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JewishJournal.com

December 6, 2007

Cooking lessons

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/cooking_lessons_20071207

Pour three cups of rice into a bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water. Stir the rice in the water, making sure you don't crush the grains, then throw out the water. Repeat five times.

I'm 9 years old -- in my mother's kitchen on the second floor of our house in Tehran. It's mid-morning, early summer, but the heat is already oppressive.

I've been out of school for a week. I spend my days playing in the yard with my two sisters and with the occasional cousin who comes over for a visit. I harass the gardener to let me water the lawn, even if there's no need for it, sit with the maid in the narrow strip of shade in the servants' yard and watch her soak our clothes in enormous pewter tubs that she has filled with water, soap and lavender. When she's not looking, I dip my hands, up to the elbows, in the cool water and watch the soap bubbles coat my skin.

The sixth time you fill the bowl, don't throw the water out. Put a piece of rock salt in it and let the rice soak overnight.

My mother is 26 years old. Every summer, she teaches my sisters and me things every woman needs to know. We've learned to sew buttons and hems, to crochet and knit, to iron shirts and dresses. This year, she's teaching me how to make rice, because she's going to Israel with her sisters for two months. One of them is having surgery in Tel Aviv, and the others are going to take care of the patient while she recovers.

This is the first time since she's been married that my mother will travel without my father, but she tells me she's not afraid, she's actually excited, looking forward to what she thinks will be a great adventure.

The next morning, bring half a pot of water to a boil on the stove. Pour out the saltwater from the soaking rice, and add the rice to the boiling water in the pot. Add two tablespoons of salt and a tablespoon of oil. Stir the rice once, making sure you don't crush the grains.

In Tel Aviv, my mother and her sisters rent an apartment by the month. There are four of them, plus the one who's had surgery, and some cousins who live in other parts of Israel and come by for extended visits. It's like they're kids again, my mother writes in her letters to us, living together on Simorgh Street, without husbands or kids or the weight of their daily routine back in Tehran.
In the pictures she sends, my mother's always laughing. Her hair has grown longer; it has blond highlights from the sun. She looks happy, and confident, and younger than I've ever known her.

Let the rice cook in the boiling water, with the pot uncovered, for seven to eight minutes. Take a grain or two out of the water, blow on it till it's cool, then test it between your front teeth. Make sure you wait till the rice is cooled off, or you'll burn the tip of your tongue. If you can bite into the grains without much resistance, turn off the flame, put up the pot and pour the rice and the water into a large colander.

When she comes back from Israel, my mother talks more loudly, more openly, than she had before she left. She laughs more easily, as well. In Israel, she says, women are not expected to be quiet and solemn all the time.
She has bought herself a red leather bag. She says that in Israel, she felt "at home" for the first time in her life. It had to do with being surrounded by other Jews, instead of living as a minority and feeling threatened all the time. But it also had to do with seeing the way other women live in other parts of the world -- all those young girls who put on uniforms the minute they finish high school, who pick up a gun as if they were boys, file away to the army, to the desert, to war.

Let all the water drain out of the rice, then toss it gently in the colander to make sure the grains are not stuck together. Be careful you don't crush the grains.

After that trip, my mother stops teaching her daughters how to cook or do housework.

"Don't waste your life making rice," she tells us. "Go to school and find a career and become something you can be proud of."

She starts taking painting and piano lessons, talking about moving to America, where women are not expected to be solemn and quiet all the time.

Rinse the pot till it's clean. Pour a cup of water, a third of a cup of oil, a pinch of turmeric and a teaspoon of tomato juice into the empty pot and put it back on the stove, with the flame on high, till the mixture comes to the boil.

Through college and graduate school and the first five years of married life in Los Angeles, I never make Persian rice again. I'll start only after my children are born, and then without much confidence.

I cook every day, almost without exception, because I can't stand the thought of feeding my kids out of a jar, but I'm always torn when I'm in the kitchen, always thinking there are better things for me to do, better ways to use my time. I should be working, or playing with my kids, or helping them learn to read, to ride a bike.

When the mixture is boiling rapidly, pour in the rice from the colander and arrange it in the shape of cone. Lower the flame, wrap the top of the pot in a kitchen towel, cover the pot and let the rice cook for at least an hour. Before serving, sprinkle a mixture of water, saffron and oil onto the rice. When you spoon it onto the platter, make sure you don't crush the grains of rice. One Sunday, I'm having lunch at home with my husband and children. I've made Persian rice and a sour meat stew. Wishing to point out his dislike for the stew politely, my younger son remarks that the rice, at least, is good.

"Yes," my daughter says, glaring at her brother for his comment. "And so is the stew." Then she asks me, "When did you learn to make rice?"

I think about it for a moment.

"When I had children," I say, because that's what I believe, what I remember at that moment. It's not until later that I'll remember the summer I was 9, the lesson my mother left me with before she set out on her great adventure.

"How did you learn?" my daughter asks.

"I'm not sure," I answer. "I think I just did what I had seen my mother do when I was young."

And then, out of nowhere, I hear myself say: "But you don't bother yourself with cooking."


Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, "Caspian Rain," was published this fall. Her column appears monthly in The Journal.


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