My grandmother, hair covered in a white calico kerchief, squats in the common space of our multi-generational home. She makes a well in the middle of the flour piled on a plastic cloth, slowly adds water and salt and mixes until she knows the mixture has the right consistency.
Never a recipe in sight, she kneads the dough, rolls it flat, folds it a few times, and with her left hand firmly on the dough, she cuts it into long strands of noodles with a sharp knife quickly and efficiently.
Making Reshte, fresh thick noodles from scratch, is her annual ritual.
And this is one of my most vivid memories of my paternal grandmother, Tavous. We called her Khanombozorg, the grand lady.
Khanombozorg was nine years old when she was married off for the first time. This accepted custom allowed mothers-in-law to raise and train their daughters-in-law to their own specification: to cook, clean and take care of the extended family. My little grandmother ran away courageously whenever she could, finding her way to her mother, Bibi Zaghi.
Photograph: Grandmother Tavous: Khanombozorg
(Tavous’ father had been murdered in front of his shop by an anti-semitic official. My father would be named after him, Esghel.)
Exasperated, Tavous' mother-in-law sent the new bride home, convincing the groom to divorce the stubborn girl. I don’t wonder from whom I inherited the stubborn genes that prompted me to escape my home many years later.
Tavous remained with Bibi Zaghi, making money through mending, spinning wool and knitting. When she was 15 years old-- an old-maid--my grandfather, Mola Meir Moshe Dayanim, who had lost his first wife in childbirth and needed a strong young woman to take care of his young children, married Tavous.
My grandmother was almost the same age as her oldest step-son. She was content, however. She had married a well-respected, even if poor, dayan and community leader. She gave birth to eight children and lost her husband when she was just 38 years old. She never married again.
Photograph: Bibi Zaghi Ghalgeer
My grandmother didn’t learn to read and write, but she was one of the wisest people I have ever known. She had tremendous knowledge of home remedies and medicinal herbs. The dark brown tea she made with roots, seeds and leaves of various shrubs was a miraculous remedy for colds and high fever. Called Jooshondeh, the tea was brutally bitter even when mixed with sugar, but it always worked.
She soaked the bark of a tree found in the desert outside Shiraz and rubbed it on bruised limbs, another miraculous release from pain and bruising!
Photograph: Mola Meir Moshe Dayanim
On the day she made Ash Reshte, my grandmother summoned her four daughters. Two had been married off before puberty. One was married off when in high school. The youngest was attending medical school and was often too busy to join us. The granddaughters— myself included—were always there to help out.
Khanombozorg (R) and Khatoon Jan
Khanombozorg's sisters, Khatoon Jan and Khanom came to celebrate. Bibi Zaghi came early and stayed all day. This was a multigenerational effort, a gathering of women: those who were purely homemakers and bearers of children, and those who would have the benefit of advanced education, jobs outside the home, and travels abroad.
My aunts gathered around their mother to negotiate the ingredients for Ash Reshte, to chat, to get the waterpipe going with hot coals and home-cured tobacco.
My mother, also married before puberty, rushed back and forth to entertain, to bring glass cups of tea and romaine lettuce leaves to be dipped in torshi, pickled green almonds, wild garlic and plumbs.
Khanombozorg (R) and Khanom
Sofreh, technically the cloth on which we ate our meals on the floor, also meant a spread, the generous sharing of food. Sofreh was often given if the nazr came to fruition (a nazr was a private vow, a contract with G-d).
Khanombozorg made a nazr once a year. If someone was sick, she vowed to throw a Sofreh after the loved one’s recovery. Sofreh was the acknowledgment of G-d’s generosity, the almighty’s positive response to a request for health, for averting a tragedy, or for granting a wish. It was also an occasion for women to get together and strengthen their bond.
When the noodles were cut, Khanombozorg dusted them with flour, put them on a bronze tray and asked for the tray to be taken outside and left under the sun to dry as we worked on the rest of the ingredients.
We all attacked mounds of herbs, dill, cilantro, tarragon and chives; we went through trays of red beans and black-eyed peas, taking out tiny pebbles; we washed the beans numerous times; we sliced a mound of onions and fried them until caramelized. We, all women, were one entity, with Khanombozorg as our director and leader.
Everything was ready for making Ash Reshte now. Orders were given rapidly: bring the water to boil, add beans and herbs; check to make sure they are soft, add noodles for just a few minutes, spread in trays; cover the top with caramelized onions.
Soon, the entire extended family would be there, men included. The patriarchs were served first!
We all enjoyed bowls of Ash Reshte as we chatted and praised G-d for the benevolence the almighty had shown toward the person for whom the nazr was intended.
My recipe, a favorite of my husband, children and grandchildren, is a variation of my grandmother's ancient recipe. My grandson has requested it for his bar mitzvah!
* 5 quarts clear chicken soup (all fat removed) or water, brought to boil in a large pot
* 2 bunches each of dill, cilantro and parsley, washed thoroughly, tough stems removed and chopped
* 5 large onions sliced thinly and fried with 1/4 of neutral oil (not olive) and 1 t turmeric.
* 4 turnips, peeled and cut into cubes.
* 1 box of fettuccini, cooked al-dente in salted water and drained.
* 1 bag of lentils, cleaned and rinsed. Lentils are great because they cook fast.
At least among Shiraz Jews, lentils are a sign of mourning. Therefore, for a nazr, it was rarely used.)
Bring the water or soup to a rapid boil, add salt and pepper to taste. I prefer using coarse black pepper. I like mine peppery. Add lentils and herbs and cook until lentils are almost done. Lentils cook fast, about 15 minutes. Then add turnips and cook until done, another 15 minutes.
Add half of caramelized onions and mix.
Serve in bowls, covering the Reshte with plenty of caramelized onions
You may use Iranian Reshte, which is thinner than Reshte my grandmother made.
Here is a link to making homemade Reshte noodles.