Persian Eggplant Khoresht (Stew)
My Mother Reads to Me
Once again I fly from my home in Norfolk, Va to visit my mother in Holon, Israel for our yearly reunion.
Maman has lived in Israel since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when she was evacuated amid revolutionary chaos with one of the very last El-Al flights from Tehran to Tel Aviv. She lived in Israel with my father and four siblings, including my three-year-old sister, for a while.
But, she has slowly become more isolated. My two brothers and a sister moved to the United States. Maman’s mother and three brothers passed away. My dad died. And Maman has not been able to make friends.
Although she is only 15 years older than me, her firstborn child, we have little to talk about. Maman was forced into marriage to a man she had never met and was sent to Shiraz, a city far away from her hometown in Hamedan when she was thirteen years old.
Maman wasn’t allowed to finish her elementary school education. I am lucky to have multiple degrees in higher education—partly thanks to her insistence and encouragement, partly because I didn’t want to be my mother.
Cucumbers pour over bins and stalls in every block; dill, garden cress, mint and tarragon are fragrant, plentiful and inexpensive. They are piled in disorganized pyramids. White peaches, sour cherries, plums and nectarines compete for space in small shops overflowing with fresh produce.
But Maman has to visit numerous places. She buys watermelon from one, basil from another, fava beans from a third place.
She gets in line with other Iranians outside the smallest shop to buy Persian cress, miniature peppery leaves, to be delivered fresh from the farm. She knows I love its burning sensation on my tongue, reminiscent of the country I left behind some 45 years ago, July 4th, 1975, when I boarded Iran Air for New York City. We have been together, Maman and I, now for over two weeks—nonstop. She refuses to go to the moadon, the elderly recreation center.
“You here now. They here every day. I go some other time,” she keeps telling me even when I try to encourage her to go since I need time alone to read, to write. I need my solitude. She needs her friends. Tomorrow is the holiday of Shevout, the celebration of the fecundity of the Holy Land, of milk and honey. Today I am with her. Tomorrow I’ll visit a friend, I decide.
“Maman, I won’t be here tomorrow and the day after. I’ll spend the night with my friend, Gail,” I tell her. “Okay,” she says absentmindedly. “I have to buy eggplants and tomatoes.”
We wander around the streets again. Or I wander because she knows the landscape, the maze of parks and backstreets. We buy fresh meat. She rarely buys red meat.
“Do you think this eggplant is any good?” she asks for my opinion. I am intoxicated with the fragrance of fruits and vegetables. Why are they so sterile in the U.S.? Maybe fruits and vegetables are weary of their long trips from across the country, across the world by the time they appear in American grocery stores, sometimes flavorless and limp. “They all look great to me,” I tell her. She complains that the eggplants are not as fresh as they used to be. Their purple-black skin shines just fine in my opinion. We pile our city harvest in Maman’s blue agalah and head home. “I make eggplant stew for you! Your favorite; no?” “Maman, don’t make it for me. I’ll spend tomorrow night with Gail. You remember; right?”
“Okay,” she mumbles, dragging her feet as we walk in the hot afternoon sun. The wheels of her agalah, filled with a feast in the making, bumps against the stairs leading to the park, the twin towers of her condo shine bright behind a playground.
The day after, I sit in the fake maroon leather sofa in her living room, reading a book about life in North Korea, appalled at a government that starves its people.
Gail will pick me up later to spend the night at her house. Maman, silently, grates tomatoes, braises meat, fries eggplants and onions. “We’ll go to the park for a picnic,” she says. I am going over Gail’s, I almost say, but I eat my words. Instead, I call my friend and cancel the sleepover.
My parents never allowed sleepovers when I lived in Iran. Never mind that I am in my mid-60s now. No sleepover! I read as my mother combines oil and turmeric in a pot, waits until it is hot before arranging potato slices on top; then she adds the half-cooked basmati rice, covers the pot and let the rice steam. I read about the North Koreans, skin and bones, endangering their lives to cross the river to China. I feel a bit imprisoned myself, but definitely well-fed. Maman is a great cook. When the food is ready, Maman puts newspapers at the bottom of her agalah as insulation. Then she lowers pots of eggplant stew and rice and secures them at the bottom of her newly-bought blue agalah.
She washes tarragon, mint and basil, wraps the herbs in a clean towel, and carefully arranges the package on top of the pots. A big bottle of water goes next, then yellow and sour cherries, cucumbers, salt and pepper.
Then she makes room for a children's book on top. “Are you ready?” she asks. “Yes, Maman,” I say, putting a marker inside the book, worried about the young Korean woman who returns home from China, a bit too plump not to be noticed by the North Korean security, to help her mother.
“Sunscreen? Sunglasses? Hat? A hot day!” my mother says, as usual not using verbs, eating the last sound of each word. She uses verbs as one-word commands. “Tokhloo,” I have heard her say to her grandchildren, “Eat!”
“Yes, Maman. Let me help you with the agalah.” “Na’a dear— heavy—your injured knee.” Maman leads the way to my favorite park in Holon. Green spaces are mandatory in each neighborhood to allow people to escape their cramp apartments. We enter through a fairyland landscape. Little creatures from a story I don’t know perch atop giant stone mushrooms. Frogs from another story stare from underneath the bushes.
We walk slowly toward a bench underneath the shade of a tree. Maman isn’t happy with the location.
“Sit; rest,” she demands. “Be back!”
She walks slowly, dragging her worn black sneakers on the pavement, returning after a few minutes without the agalah. “... a better place,” she motions with her hand. I follow. This time we sit underneath a flowering tree, facing tall whimsical sculptures of hair braids sprouting out of the greenery underneath. The colorful bows that hold the ends together spin in the breeze—gently. I used to wear two braids, one on each shoulder, but never bows.
"Sit!” Maman points to a spot next to her.
Retrieving the cherries from the agalah. She says, “Bokhor! Eat!”
“...and you, Maman? Eat something, too,” I say.
Maman munches on a cucumber. “Too much sugar in cherries—bad for diabetes,” she adds.
We sit in silence for a little while, finishing our snacks.
I walk to the garbage can to throw away the trash. When I return, she is waiting for me with a book of fairytales.
“Beshin,” she beckons me to sit closer to her. She opens the large children’s fairytale book and reads.
Maman never read to me when I was a child. There were no books in our house in those years. In poverty, living in the Jewish Quarter of Shiraz, books were frivolous, expensive. So were crayons, paper, balls, and dolls.
The first books I read were those I rented from a man who sold school supplies near my high school.
I wasn’t introduced to prose literature at school. Later, I would choose to study western literature, mostly British and American, in college. After a few lines, Maman stops reading in Hebrew, and translates every word into Persian—just to make sure that I understand the story. The words for fairy creatures and dragon she no longer remembers in Persian. Instead, she shows me their pictures.
She finishes with the story of a smart girl who knew all the correct answers to the riddles. She looks at me and smiles. She bends over and kisses me on my forehead. We look at the pictures again.
Now I won’t be able to write that I have never been read to. “Let’s go,” Maman returns the book to the agalah.
“... another park!” We walk on the hot sidewalk to a much larger but faraway park. Underneath the shade of every single tree families picnic with extended family and friends. The aroma or kabob on portable BBQ ovens fills the air. Noisily, people put salads, bread and drinks on picnic tables or clothes on the ground.
Children run around and throw water at each other—a custom for this holiday, my mother tells me. Her eyes follow the children and teenagers goofing around and laughing. She smiles. That’s the reason we are here now. The place is lively; she feels as if she is a part of these large family celebrations even though there are just the two of us—and when I am not visiting—just her, an island in the sea of laughing jubilant faces.
We take the pots out of the agalah. Maman serves us both healthy portions of basmati rice, fried potato tadig from the bottom, and khoresh bamejan, tomato and eggplant stew. I eat each spoonful with a few springs of herbs, the Iranian way. We finish our water; we finish the rest of the fruit. “Bokhor,” she tells me in Persian.
“Siram,” I tell her that I am full.
“Tokhloo,” she says, “eat” in Hebrew.
“Da’ye,” Enough! I use my little knowledge of Hebrew.
“Eat; eat,” she finally says in English. “No like my food?” I take the paper plate and pile up the rice, the stew and herbs and add another potato. I will eat this one for the starving people of North Korea.
My mother smiles and piles up her plate, too. I will deal with the extra weight when I return to the States. After eating all the forbidden food, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, and fruit, Maman will deal with her high blood sugar after I leave.
We finally clean up and load up the agalah. Holding hands, we walk the long way back to her apartment.
On these last days together, neither one of us knows when and if we will see each other again. We just enjoy the moment.
Khoresht Bademjan: Persian Eggplant Stew
3 med eggplants, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 large can of crushed tomatoes or an equal amount of fresh chopped tomatoes
I large onion sliced
3 cloves garlic
1 Ib stew beef, or 2 lamb shanks, or 1 cut-up chicken
5-6 small potatoes, cut in half
kosher salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, turmeric to taste
1/4 c oil
Salt eggplant slices with kosher salt and let stand in a colander for 20 min; pat them dry, and fry. I usually dip each slice in oil and broil in the oven. Otherwise, eggplants will absorb too much oil.
In a large pot, braise the meat (chicken, beef or lamb) with sliced onions and turmeric until tender. You may add water sparingly, maybe 1/4 cup.
Add eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, salt, pepper. You don't need to add salt if you are using canned tomatoes.
Iranians often add potatoes to this dish as well. I usually don't use potatoes in my khoresht. You may add baby potatoes or slices potatoes directly to the sauce.
Simmer for about 30 min. Mash the garlic in the sauce. You may allow the eggplant slices to fall apart in the stew or take them out earlier to keep them intact.
Eat over Chelo, steamed basmati rice. The recipe for Chelo is posted under Corned Beef and Kalam Polo. You may use sliced potatoes for tadig.