In Iran, lunch is the main meal of the day, a time when family and friends gather to eat a big shared meal usually followed by an afternoon siesta. The following piece describes a typical lunch on our family farm, in the North-West of Iran.
The clock strikes 1pm. My auntie runs in from the kitchen and starts clearing the floor of cushions, children’s toys, and the used plates containing remnants of mid-morning snacks. A plate of sour cherry stones here, a handful of empty rosewater nougat wrappers there. Crumbs from pistachio shells everywhere. She sighs at the mess and scolds the children. “Do I have to do everything?” she huffs, unfolding the red and blue sofreh, a huge patterned tablecloth, on the living room floor.
The air is dense. Humid. A typical mid-summer on my family’s small rice farm, near the Caspian Sea in the Northwest of Iran. The air is infused with the sweet smell of smoky aubergines sizzling with garlic wafting in from the kitchen. It’s the kind of cloying smell that stays in your hair, long after you have finished your meal.
I walk into the kitchen to see if I can make myself useful. My grandmother is hovering over the stove where three pots of all shapes and sizes are ferociously bubbling away, making the pot lids rattle like mini volcanoes about to erupt. My cousin is leaning over the rice cooker trying to work out if the rice is ready. She carefully prises the lid off the rice cooker only to be overwhelmed by torrents of hot steam which rush up to her face, knocking her backwards. She slams the lid back down with a shriek. Her audience in the kitchen bursts out laughing.
I walk over to open a kitchen window for some fresh air. “What’s wrong with you people, it’s like an oven in here,” I complain. The audience in the kitchen laugh again. They know better than me that the air
outside is just as hot, just as dense, just as heavy as in the kitchen. Sighing, I turn my attention instead to the orchard, my eyes slowly falling one-by-one on the kiwi trees, the fig trees, the walnut trees, the pomegranate trees and the plum trees that surround the house. I see my uncle in the middle distance, squatting on the side of the rice paddy, examining shoots of rice grains in the palms of his hands. I stick my head out of the window and shout, “Uncle! Lunch is ready!”
I pick up a bowl of salad to carry back to the living room, nibbling on a piece of cucumber I steal from bowl. The TV is on. Far, far too loud. It is blaring out an Iranian version of Come Dine With Me to a room of people, none of whom as far as I can make out are actually watching TV. Plates and cutlery clash in the kitchen. My youngest cousin, a 2-year-old toddler, shrieks as he runs around the living room trying to escape the tickling claws of his older sibling. My sister rolls her eyes and covers her ears in disgust. The ceiling fan rhythmically clicks and spins. An uncle starts singing an old Hindi song to himself. It makes his wife laugh.
One by one, dishes are hurried out of the kitchen. A platter of fresh herbs from the garden: coriander, tarragon, chives, parsley, and basil, assembled around a handful of crimson radishes. A dish of yoghurt so creamy from being strained within an inch of its life that you could spread it like butter on toast. A mound of rice, shaped like a cake, with a sunset-coloured saffron crust. Picked garlic. Pickled aubergines. Pickled gherkins.
Finally an assortment of rowdy family members begin assembling around the sofreh, seated in a variety of cross-legged positions. The first stew comes out, Baghalee Ghatogh, my favourite: a borlotti bean, dill and egg stew made even more delicious by the fact that each ingredient came straight from out farm. Others dishes follow in quick succession: Gheimeh Badinjaan, lamb with split peas, dried limes and aubergines, Aloo Mosamma, chicken with plums and apricots. Family members gather around the sofreh in anticipation and all I can hear are a cacophony of chattering of voices, all talking at the same time, all talking over each other. CRASH. Peels of laughter from the women in the kitchen as someone drops a serving plate. My dad yells, “Don’t forget the salt!”
My cousin begins to dress the salad lightly tossing the leaves with two large spoons. The TV is switched off. Tall glasses of dough, a minty, salty, yoghurt drink are handed out and squeezed onto the corners of the sofreh. My Mum dabs beads of sweat that have gathered on her forehead with a tissue, “It’s so hot” she exclaims, “Can’t someone turn up the fan?” Small bowls of olives, marinated in a walnut and pomegranate sauce are neatly slotted into the remaining gaps between plates.
My grandfather rolls up his sleeves, picks up a serving spoon and cracks open the saffron-infused rice crust that we call the tahdig. To Iranians, the crunch of tahdig breaking is as satisfying as the sound of tapping open the perfect crust of a creme brulee. He slices a triangular piece of rice cake and holds it, hovering, over the table. The crowd grows quiet, eyeing up the slice of perfectly fluffy rice with steam impatiently rising from it.
My dad, the guest of honour from abroad, holds out his plate for the first slice.
The feasting begins.