I had never seen a turkey or cranberries before having my first Thanksgiving dinner in the fall of 1975.
Although I love challah stuffing (another American tradition) and make it every Thanksgiving, I often add a touch of my Iranian heritage by making Persian rice and cranberries.
I asked the Iranian/American author Esther Amini to share the story of her Iranian Thanksgiving in the United States.
A Persian Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving always brings Bibi to mind.
Bibi, which in Farsi means Grandma, was what my children and all her other grandchildren called my mother.
She would buy the very largest turkey she could find, tightly stuff it with saffron Persian rice, bake endless apple pies and always made sure there was grilled corn-on-the-cob, bountiful bowls of jumbo sweet potatoes and even cranberry sauce, which was placed smack in the center of the table.
Cranberry sauce was totally unappealing to our Persian palettes and every year was left untouched. However, just like the shank bone on the Passover Seder plate, cranberry sauce had its own place of honor on our Thanksgiving table.
Bibi, born in 1925 and orphaned during infancy, was raised in the anti-Semitic, Islamic city of Mashhad, Iran. Mashhad is considered one of the holiest cities in the Shi’ite Muslim world. Millions made yearly pilgrimages to Mashhad, paying homage to the ninth century martyr, Imam Reza, who is buried there.
In order to escape persecution and even death, Bibi and her Jewish community pretended to be Muslim. Just like the Marranos of Spain, they artfully balanced dual identities. Outdoors, while shopping in the market, Bibi wore the black chador which concealed her face and entire body. In the privacy of her home, she strictly kept kosher, braided challahs and lit Shabbat candles. Each year, months prior to Passover, women gathered in her basement and secretly, by candlelight, baked Matzah. The Jewish men of Mashhad, also posing as Muslim, chanted from the Koran in the public squares alongside their Muslim neighbors. Back home, in the safety of their basements, they taught their young sons the Hebrew language and fervently studied Torah. Street stonings and beatings of Jews were a common occurrence. The Jews lived in constant fear of persecution.
Jewish infants, while still in their cribs, were often match-made by their parents. Bibi explained that this was done to safeguard their children from intermarriage. If a Muslim should happen to knock on their door and ask for their young daughter’s hand in marriage, the parents could truthfully reply, “She is already spoken for.”
As was customary in those days, Bibi, at the age of fourteen was married off to my thirty-four-year-old father. When she was fifteen-years-old, she gave birth to my eldest brother.
So Bibi, steeped in the Moslim culture of chadors, took Thanksgiving very seriously. For her, it was not a secular, national holiday. For Bibi, it stood side-by-side with Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Passover.
Each year, my married brothers and I with my husband were sternly ordered to come to her home with our families to pay homage to her and to Thanksgiving. No one dared to be at an in-law’s home on this holiday. On Thanksgiving, we all belonged to Bibi. Come to think of it, we all belonged to Bibi on Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Chanukah, Passover, Mother’s Day and every other holiday on the calendar.
Traditionally, Baba, which in Farsi means Grandpa, began Thanksgiving by reciting the Ha-Motzi, (blessing over bread), followed by Bibi’s recitation entitled: Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.
She passionately told the story of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and how the American Indians taught the Pilgrims to grow sweet potatoes and corn, (all learned from Mrs. Rochlin, her adored Queens College “English for Foreigners” teacher). We doubled over laughing while poking fun at her intensity. In her broken English, with a thick Persian accent, she became her revered Mrs. Rochlin, teaching us all about the Wampanoag Indians on Plymouth Rock. Given the pitch and passion in her voice, one would have thought the Wampanoags were her forefathers.
I always felt Thanksgiving had a personal meaning for her: having left Iran in 1946 for India, then leaving India in 1947 for America with her husband and two young sons, not on the Mayflower but on the U.S. Marine Adar.
Throughout my life, she’d tell me how America gave her religious freedom. Only here, in America, could she live openly as a Jew. Only in America could she send her children to Hebrew school, shop at kosher butchers and not be afraid of being stoned. Only in America could she be surrounded by multiple synagogues from which to choose. Having grown up behind a black chador, concealing her face and her Judaism, she now no longer needed to hide.
Perhaps somewhere, inside of Bibi, there lived a pilgrim.
Esther Amini’s recently released memoir,
CONCEALED—Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America.
Recipe for Cranberry Polo:
1. Cranberries: 1 package fresh cranberries, cooked according to package, but cut the time by 5 minutes to prevent cranberries from losing their shape.
2. Plain basmati rice: Chello
4 C long-grain basmati rice
12 C water
1/4 C canola oil or another neutral oil
4 t turmeric
6 T salt
3 med red potatoes
Wash the rice in cold water 4-5 times
Cover the rice with warm water and 1 T kosher salt and let it soak for about 1 hour
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Choose a pot with a heavy bottom.
Add the rice and 3 T salt and boil for about 3-5 minutes. Basmati rice is temperamental, and it cooks differently depending on its origin. You must watch it carefully and taste it every minute. Once it is al dente, drain the rice in a colander.
Put the same pot back on the stove, add 1/4 C canola oil (definitely not olive oil) and turmeric.
Take out 2 T of the mixture, and, in a small cup, mix it with two T of warm water and set aside.
Slice the potatoes and arrange them on the bottom of the pot over the oil and turmeric mixture.
Add the rice and shape it gently into a cone, and, with the handle of a wooden spoon, create a hole at its center.
Sprinkle the reserved oil/water/turmeric mixture over the rice. Cover tightly and steam on low heat for about 30 min.
You should be able to hear a sizzling sound from the bottom of the pot, which means the rice and potatoes at the bottom of the pot are forming a crunchy crust. In Persian, this is called tadig.
Gently take the rice out without breaking the grains. Scooped out cranberries from the cranberry sauce and fold them into the rice. Now you have cranberry polo.
Run cold water on the outside of the pot to cool off the pot. Gently, loosen the tadig from the pot with a spatula. Put a plate on top of the pot and invert the pot to release the tadig. Enjoy!
Polo with dried cranberries:
You may replace fresh cranberries with 2 cups dried cranberries. In that case, add them to the pot, allowing them to steam with the rice.