At the Table: Food and Family around the World - Ken Albala (2016)
Saman Hassibi and Amir Sayadabdi
Atefeh hangs up the phone and takes a look at the clock. It’s 11:00 a.m. on a Friday morning. The kids are still in bed, but she and her husband, Iraj, are wide awake and have started a relaxed weekend morning. Atefeh has almost three hours to prepare everything for a late weekend lunch. It is a good thing that most everyday Iranian dishes would only require a few pots or pans, even though they tend to take a long time to be prepared thoroughly. The time spent for each dish is generally passive: prepare everything and let the taste of every ingredient combine in a pot over a low heat, then come back in an hour or two ready for a decent feast.
An Iranian family having lunch at Sofreh (the cloth spread on the floor). Mom cooked Zereshk Polow ba Morgh (barberry rice with chicken) and prepared Mast-o-Khiar (yogurt with cucumber) and Sabzi Khordan (fresh herb platter) as two common side dishes. Bread is also present. Bread and rice are two huge staples of the cuisine. (Courtesy of Atefeh Amouheydari)
Dining patterns might vary from one family to another, depending on their jobs, ages, and the number of family members. Atefeh is a teacher and has to be at work at precisely 7:30 every morning. That does not give her much time to prepare lunch every day, so every time she cooks during weekdays, she makes enough food for the family for two days. Although they all prefer the days that the lunch is freshly made, they know that it is too much to ask of a working mom. Not only does she have her full-time job to think about, but she also has cooking, cleaning, and other chores to consider. She also has to care about her children’s school performance and help them with their projects. However, Atefeh is quite lucky that Iraj helps her with the children, and they are financially fortunate enough to be able to hire a cleaner once a week.
Every weekday, Atefeh and Iraj wake up earlier than the children. They prepare a light breakfast, and Atefeh rushes to work while Iraj waits until their son, Sina, and daughter, Negar, are on the way to school. Then, he takes care of the dishes and goes to work.
For Atefeh and Iraj’s family—as for most of the middle-class Iranian working families—during weekdays dinner has become the main eating ritual shared with all the members of the family. Only on Friday, which is the weekend family day, luncheon is still the main event, whether eaten at home or in a restaurant. Nonetheless, cooking still remains the mother’s duty. Sometimes the father may help, but that is a memorable occasion.
It is Friday, and only a few shops are open. Iraj knows this well, so he did the week’s shopping the day before, according to Atefeh’s list. Traditionally, it is the man’s job to provide for his family. So even though Atefeh and Iraj are quite young, they sometimes use the traditional methods to make their life more organized. Therefore, Iraj buys the staples such as rice, meat, chicken, oil, legumes, salt, and pasta based on the list that Atefeh writes. But other food items that need a delicate woman’s touch are usually taken care of by Atefeh. According to an old belief or maybe common sense, fruits, herbs, and vegetables need to be bought earlier in the morning, so once a week Iraj drives Atefeh to huge wholesale greengrocers owned by the city hall that provide these at a lower price. They buy the main vegetables that can be stored longer such as onions, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, sprouts, and broccoli there. They usually do the shopping on Thursdays when Iraj is free and Atefeh and Sina come back home before noon. Fruits and other special greens are bought as needed during weekdays when Atefeh passes by the small private greengrocers. They let her handpick what she wants but charge her extra. This does not sound very economically efficient, but she believes that having some higher-quality ingredients is really worth the price and affects the results of her cooking. Other small items are usually bought by Sina so he can learn to be responsible from an early age and one day do the shopping for his own family.
Atefeh has planned to cook zereshk polow ba morgh (barberry rice with chicken) today, as it is one of the family’s favorites, does not take much time, and she has everything handy. Each part of this dish (barberry, rice, and chicken) should be prepared separately. Atefeh has cooked enough in her life to know how to manage preparing them altogether. As Iraj buys the staples in bulk and ready to cook, she has the chicken cleaned and cut in the freezer. She takes out two packages of frozen chicken pieces for today’s and tomorrow’s lunch and then places them in the microwave to defrost. She has already measured and washed the rice and left it in a bowl covered with cold water and some salt to soak. After she prepares the chicken and puts the pot on the gas stove, she makes her barberry topping on another flame and sets it aside. Now is time to make the rice and the tahdig. Tahdig (meaning “the bottom of the pot”), is a delicious crispy treat that was created to prevent the precious grains of rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot and becoming inedible. A skilled cook such as Ateferh would leave slices of potatoes, pieces of bread (usually lavash), lettuce, tomatoes, or whatever she fancies at the bottom of the pot and adds a pile of al dente rice on top of them to steam. The result is an extremely delicious crispy crust on the bottom with fluffy white rice on top. Atefeh has learned a trick from her mother, which is widely used by professional chefs, to finish the leftover rice. She makes a mixture of leftover rice, yogurt, saffron, and eggs to make a special golden batter, which later results in another type of the perfect tahdig.
After three hours of nonstop work, within which Atefeh managed to prepare a couple of side dishes, she calls her children to help while she prepares the main dish platters.
In Iranian cuisine, side dishes are as important as the main dish. Atefeh’s family tends to have at least one type of side dish with every dinner or lunch. They might be different sorts of salads, pickles, or yogurt. Today they are having two common and very popular side dishes named sabzi khordan and mast-o-khiar. The sabzi khordan is simply a basket of seasonal herbs and greens including pennyroyal, scallion, radish, tarragon, wild leek, parsley, both green and purple basil, cress, dill, coriander, satureja, and mint. The mast-o-khiar (yogurt with cucumber) is prepared by Negar today. Preparing the mast-o-khiar is not very difficult, yet Negar knows how to make hers surprisingly tasty. Grandma taught her to use thickened plain yogurt for the perfect texture, Persian cucumbers for the best taste, dried mint and thyme to have a distinctive aroma, and finally a garnish of some dried damask rose petals and ground walnut.
Sina is setting the sofreh on the carpet of the living room. The sofreh is a special traditional Iranian mat spread that is set on the floor, and the family sits around it to eat. It is rolled out before eating and then cleaned and folded after every setting. Years ago, it was made of textile; however, nowadays the plastic types are commonly used, as they are cheaper and more convenient, especially for cleaning. Atefeh used to have different sizes of the sofreh for when they have different crowds of guests. However, they now have a big dining table for a buffet-type setting hosting bigger groups or just to sit around when having a few guests. Sina has to move the coffee table in order to find enough room on the carpet so everyone can sit comfortably on the warm Persian rug while eating. He usually is responsible for setting the sofreh but tries to sneak out when cleaning. Setting the sofreh is much easier for him, since he just has to bring whatever mom puts on the kitchen bench and then follow a simple order. After the spread is rolled out, plates, cutlery, and drinking glasses are placed on top. For rice dishes, usually a flat plate and a spoon and fork set are laid per person. They mainly use the spoon to eat, while the fork has an auxiliary place. This setting is almost always the same except for more soupy dishes, which logically require a bowl. Pitchers of drinks are usually filled with tap water and ice, or soda and ice come next. Today they have the dough as well, a very popular yogurt drink all over Iran that is a mixture of yogurt, water, and some other optional ingredients such as dried mint or mint water.
Side dishes and any necessary utensils for serving the main and side dishes are also brought to the sofreh. It is not considered polite to pick food with one’s utensils; therefore, each dish and side dish comes with a proper serving ladle, spoon, or fork. The only things that can be grabbed by hand are the sabzi khordan and bread. A salt shaker and bread basket are the other common accessories of the sofreh, alongside a package of paper tissue to use as napkins if needed. In less casual settings such as a dinner party, for instance, the package of paper tissue is replaced with proper—and sometimes colorful—paper napkins, while the setting becomes fancier. Iranians usually leave the best of everything for guests: no matter how rich or poor, in rural areas or cities, and regardless of age or gender, the guest always comes first. The best plates and fancy crystal glasses are used when a guest is present. Other times when it is only for the family, more attainable and plain utensils are used—nothing too fancy but more comfortable and replaceable in case of an accident.
Sina is happy that today they are not hosting, because they do not need to dine at the table and can even watch TV while eating. He will not be constantly reminded by mom and dad to watch his manners: “Don’t start before the guests!” “Watch your language!” “Don’t bring your phone to the table.” “You are not going to leave the table before everyone is finished.” And so on. However, the primary etiquette must still be followed, such as not speaking with a full mouth, not munching or chewing with your mouth open, not leaving any food on the plate, and not sniveling. Generally, eating within the family follows a set of more relaxed rules. Children are allowed to leave the table when they are done; however, they also need to clean up while leaving the table, which includes taking their own dishes back to the kitchen. When Iraj and Atefeh were children, rules were more strict and in favor of adults, but nowadays they are more relaxed and in favor of children. A rule such as “not eating with the left hand” is almost extinct, as the belief that the left hand is unholy has been disregarded. There is a dress code while hosting guests that prevents the family members from dressing too comfortably. However, when they are dining together they can dress as they desire. For example, Atefeh and Negar never wear shorts or tank tops in front of guests but preferably wear a shirt or blouse with jeans or skirts. And dad never shows up with his favorite sweatpants and a T-shirt, just as he has today, but often with trousers and a shirt.
Table Talk and Manners
There are certain topics that one simply does not mention at the table: politics, presumably to avoid tension, and sex, to avoid embarrassment. And even though we rarely hold these as hard-and-fast rules today, there is still a strong taboo against mentioning anything disgusting or violent. For reasons that are purely cultural, even the thought of bodily effluvia while eating is nauseating. So, the idea of proper table conversation is anything but a thing of the past. Of course, for this very reason children will try to gross out their siblings not merely with words but also with acts calculated to disgust and horrify. Belching and farting at the table are merely one expression of such transgressive behavior.
Iraj is sitting at the sofreh picking at the mast-o-khiar with some bread. He is very fond of bread. Although rice is thought to be the main staple, he believes that bread is equally important and should not be taken for granted. He respects it and never lets the bread be discarded. Even if it becomes too dry or too old, he preserves it in a piece of cloth to use it later in soups or to feed the wild birds. He learned from his father that bread never should be let fall on the ground. So, if he sees a piece of bread on the ground or the street, he would lift it and leave it on an higher surface. He also believes that there should be enough bread on hand every day, especially for breakfast. This is why on each trip to the bakery he buys one or two extra loaves and asks Atefeh to freeze them for a rainy day. Negar and Atefeh seldom go to bakeries, as they find it very unpleasant to wait in line to buy bread. The lines in the bakeries depend on the baking time that the shops set. Iranian traditional breads are flat, so they need much less time in the oven and taste best while fresh. So, in order to buy a fresh loaf, it is better to wait in the shop for a few moments before the bakers start working and buy a few hot-from-the-oven loaves. In case of emergency, when they need bread Atefeh goes to the neighbors and borrows a few loaves. Borrowing small items is common among neighbors’ wives. Atefeh borrows bread, which she returns the next day; her neighbor gets a couple of eggs or onions and returns them later. Occasionally when Iraj goes to buy bread, he picks up a few extra loaves to give to the close neighbors. No one will say no to a fresh loaf of bread!
Atefeh prepares the final step of her masterpiece by assembling all three parts, which she has already made. The rest of her family has gathered around the sofreh, which is still missing the main dish because it has to be hot from the stove. Negar places the chicken pieces in a platter and pours the broth on top of them, while Atefeh mixes the rice with the barberry topping and garnishes it with almond and pistachio slices. Afterward, she tries to take out the tahdig from the bottom of the pot using a colander. The colander that is used in the kitchen is certainly not used for serving; the former is more practical, while the latter is decorative. It is a good thing that the pots are Teflon; otherwise, taking the tahdig out is a real inconvenience: Atefeh has to put the hot pot in the sink, which is filled with about an inch of cold water to give the pot a shock so that the tahdig comes out more easily. The platter of rice and barberries with the tahdig on the side is ready, and she transfers it to the table while Negar brings the chicken and broth.
When the platter is brought to the sofreh and everyone is seated, they help themselves to the side dishes. Iraj is usually the first one to be served the main dish if they are not hosting a guest or having the grandparents over. He gives his plate to Atefeh, and she serves rice to him and the children and then helps herself. But the chicken or the stew is there for everyone to help themselves. Sina is still too young to know how to serve, so either of his parents serves him a plate. After all these years, Atefeh knows approximately how much each member of the family eats. Sometimes Negar is on a fad diet of which Atefeh disapproves and tries to correct her daughter’s attitude toward food by serving her the amount she thinks is suitable. Another time Sina might be too hungry after having a playdate, so she serves him twice. Atefeh herself is not very fond of cooked red meat, so when they have a stew that calls for red meat, she sets it aside but eats the rest. Iraj is the only one whom she almost always serves without fault. After all, they have been together for a long time. Iraj has gone through the years that Atefeh was dabbling in cooking, and Atefeh has passed the times that Iraj did the shopping wrong. When hosting, the order of serving changes by prioritizing the guests; adult guests help themselves with the main dish first, and then the family starts. When hosting children, Atefeh serves them even before Iraj. Iraj is not a hypocrite, but he is more helpful when they have guests. He knows that with every guest comes a great deal of pressure as to being a proper host, so he does whatever he can to ease the situation for his wife and fulfill his duties. He helps with setting and clearing the table and helps Atefeh in the kitchen as well. He barely does such things when there are just four of them.
The food is finally brought to the sofreh, and everyone is seated. Today they just have one main dish, and there is no starter or dessert. These kinds of courses are served when they have guests. On these occasions all courses from soups or salads to any type of desserts are all brought to the table (which sometimes works as a buffet table) at the same time, and the guests are welcome to help themselves with any course they wish. However, today is a family lunch, and therefore only their two side dishes, the mast-o-khiar and the sabzi khordan, accompany the food. The types of side dishes vary depending on the main dish and the harmony they make. For instance, according to ancient Persian medicine, yogurt shouldn’t be eaten with fish, while pickles usually accompany fish dishes; raw onions, basil, and marinated olives often follow kebabs; and salads and the sabzi khordan usually go well with stews.
Family members may each eat the food in a different order. Iraj adds a few spoonfuls of the broth on top of the rice with barberries, puts a piece of chicken on top, and digs in with his fork and spoon. He eats a piece of warm tahdig first. However, his son does not like the crispy texture, so he always pours a little broth on it to moisten the tahdig. Atefeh usually starts with some salad or cooked vegetables. She is concerned about health and keeping her figure but unlike her daughter does not believe in fad diets; Atefeh believes in healthy eating. They both do not eat much rice. Atefeh believes that rice is a bit manly and a tad too heavy, while Iraj and Sina always eat the largest portions of rice.
As they start eating, Iraj comments on how great the food is. He always does that even if he does not enjoy the taste much. He has learned that appreciating food is a gesture of respect to the one who cooked it. He has tried to educate his children with the same kind of manners. However, the parents know that the generation gap is widening, so they do not expect their children to follow the manners that they were brought up with.
As they eat, they talk about the notable events of the past week. The TV is on, and its sound fills some gaps within their conversation. Whatever happened in the day or week is usually the main topic at the sofreh. The sofreh is probably the main—and sometimes the only—event that could gather this family together. Therefore, they take advantage of this opportunity for sharing their news and sometimes their feelings. However, they all know that discussing sensitive issues should be avoided; Atefeh and Iraj do not talk about the news or politics, Negar does not mention her crush on the neighbor’s boy, and Sina tries to forget about the window he had broken earlier this week while playing football. The children both confide in their mother, as she is much softer. Atefeh tends to tell Iraj everything when they are alone, and they both usually share a good laugh about the “big problems” of their children.
After half an hour at the sofreh, everyone is almost finished. The children finished much earlier. Sina has left for his room, but Negar remains at the sofreh until the end of the meal. There is some rice and chicken left in the main platters, besides what Atefeh has already set aside for tomorrow’s lunch. Often Atefeh, just like many other Iranian women, prepares a little bit more food in case an unexpected guest arrives. Hospitality is a way of life in Iran, and guests should never feel unwelcome even if they arrive untimely or without any prior notice or invitation. However, if no guest shows up, there will naturally be some leftovers that will be taken to work or school or will be eaten as a midday snack the following day. Throwing food away is strictly frowned upon.
Atefeh and Negar start clearing the sofreh. Iraj is already watching the news, which has just started. Atefeh and Negar take the dishes to the kitchen. Atefeh is usually the one who does the dishes, but today Negar will do that, as she thinks her mom needs some rest. Atefeh checks the kettle that she had put over a low flame before sitting for lunch. The water is boiling, and it is time to have tea. An almost inseparable part of an Iranian course is drinking tea. Tea plays a significant role in Iranian food habits, and many people drink it after their meal and throughout the day. She takes her china teapot, puts a mesh tea infuser inside it to prevent the leaves from going into the cup, and places a few teaspoons of loose black tea in the infuser. Sometimes she adds a pinch of rose petals, a few cracked cardamom pods, or a tiny cinnamon stick to make the tea extra aromatic. Then she adds boiling water to the pot, puts it on top of the kettle, and lets the tea steep for about 5 to 10 minutes. The reason for placing the pot over the kettle is that as the water simmers, the steam keeps the tea warm and helps the brewing process.
Tea is usually considered an adult drink except for breakfast, when the children sweeten it with sugar and have it with their bread and cheese. Negar has already gone to her room, and Atefeh is putting two estekans, special tea-drinking glasses, on a small tray. A tea-drinking glass should always be see-through so that the perfect colored tea can glow in it. Iraj likes his tea to be dark and strong, while Atefeh prefers a lighter color. It is customary to ask how light or strong people like their tea to be. Atefeh pours the tea into the estekans: she pours the brewed tea first and then adjusts the color by adding the necessary amount of boiling water. She also puts two nabats (rock sugar) on the side and takes out a bowl of dried fruits (dates, figs, apricots, and white mulberries) and brings it to Iraj. He changes the channel from sport news to the TV series that Atefeh likes and welcomes her to his side. This is when the two of them could sit together without the kids around and enjoy themselves while having “the finest tea in the world,” as Iraj puts it.
Zereshk Polow ba Morgh (Barberry Rice with Chicken)
For polo: 1 large pot with lid, 1 tea towel, 1 colander
For barberries: 1 medium saucepan
For chicken: 1 pot with lid
Ingredients for polo:
4–5 cups rice (medium-grain Persian rice or basmati rice)
3 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons cooking oil
1 large peeled potato (optional)
2 tablespoon butter or oil (optional)
Ingredients for barberry topping:
1 cup dried barberries
2 tablespoons white sugar
½ cup melted butter
½ teaspoon saffron
2 tablespoons each pistachio and almond slivers (optional)
Ingredients for chicken dish:
1 whole chicken cut into pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, diced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive or cooking oil
Wash the rice with cold water and leave it in a bowl covered with water and 2 tablespoons of salt for at least 1 hour to soak.
Place a large pot on the stove and fill it up with water. Bring it up to a boil and add the remaining salt.
Throw the excess soaking water out and add the rice to the boiling water in the pot. Let it be on a medium heat until the water starts boiling again. Stir only once or twice and let the rice cook until it is al dente (about 7–10 minutes).
Tip: Do not stir the rice too often at this point, as the grains are fragile and may break. That must be avoided when aiming for perfect Persian rice.
Drain the rice and rinse it with some cold water to stop the grains from sticking to each other.
Put the large pot back on the stove on medium heat, add the oil, and place the slices of the potato in a layer on the bottom of the pot. Let it stay over the heat for a few seconds and then set it aside.
Gradually add the rice back to the pot and make a mountain out of it. Add ½ cup boiling water with 2 tablespoon butter to it, put the lid back on the pot, and let it start to steam on medium heat (about 3–5 minutes).
Tip: You can see the steam if your pot has a glass lid, but an expert Iranian mom wets her finger and sticks it to the lower sides of the pot for a millisecond. When she hears a sizzling sound, she knows it’s time for using the tea towel.
Turn the heat to low, take off the lid, and wrap it with a tea towel—covering the underside—and place it back on the pot. Leave it for around 45 minutes until the rice is fully cooked and has a fluffy texture with separate grains.
For barberry topping:
Grind the saffron with a pinch of sugar in a mortar to make a fine powder. Place the powder in a glass and add ½ cup of boiling water. Place a saucer on top of the glass and let the saffron brew into a fiery red liquid.
Tip: You can skip the grinding part, but as an Iranian I advise against it. Saffron is expensive everywhere; with grinding and brewing it you can extract every bit of taste and color from this magnificent flower.
Wash the barberries and set aside.
Place a pan on medium heat and add the butter to melt.
Add the barberries, lower the heat, and stir for a minute.
Add the sugar and half of the brewed saffron and stir until the sugar is melted and the barberries are a bit tender.
Set the pot aside.
Wash the chicken pieces and place them in a pot, and add the chopped onion.
In a bowl combine the spices, salt, garlic, lemon juice, and 1½ cups water.
Add the spice mixture to the pot, put the lid on, and let the chicken cook on low heat for about 1 to 1½ hours, until the chicken is cooked and tender with just enough broth left in the pot.
Tip: You can add other vegetables such as carrot, squash, broccoli, or cauliflower to the chicken if you’d like some cooked veggies on the side with your chicken.
Take a plateful of rice and mix the barberry topping with it, using a fork to avoid the rice from breaking. The rice will be golden yellow with the saffron that was used in preparing the barberries. Add the rest of the saffron liquid if you would prefer a deeper color.
Transfer the rest of the rice onto plates or a big platter, and add the golden rice on top. Sprinkle the almond and pistachio slices on top.
Put the chicken pieces on the side of the plates, or put everything on a big platter. Pour the broth in a separate bowl or on top of the chicken pieces.
To eat this dish as a true Iranian, add a few spoonfuls of the broth on top of the rice with barberries, put a piece of chicken on top, and dig in with your fork and spoon. Remember to take a piece of the tahdig when it’s still warm. Bon appétit, or as we say, Noush-e-jan!
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