Every time we had people over for dinner, my husband would say to me, “Tori, we didn’t make enough food.”
“How can that be?” I’d ask. “There are leftovers.” It wasn’t until we moved to Iran in 2003 for a four-year stay that I understood what he meant. A chicken leg or two is not leftovers. It’s ta’rof — good manners. It’s what the guests leave behind so you won’t think you served them insufficiently. “Enough food” means that another party can be fed with what is left over at the end of the evening.
The first time we were invited out in Iran, we were served omelets, fish, whole roasted chicken, yogurt and cucumbers, yogurt and spinach, tomato, cucumber, and onion salad, salad with iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing, spring chicken kebabs, and chopped lamb kebabs. All of this was brought to the table just before midnight. Kamran whispered, “Do they think we’re cows?”
I tell you this so you won’t balk at the amount of food my friend Zohreh Sanaseri (pictured) prepared for our dinner of ghelye (ghalieh) mahi — a stew of fish, herbs, and tamarind paste. She invited three others to share the stew with us, but made enough for at least ten people.
In four years of living in Iran, I never once encountered ghelye mahi. In fact, it wasn’t until a night out at a Persian restaurant in Amsterdam that I ate it for the first time. The flavor was surprising: sharp, sour, sweet, and fishy all at once. It was made with many of the ingredients found in other stews I’d eaten in Iran, but tasted nothing like them. I searched for recipes and tried making it a few times before giving up. None was as good as my first time…
And then I ate ghelye mahi at the home of my friend Zohreh, who hails from the city of Abadan in southwestern Iran. “It was the Paris of Iran,” the eldest of her two daughters, who were born in the Netherlands, tells me. “Was,” Zohreh emphasizes. “Before the war.”
It was the war with Iraq that drove Zohreh and her family out of Iran. She settled in the Netherlands with her husband when she was just 25. “I had never cooked before in my life,” she says. “I learned everything here.”
Read more at Tehran Bureau.