smell of my favorite stew, ghormeh sabzi, I had a front-row seat to a full sensory experience every day. I remember the hypnotizing aromas that circulated my parents’ house when I was a child; I would excitedly rush out of bed as my mother started preparing dinner early in the day. Watching her artfully shape kotlet, or a ground meat patty, into a perfect teardrop shape was like watching a conductor orchestrate ingredients to harmoniously create a culinary masterpiece.
While I started craving the sense of home that my mother’s flavorful dishes conjured, I knew it would be weeks (perhaps months) until I could see my parents again. So I called my mother and told her I was finally ready to be her student.
At first, I didn’t know where to begin; there were so many of my mother’s dishes I wanted to master, but her recipes couldn’t be found in a cookbook. I quickly learned that Iranian women only cook with their senses. “This much turmeric,” my mother would always say as she pressed her thumb to her pointer finger, indicating a pinch. Since most Persian food is pretty labor intensive, I decided to start with one of the more basic stews: khoresht loobia, which translates to bean stew. When I got the recipe from my mom, it included a long list of ingredients with rough measurements and instructions on how to rely on my own sight and taste for judgement. While I didn’t consider myself an amateur cook, I was feeling dubious but hopeful that my palate and culinary sensibilities wouldn’t fail me.
I eagerly bought all the ingredients the next day and began what felt like an all-day mission. Every step of the way, I would FaceTime my mother or send her a photo of my progress, followed by a dozen questions to ensure I was on track. A few hours later, that familiar smell of succulent braised beef bathing in tomato juice wafted from my kitchen and embraced me like a warm blanket—and I was instantly transported home, where my mother’s food had always been the cure for everything. The familiar taste brought me right back to big Friday night Shabbat dinners, lavish celebrations, and family gatherings. Each bite was a brief respite from what was currently happening around the world.
When I began recreating my mother’s recipe on my own, I started to appreciate all the hours my mom spent in the kitchen to put warm food on the table for her family. I learned that cooking didn’t always begin when my mom was in the kitchen. It began days earlier when she had a laundry list of ingredients to buy at the Persian supermarket. Then it continued when she came home with two dozen shopping bags and swiftly began preparing the food, sometimes a day or two before.
Each recipe consisted of complex layers that she continuously built upon throughout the day to create a marriage of beautiful flavors. In some strange way, the tedious process was a welcome distraction to pass time during a stressful quarantine.
After a few tries at perfecting khorest loobia, it was time to graduate and expand my arsenal of Persian recipes. I called my mom and started asking her how to make other dishes like adasi (Persian lentil soup) and more complicated dishes like polo sabzi (herbed rice). As the weeks went by in quarantine, cooking Persian food became my escape from the dreary reality of the coronavirus pandemic, but it also brought a sense of connection to my cultural roots, my family, and my mother. For my mother, sharing her culinary creations with those she loved evoked a sense of pride and joy. I, too, couldn’t wait to share my first attempt at khorest loobia with my best friend—who is also Persian—so she could also bask in the taste that we both grew up with and that reminded us of happier times.
While I deeply missed my family, I was proud that I was beginning to learn the skills necessary to carry on the traditions that had meant so much to me growing up. All those years I had watched my mother cook in the kitchen had a profound effect on me. I was setting the foundation to provide solace through food for my own family the same way my mother did for me. I was able to bring a sense of familiarity and abundance into my home during a time of scarcity and uncertainty—and it was the greatest gift I could have given myself during quarantine.