When my mom wasn’t cooking, she was prepping for future cooking. She would come home from the Middle Eastern market, trunk filled with bags of produce, and get to work. She’d stem and mince mountains of fresh herbs with her sharpest knife, saving the prettiest sprigs of basil, tarragon, and mint to serve alongside dinner for the week. She’d dice piles of knobby quince for stew, grind saffron threads with grains of sugar, and pull patches of stray feathers from kosher chickens. Every night, my mom cooked us dinner from scratch. And every night, I just wanted to go to Sizzler.
It’s not that I didn’t like Persian food, but even the most lovingly composed meal—a complex balance of sweet and savory, spice and salt, served over impeccably cooked Persian rice—was no contest for the moment I got to sink my teeth into that fluffy, white cheese toast.
Still, somehow, something sunk in. While my mom prepped, I was usually sitting on the kitchen floor, doing my part. She’d have me sift through a bowl of basmati rice, picking out stones or tiny bugs. Or I’d sit over a round metal tray of black Omani limes, pulling out the bitter seeds with my pudgy fingers. But my favorite job was shelling fava beans for polo shevid baghali, a dish of basmati rice with dill and favas. I loved splitting the big, spongy pods open and finding a neat line of pale green beans. It was tedious, but as I worked, my mom would tell me about the how the Mexican butcher at the kosher market was speaking perfect Persian with customers, or share memories of cute things her own mom or mother-in-law used to say as they cooked back in Iran.
And as I got older, I tried my hand at a little cooking of my own. My mom never raised an eyebrow when I used her precious saffron in those early experimental hot-dog stir-fries. These days, I resemble her more and more: deriving joy from bringing people together over a meal I’ve cooked myself. When it comes to polo shevid baghali, though, I still leave it to her. There’s nothing like walking into my parents’ house to that fragrant aroma, and hard as I try, my tahdig, the crispy browned rice at the bottom of the pot, will never match Mom’s.
When and where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Tehran, Iran, and I grew up there.
When did you come to the United States?
After I finished high school in Tehran, I went to university, for a bachelor’s degree in English literature. I got married and had two daughters, we moved to Shiraz, and, right before the revolution, in 1979, I had to leave Iran with my daughters. We went to Israel first, and then to the United States, while my husband was still working in Iran for another two and a half years.
What was your favorite food growing up?
It’s a difficult question because Persian food has so many delicious dishes—lots of rice dishes and lots of delicious stews, although they are time-consuming. I’d say my favorite is chelo khoresht-e beh. It is a dish combining white rice with a stew made of beef, onions, quince, tomato paste, pomegranate juice or paste, and spices. It’s a sweet and sour, sweet-smelling, delicious dish.
What’s your earliest childhood memory involving food? (Or, if not earliest, what’s your favorite food-related memory from growing up?)
We had a summer house in Shemiran, a cooler area in the north of Tehran. In the garden, there were large plots of vegetables and herbs (basil, tarragon, radishes, tomatoes, green peppers). We used to buy our bread fresh and hot from the bakeries, which had a tanoor built into the wall. They used big paddles to put the dough over the hot pebbles in the tanoor—usually one loaf each of barbari, taftoon, and sangak. So when Valli, our servant, came back home with fresh, hot bread, usually we kids went to the garden; picked some tomatoes, some parsley, mint, cucumber; washed them; made a salad; and ate it with some cheese—local cheese, similar to feta—and fresh bread. That was the most delicious snack.
What’s the story behind this dish?
Polo shevid baghali is a traditional dish. Most of the time, people make it around Nowruz, spring, because favas are in season. But nowadays you can find frozen, dried, and fresh favas at different times of the year, depending on where you live.
How did you learn to cook or bake?
Just experience, getting good recipes from the best two cooks in the world, my mother and mother-in-law. All the women at that time cooked; no one was going out for dinner or ordering takeout. I had a cooking class in high school, and after I got married I got the recipes from my mom and I started cooking.
Can you describe a typical family meal when you were growing up? What was your favorite thing that was cooked in your house? Who did the cooking?
We were a family of six sisters and brothers. The older siblings had gone to America or had gotten married off; I was the youngest, so I stayed the longest with my parents. But, especially on Friday nights, my sisters came with their families to our house. My mother always had help in the house to clean, wash the dishes, help with cooking and shopping. And when the family was there it was, of course, more dishes, more formal. Shabbat dinners included chelo abgoosht-e gondi, plus other dishes like chicken, beef, stews, rice dishes like polo shevid baghali, sometimes fish or dolmeh.
What did your parents do for a living?
My mom weaved carpets, and that was the start of their business. My dad sold the carpets that my mom made at the bazaar. She had some people that worked with her. All the while, she was also the breadwinner—she was making carpets and managing a staff, whom she also fed. This was on top of making dinner for the family at home.
Do you think of your mom when you cook?
Oh, a lot. A lot. She liked to work sitting down; because she was a little short, she had a lower table in the kitchen, where she’d sit and work. I think about her all the time. When I go shopping. She liked to do her shopping herself. But she wasn’t very vas-vas [the Persian word for “picky”]—I’m more picky than her. She took it easier. Maybe their lifestyle didn’t let them be this picky. They had to make a lot of food, in shorter time, with worse equipment. Now I can prepare lots of stuff and put it in the freezer, and have it in the house. But usually, for an event or gathering, they made everything fresh from scratch. Everything took more time.
What does it mean to you, in the United States, to make Persian food for your family?
You can find American food everywhere, but you can only find homemade, mom-made Persian food here. I like to make it for you; I enjoy, too, when you enjoy. I’m not happy that my grandchildren don’t appreciate Persian food that much, but maybe gradually they will.
Violet Sassooni is a home cook living in Los Angeles, where she enjoys cutting roses from her garden, watching Dancing with the Stars with her husband, and sharing ice cream with her grandchildren. Tannaz Sassooni is a technical director at Dreamworks Animation. She writes about food at the blog All Kinds of Yum and is working on an Iranian-Jewish cookbook.