I had heard that the sense of smell has the strongest memory association, and yet there are certain foods that instantly bring back memories of specific family members for me.
Last week for the first time, I noticed quinces at our grocery store. It had been years since I’d tasted them. Overcome by a strange craving, I decided to purchase just one. Quince was known by The Greeks as the fruit of love. Too excited to sit down or prepare my quince into a single-serve stew, I peeled it, cut it into cubes, nuked the cubes in the microwave with some sweetener. Then just standing in my kitchen picked a square, steam still rising from it, blew on it and took a bite. As soon as the quince touched my tongue, my aunt was there with me, full of life. When she was alive, she used to make the richest, thickest, sweetest quince jams and stews. I chewed slowly as I let myself travel back in time, stand next to her in her kitchen and watch her plate the rice, then spoon the stew right on it, and bend down to hand it to me, her eyes smiling.
Dad loves fresh bread. When I visited Iran, on his days off, he’d wake up early in the morning, and take a walk to the bakery nearby to buy fresh, hot bread. I went with him once. We took our place in the line, which was much shorter than the ones we had during the war years. I watched the baker roll the dough, flatten it on a large paddle and transfer it into the dome shaped oven. It would bake over hot stones and is thus called noon sangak, stone bread, for the way the hot stones leave indentations in it. You sometimes have to knock off one or two stray stones left in your bread. That’s part of the fun. Dad never buys just one, but enough for a week, and most of the time he forgets that he is now buying for two people. His eyes are trained to always have enough food for a family of five. At home, he methodically cuts the breads into rectangular pieces, the same size, places them in plastic bags and puts them in the freezer, so every morning they can be heated in the toaster oven. When he comes to visit us here in the States, he always brings some of those bags along to make sure we get a taste home again.
The taste and smell of cumin ushers me back to mom Mahin’s (my grandmother’s) house. She was the only person who’d add cumin to zereshk polo, barberries with rice. I didn’t like the sharp taste of the cumin seeds as a child. But I love them as an adult. Now, cumin gives me my grandmother’s face. When she used to pray, her cheeks had a gorgeous rosy hue to them, her skin was smooth and radiant. We’d wait until she finished her prayers before eating. I see all of us in her formal dining room, careful not to break her antiques as we walk to the table and take our seats. No matter how much we ate, she’d still insist, “you didn’t eat anything.” With bellies full of her multiple servings, we’d thank her in proper taarof. “Daste shoma dard nakoneh. It was very delicious.” (Literally may your hand not hurt). And she’d always say: “noosheh jon.” (May it be sweet to your life)
There’s a Persian dish called shirin polo (sweet rice). It is my mom’s specialty. The dish is so appropriately mom. She loves color; she loves patterns and textures; she is creative. Shirin polo has all of those elements. Once it’s ready to be served, the rice is jeweled with green pistachio slivers, auburn orange rinds, ocher shredded carrots, cream-colored almond slivers, and caramel onions. Your imagination is the limit for how you decorate the rice just before the guests mix it. Mom usually reserves shirin polo for her parties, but this time when she stayed with me, I was her guest of honor. As she was making it, she called me over: “Smell this. What does it remind you of?” I took a whiff. “Pastry shops back home. What is that?” “Cardamom.” The smell of saffron and cardamom intoxicate. Every spoonful is an explosion of sweet and crunch. I still have some extra mixture in my freezer. So to all my friends I say: Befarmaeed (Welcome, please have some).
Auntie Zhila, my mom’s sister, is the die-hard career woman in the family. Even now, in her sixties, she does financial consults for corporations. Though she is a great cook, she loves cold cuts, cheese, baguette and soda. Open up her fridge and you are guaranteed to find at least three different kinds of cheeses, and two or three types of cold cuts. Mortadella is the constant player. I’m not talking about the packaged junk we find here, but the real thing that lets you know of its presence by emitting its garlic sent. Come dinnertime, she used to get a mischievous look in her eyes and conspire with us kids to vote for fun food, because who wants to cook? And we never turned down her perfect Mortadella sandwiches, in thin baguettes that crunched under her knife, with our choice of cheese, and sliced tomatoes. The closest I ever came to her sandwiches was at a cafe in Barcelona twenty years later.