What is a man’s legacy? What does he leave behind for his children to appreciate? Has his legacy made the world a better place? It would be too much to say that my father’s legacy is his cooking, but not by much. He has been on a culinary adventure for years, perfecting his craft and taking the opportunity to teach me and others along the way. Now that he is semi-retired he has more time to focus his efforts, and the resulting recipes and dishes he has perfected (and sometimes created) hark back to the land of my forefathers. An Iranian immigrant to the U.S., my father’s cooking has evolved to reflect both his love for Persian cuisine and his affection for rich, delicious dishes that he has encountered along the way living in Louisiana most of his life. Lately I have taken an interest in learning the tricks he has used to refine the time-honored dishes that have satisfied our family’s hunger, along with my mom’s down-home cooking (God, I love those biscuits!), for over three decades.
Why now and not earlier (or later) in my life? My interest has probably peaked because of a confluence of events. My wife and I are now proud homeowners, which, I presume, is the quintessential place to begin or carry on the traditional foods of one’s family. We are also expecting our first child in the coming months, and we hope that he or she will use those fresh new taste buds to enjoy the classic’s from the TLA family cookbook. And as we prepare to leave for Honduras for our second assignment abroad soon, we want to be able to take the comforts of home with us to that foreign land. Of course being at the Foreign Service Institute provides time to think, that was rarely available in Bahrain. Finally, in classic “teach a man to fish” form, my father has also decided the time is ripe for providing me with a recipe nearly every other phone call, such that I would have been cockeyed not to take a few notes and preserve a tradition so carefully cultivated over the course of a lifetime.
My first step on this project was possibly the most ambitious, as the recipe was probably the most mysterious. Old world (OW) yogurt is something that evokes, for me at least, images of civilizations long gone. Mustachioed calvary in leather armor riding across middle Asian plains and elegant robed women would have enjoyed this form of yogurt. My ancestors from before there was a religion called Christianity, would have enjoyed this thick creamy creation that some Persian tradition holds, according to Wikipedia, as responsible for the prophet Abraham’s fecundity. When my father gave me instructions that included judging the heat of the milk by its frothiness, trusting my sense of touch to determine when it was cool enough to add the yogurt starter (which happens to be about five seconds before your finger starts to burn), and wrapping the pot in a blanket and putting in the closet for 10 hours, I knew it was unlikely that I would succeed in creating the dairy delight of my forefathers. But the ability to make sense of such “artistic” instructions, in lieu of a recipe that makes any sense, seems to be woven into my DNA and the almost whipped, thick as cream cheese yogurt that resulted from my efforts was so good that I called my dad to tell him, posted a picture of it on facebook, ate a bowl full of it with a heavy dark beer, and became so inspired that there has not been a day in the last six months when we haven’t had some of it in our fridge (thank you Trader Joe’s for your $3 gallon of whole milk).
My success led me to take on other, much more complex challenges. Next up was Ab Goosht, which literally translates to meat water. Trust me, it’s a lot better than the weak translation sounds. It should connote images of dishes that end with the phrase “au jus” instead. This incredibly rich lamb dish with potatoes and tomatoes, barley, turmeric and other delicious ingredients is served up either all mashed together with the juice on the side, or like a soupy stew complimented with overcooked, to the point of crunchiness, flat bread. I failed on my first attempt. There were many reasons why, but the most important being that I was weak-hearted in my seasoning. You must have the courage of your conviction when seasoning Persian food. It is not for the faint. We’re talking about pouring on seasoning in quantities that would make your average Scandinavian cry. It’s a genre of food for warrior poets, whose courage equals their creativity. The second time was the charm and along with a serving of the OW yogurt, I felt very much at home eating the rich goodness of my father’s homeland.
I have tried a few other dishes since then, with varying degrees of success. The classic cantaloupe smoothie was a raging success. Qorme Sabzi, when made correctly, is a perfect blend of greens, kidney beans, and lamb cubes served with basmati rice. It was a favorite of my youth, and a dish that my mom perfected in her own right. My first attempt was once again too bland and definitely too heavy on the kidney beans. Too many beans result in a chalky taste and other less flattering conditions after the meal. Salad Shirazi, a side dish must for nearly a third of all Persian meals, I learned to make some time ago, but I have been perfecting my recipe recently, and it is now well on its way to reaching native status.
What’s next? Only a conversation with my father will tell. But once you start on a project of this scope, it takes a lifetime to complete. That’s just fine with me. It will honor the effort and ingenuity of my father and his father, and give my children, and hopefully my children’s children, a piece of their past to enjoy in their bellies! I imagine my father’s legacy makes him feel at home in a faraway land with no blood relatives other than his progeny, and it connects him to his past. My grandfather would be proud.