Google translate and a pot of rice got me to Iran

Yeehawing at the Houston Rodeo.

After eight months of traveling abroad I landed myself stateside in Texas. If there was any reverse culture shock to be had this probably is the place to get it. Within 36 hours of deplaning Sabbath, a college friend who transplanted himself down here three years ago, had me at the Houston Rodeo listening to country music and eating extremely large portions of mostly fried foods. It was my first time at a rodeo so somehow the experience still felt like I was visiting a place far far away from home. Lots of cowboy hats, lots of boots, and lots of bejeweled jean pockets. Never have I witnessed adults and children hanging on for dear life on the backs of bulls and sheep just for fun. I had good a time at the rodeo, it certainly was not the familiar midwestern sights and sounds I’m use to.

L: Welcome to America. R: My first (giant) turkey leg. It may be bigger than my biceps.

A few days later Hamid, my sister’s Iranian co-worker, invited my sister and me over for dinner. He didn’t have to ask twice, I RSVPed yes and slid in a question, can I come by early to learn how to prepare the dishes? I didn’t want to impose but I was just too curious about what’s stocked in an Iranian pantry. My curiosity was heightened because I never made it to Iran on my recent trip to the Middle East. I failed to do my homework before setting off, otherwise I’d know American tourists are only granted visas if traveling with a tour group. (Time to get my Vietnamese passport.) Needless to say there’s a sense of incompleteness to my trip as it was drawing to an end. If visiting Iran is not happening anytime soon, then the next best thing was planting myself in a Iranian home kitchen and learning as much as I can about the culture, country, and cuisine.

That’s a piece of saffron in my stick of rock sugar. Surprisingly, one stick didn’t make the small glass of tea too sweet.

Everyone I know who traveled to Iran comes back saying Iranian hospitality is quite something else. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Hamid and his wife Zahra suggested I come over earlier, as in breakfast early. I asked for an hour in the kitchen before dinner and got an invitation to visit for the whole day. The next morning my sister and I sat down to a huge breakfast spread of homemade quince, sour cherry, orange peel, and carrot jam, crunchy and soft flatbreads, eggs, feta, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, nuts, and tea sweetened with saffron rock candy. Visually the meal was very reminiscent of the Turkish breakfasts I’ve had. At the commencement of the meal all of our plates were empty — breakfast required assembly. I loved this because there’s a connection to be had with our food when there’s a conscious choice of what goes on our plate, we’re in part responsible for the flavors. We broke bread and savored.

L: Some lovely Iranian treats. I tasted everything…twice. R: A well read household.

When breakfast was over, my sister and Hamid took off for work while Zahra was left with me, an eager student of the kitchen. Here’s the thing, Zahra doesn’t speak much English and my Farsi skills were limited to Google translate. Amazingly she walked me though how to cook four dishes all while sprinkling bits of stories in between the chopping, dicing, and stirring. She shared that she and Hamid recently came back from the annual Arbaeen Pilgrimage where they walked 90 Km in three days to reach the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq. Arbaeen is a holy day that comes at the end of 40-days of mourning and commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson. Zahra showed me some video clips of her pilgrimage — the flow of people never dwindled. People aren’t carrying much with them because villagers along the pilgrims’ path offer food, water, a place to rest and other amenities, all free of charge. That’s Middle Eastern hospitality. Yearly about 15–20 million arrive in Karbala, which means the city’s population swells by 13–17 times in a matter of days. With an event drawing this many people annually I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it. But then again news coverage of this area of the world is rarely anything but bad.

The beginnings of a stew with halal chicken from the local grocery store.

A mere three hours after they left Hamid and my sister were at the front door again as I was helping Zahra plate lunch. None of us could say we were truly hungry after breakfast but also no one objected to sitting down for another delicious meal. Set out was a salad, barley soup, chicken stew, rice, and doogh (yogurt mint drink). Yep, everything made from scratch. Just like breakfast, the lunch conversation was lively with the good humored Hamid translating for us all. He joked that his wife only agreed to marry him after he proved to make a successful pot of rice — fluffy, not sticky with a crunchy bottom. I laughed, but still didn’t pick up on the cultural reference. As tradition would have it, brides to be had to prove themselves competent cooks and a good pot of rice was a gold standard in measuring kitchen skills.

L: Basmati rice, dried barberries, and potatoes soaking before the steaming. R: Rice sitting pretty underneath the damkesh.

Let me take a few moments to focus on the rice; here was one dish I thought I could connect to easiest, I grew up on the stuff, albeit a different kind. Before today I only had Persian rice in restaurants and thought it pretty damn tasty. I grew up with the soft, slightly glutenous (think slightly sticky) and subtly aromatic jasmine rice. Jasmine rice, however, was not the star grain of the day, the honor went to basmati rice. A pot of Persian rice requires a lot more attention than the ones I was charged with for family meals. Zahra was teaching me a dressed up rice dish, served at events like weddings and new year. The process started with lining a hot oiled pot with sesame seeds, potato slices, and then piling on the pre-soaked basmati rice. Here’s what surprised me — no additional water was added, the grains soaked up enough water in 3 hours to cook themselves. To keep the rice from getting mushy the lid was donned with a damkesh, basically a cloth shower cap, or “steam absorber” that prevents the steam from collecting on the lid and dripping back down to the rice. The toughest part to my rice cooking process is getting the amount of water just right and plugging in the rice steamer.

All that hard work deserves a close up.
L: Fereni is a dessert made from cooking rice flour in milk, and rose water. Constant stirring required. R: Quince jam is exclusively made in copper pots and it’s not uncommon one pot is reserved solely for this purpose.

Safe to say the rice was delicious, flavorful, and fluffy (not sticky). Lunch was equally yummy. My sister and Hamid went back to work after lunch and I intended to leave as well but was invited to stay to and make a dessert. I heard dessert and immediately took off my shoes. The day rounded out nicely on the sweet note of some fereni. Zahra and Hamid were incredibly generous and welcoming hosts. So generous that after I complimented their beautiful copper kitchenware, I was offered a copper bowl to take home. My travels aboard allowed me to observe and learn about different cultures, different ways of living. But that day in that Houston kitchen I experienced Iran without ever needing my passport.