Like it never left…inspiration knocked on my door this morning. Continue the story of your culinary life, it said. So after a few months away, I pick up at the moment when I met my husband, when two cultures collided in food and love. I was oh so young, naive and vulnerable, an immigrant barely familiar with my new country, searching for identity in a land too vast to provide comfort. My first tries at assimilation turned disastrous and I was hungry for acceptance. It would come from outside this land, from someone who felt just as strange and unwelcomed.
He was here temporarily on a student visa with every intention of returning to his native country upon graduation. We met at an Italian restaurant where we both worked and forty years later as they say, the rest is history.
There’s a lot to write about when it comes to our heated and tumultuous years together but here I’m going to focus on the most pleasant of memories, those involving food.
As all immigrants will attest, the very first thing we look for when in a foreign country is a food we can identify with, one that reminds us of home, Mom and that special feeling of comfort that comes with memories left behind. Sure we marvel at all the new and interesting selections at the supermarket, but we gravitate towards the sections that import those familiar items that we yearn for.
In those early days of the 1970’s, Dallas was an isolated outpost where imported food was as rare as the foreigners searching for it. I’m not talking about ready to eat meals, no we were willing to prepare fact similes of our memories in our kitchens, what we were missing were the ingredients, the spices, the perfect vegetables, fruits, lentils and mostly the exact recipes. We would create feasts from the combined trials of tastes which would satisfy our palates and provide a smidgen of satisfaction.
I already had a repertoire of Transylvanian recipes for which I had my mother to consult and which went through a transformation over the few years that I had already resided in Dallas. With my new romantic affair came a whole world of exotic aromas of far away lands, of steaming platters of saffron rice, of stews made with delectable herbs and spices, of salads sprinkled with freshly chopped mint and hot tea sipped slowly with crystalized sugar pebbles. I was not only in love with the bearer of such treats but with everything he represented. A journey had begun and with it, a life of indescribable appreciation for food, it’s history and cultural connection.
My first experiment went terribly wrong. I found a Persian cookbook and decided to try a recipe which seemed easy enough as all the ingredients were available: lamb and carrot stew served with steamed rice. Just like in every other country, regional cooking differs widely and my husband was from the southern part where this dish was not popular. It was tasty enough but not familiar to either one of us.
Luckily a wonderful cook arrived in the shape of a sister in law who happily shared the tricks of the trade. From her I learned the delicate touch needed to prepare the perfect rice, the restraint when adding spices and the balance between hot and cold foods, an ancient observance westerners would benefit from.
Thus began my journey into one of the world’s oldest and most delectable cuisines. Slowly simmered meats were joined by eggplant and yellow split peas resulting in dishes which paired with rice made for satisfying meals I couldn’t get enough of. In addition, the hot coals of our grill provided the heat for best kabobs ever.
Not unlike other Americanized foods, my collection of recipes experienced the transformation necessary given availability of ingredients, dietary changes and time. Long simmering and labor intensive dishes gave way to easier to prepare versions which became standards. I reduced fat content, used lighter meats or eliminated them completely. Today, those old recipes have become completely vegan and not less satisfying for the transformation.
Perfectly Easy Rice
Fry 2 cups of rice for a few minutes, I like short grain brown, mixed with 1/2 cup of lentils, in 3-4 tbsp. of grape seed oil. Season with salt and pepper and 1 tsp of turmeric. Add 4 cups of water mixed with vegetable broth and 3-4 tsp of dry dill weed. Simmer on medium for about 20 minutes till liquid is absorbed and rice is just under cooked. Cover with a lid wrapped in paper towels, and steam on low for about 20 more minutes.
Stewed Eggplant with Mushrooms
In a large pot, fry one chopped onion in a couple of spoons of oil till golden. Season with salt, pepper and 1 tbsp curry powder. Add a couple of cups of cubed eggplants and continue browning and stirring for 10 minutes. Add a can of crushed tomatoes and cook on low for 15 minutes. Add 2 cups of chopped mushrooms, re-season and cook 5 more minutes.