Fesenjoon

Author photo of Nedda Sarshar against a dark blue background
By 
Nedda Sarshar

Traditional Iranian dishes take hours to make. Each family has their own recipes and preferences passed down from previous generations experimenting in the kitchen, but I did not grow up in a culture that allowed for time to be spent making food, unless you were working in the food industry. Western routines are built around the structure of one’s work day, and after a long day you grow into the habit of reaching for something that is quick and easily consumed. Food becomes fuel instead of a source for memories and experience, though I try to remain in touch with my Iranian roots. I grew up in “Tehranto” (the second largest diaspora community in Toronto), and I speak Farsi regularly with my parents and Grandmother. I still eat Iranian dishes all the time, but they are always made by someone else.  For the first time ever, because of COVID-19, I now have the space to spend time in the kitchen learning how to make recipes that my mother and grandmother have been trying to teach me for more than twenty years. This is what we miss in a capitalist society:  I won’t get paid for spending three hours in the kitchen trying to make the underside of rice harden (tadeeg), or grinding walnuts until they have the consistency of peanut butter (fesenjoon), but these are the memories and techniques that I will carry with me forever. I imagine teaching all this to my own children one day, and have been re-imagining what a daily routine would look like.  

Early in the morning, my Khaleh (Aunt) is in the kitchen turning on the fire under a large bowl of water. I walk in to grab cereal and find her humming to herself while she slices beef with a large knife, then onions, then the garlic.
     “It’s 10 AM,” I say. “No one’s going to eat that now.”
     “It won’t be ready now,” she answers, piling everything into the boiling cup of water and sealing the lid. “I want to make us abgoosht for lunch.”
     An hour later, after I have showered and dressed, the food still isn’t ready, though the apartment has filled with the smell of meat. Khaleh is back in the kitchen making a new pot of chai and stirring the meat occasionally.
     She fusses over me as I slip on my shoes and coat, getting ready to head out. “What are you going to eat today? Do you want to take something from here?”
     “I’ll grab a sandwich from the food court,” I say, though most of the time I end up skipping a full meal for granola bars in the workplace lunchroom. My job is selling tickets at the Toronto International Film Centre’s year-round base. I get 45 minutes for break, and I usually spend it answering emails for my other job at the radio station, and try to file in some precious time for sending out pitches to publications.
     Back then, the only real free time I ever procured was the long subway ride from Yonge and Sheppard to King Station, where I would pull out my Kindle or listen to a podcast. I told myself that I liked living like this, living while knowing that there was always somewhere I had to be. I told myself that I was the kind of person who could not stay still, that if I had a moment to rest, I would sink and not be able to get back up again.

~

Our lives in Toronto were busy. My family was busy, we saw each other briefly on weekends for a few precious hours. My friends were as inundated with deadlines as I was. Every meeting came with the sense of guilt that we should have spent a few more hours focusing.        
     Our food was almost always take-out. I caught up with people over dinner or a quick bubble tea trip. I brought home packages of kebab and rice from an Iranian restaurant nearly once a week for my family.
     When my Khaleh first moved to my Bibi’s (grandmother) apartment, I was offended at how she chose to devote her days. Hours consumed in the kitchen, stewing, roasting, grinding, and mashing. Every day was a new dish, and every dish took hours to make. While the food simmered she would speak with family in Iran over the phone, or watch TV while sipping chai.
     “Doesn’t she have better things to do?” I asked my Maman. “Isn’t she trying to get a job here?”
     “It’s how they live in Iran,” my Maman said. “We used to live like that too. We couldn’t when we came here, and she’ll realize eventually.”
     But I didn’t bring it up again, for suddenly, I became very aware and ashamed of the Western values I was projecting on my Iranian Khaleh.
     My family lives in Richmond Hill, where people of Iranian descent are the second highest ethnic group, and I’ve spent my whole life in “Tehranto”, heart of the Iranian-Canadian diaspora. It’s a mixture of hard work and luck that has allowed me to plant my roots in Iranian culture. My family has long roots in this community, as one of the first families to arrive as refugees in the early 1980s. Growing up, the first language I heard spoken in our home was Farsi, and the only language that was spoken in my grandparents home (on both sides) was Farsi. When I was nine, there was even a point at which we had wanted to move back to Iran.
     I love Iranian food. We have family friends who own Iranian restaurants near our home that we stop by regularly to store-up on rice or kebab. Bibi, my grandmother, thinks it’s an act of treason for me to come to her house and not eat some khoresht or adas polo. Iranian food has fed me for as long as I can remember.
     Maybe that’s why I was so upset at my Khaleh. She showed me how much work went into it. How long it took to simmer meat and soak rice. Work that I had never learned, because I grew up in a closed-off world where learning complicated, time-consuming recipes always translated to taking time away from your career. Before the pandemic, that was not a sacrifice I ever saw myself making.

~

     A few weeks into April, with COVID-19 numbers towering, and all of our once-familiar restaurants closing their doors (some temporarily, some forever), Bibi was at our house preparing polo and ghormeh sabzi--Iran’s renowned, national dish. I watched her drain the beans and chop the parsley. Over the course of two hours, she moved between the stove and the counter, lips pursed and brow furrowed. She seared the meat, then soaked the herbs. I came and went between Zoom calls, watching the ingredients pile in the pot and Bibi’s hands move steadily over them, feeling like I was witnessing a ritual.
     The stew was left to boil for three hours. In that time, my mother came to check in on how it was heating, and poured some lemon juice before covering with the lid again. Mamani, my other grandmother, walked by a little later to stir, and fussed over how the rice was being prepared and whether we would have enough tahdig for the whole family.
     When the food was ready to be served, all three of them were in the kitchen. I set the table and watched them discuss the texture of the rice and the scent of khoresht. They debated over whether it should remain simmering, or if it was ready to eat. Since it was Bibi’s dish, she had the final say and quickly piled it onto a plate.
     When we sat down to eat, Bibi took a bite and looked at my Maman.
     “I forgot your family likes it with lemon,” she said.
     “I don’t,” Maman said, and nodded at Mamani who was spooning the khoresht onto a piece of lavash bread. “That’s how Mamani made it in our home.”
     “My mother liked it with lamb,” Bibi says. “But the lamb here smells. Not like the ones in Iran.”
     The ghormeh sabzi had taken three and a half hours to make, the better part of the afternoon, and was finished within the hour.
     I cleaned my bowl with some bread, slowly realizing that at twenty-five, I did not know any of the dishes that these women had carried with them for their entire lives. Iranian food had been a given my whole life, but in the midst of a pandemic when sourcing them became more difficult, it became clear that the real ceremony behind the food came with the hours of preparation work. Every family has their own preference and recipes, and though surrounded by people who carried this knowledge, I had never learned.
I thought of the countless times I’d spent in Bibi’s home, arguing with my cousins over pieces of tadeeg. Hours spent as a child clinging to Mamani while she hovered over the stove preparing khoresht, and stepping over my grandfather, Babai, while he broke apart pieces of gand into small bits to use in chai. I could never be a child who spent most of her time in the kitchen again, but the tradition and ceremony of Iranian dishes did not have to die with me.
     “Can you teach me how to make fesenjoon tomorrow?” I asked Mamani as we washed up.
     “Don’t you have work?”
     “I do, but I can just work outside the kitchen.”
     I spent the next day grinding walnuts to the consistency of peanut butter, and picking apart the seeds of a pomegranate. The seeds were decoration. Pomegranate juice was needed for the recipe, and I went to the Iranian grocery store to pick it up earlier that day.
     “Making fesenjoon?” The cashier had asked.
     “Yes,” I said.
     “It makes a difference when it’s homemade, doesn’t it? I don’t have the time, otherwise I’d make it so much more,” she sighed as she handed me my bag.

~

     I remember the first time I had watched my Babai cut open a pomegranate on the floor of a hotel room, patiently empty it one seed at a time. I remember the tart fragrant that was released every time we opened up a pomegranate, the soft texture of Babai’s sweater as I leaned on his shoulder to watch him work. I’d felt a thrill every time the hard shell was pressed apart to reveal the ruby seeds inside. He had taught me how to cut it open as well, held my hand steady while I pressed the knife into the skin, and we spent hours emptying all the pomegranates in the home so they could be eaten easily by everyone. I can’t remember the last time I had taken the time to deseed a pomegranate, though I’ve eaten it on a few occasions.
     “It tastes better the longer you spend on it,” Babai told me as I swallowed a spoonful.
     Mamani tries to help while I make the fesenjoon. One of her arms has arthritis, and she carries it close to herself while she stirs the walnuts.
     “Thank you for teaching me,” I say, when she tells me how to slice the chicken--down the middle, not through the side-- to go with it.
     “Why do you want to learn?” She finally asks.
     I want to tell her it’s because I’m realizing now, that I’ve only been centering my life around my career, and how it has caused me to lose hours of precious time that I could have spent with my family, learning to preparing food that second-generation Iranians like myself have become less and less acclimated to. I want to tell her I’m worried that one day my own child will want to know about their roots, and I won’t be able to tell them anything that you couldn’t find in a book. That making Iranian food is perhaps the only ceremony I will be able to pass down to another generation, and I wanted to be in the position to be able to do that.
     Instead, I say: “Because it tastes better when it’s home-made.”

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