Pilov: A National Dish of Samarkand
Updated: Jun 25, 2022
I visited my mother in February 2022. We had been separated for three years. Israel had closed its borders to stop the spread of COVID 19.
It’s shocking to see one’s aging parent after such a long separation. Maman has diabetes and high blood pressure. The isolation of COVID wrought havoc on her mental well-being as well.
Maman lived alone in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Holon, a vibrant town with busy streets, full of shops and vendors, a mall within walking distance of her apartment, and a beautiful library that offers free movies every Tuesday night.
Whenever she desired a new venue, Maman took a bus to the Carmel Shuk, a bustling, sprawling open market in Tel Aviv, where she never felt alone.
Most days, my mother went to a Moadon, a center for the elderly. There, she learned to paint (waterfalls were her favorite subject), discovered new knitting stitches, made silk flowers, studied English, and participated in exercise classes.
Photograph: My mother knits a scarf for me.
March 10, 2022
The Moadon had holiday parties replete with dancing and music and good food. I remember moving to Persian music on the dance floor with my mother on more than one of these occasions.
Photograph: My mother and her Moadon friends on their trip to Northern Israel in Kfar Vradim.
November 3, 2019
And then, there were the Tiulim, trips within Israel and abroad. The last time I visited my mother, she bought tickets for us for a week-long organized bus trip to northern Israel.
And then everything stopped! The shops, the mall, the library, the Moadon, all closed due to COVID. Streets emptied of people hurrying about, sunning themselves in the park, having coffee with friends, and playing backgammon or chess on benches underneath the shade of trees.
My mother’s life stopped too. She was all alone with nowhere to go and no one to see.
I could hear the change in her voice. She repeated herself, asked the same question numerous times and slept a lot! It seems that every time I called I woke her up.
She forgot to take her meds or overdosed.
My mother, who had fiercely defended her independence, and wanted to stay in her apartment until she died, agreed to move an hour away to a sleepy town that was close to a family member. She also agreed to have a full-time caregiver.
My mother’s caregiver Rahnamou speaks Russian, Uzbeki (a dialect of Persian), and a bit of Hebrew.
Rahnamou left behind two teenage children, her husband, her parents, siblings and friends in Uzbakistan to earn money that she dutifully sends home. Her salary will deplete my mother’s savings fast but will create a better life for Rahnamou’s family.
From behind the closed door of her room, I could hear her talk to her family for hours after dinner.
Photograph: Rahnamou helps my uncle's wife in the kitchen as Maman watches.
February 2, 2022
She had heard about this job from other women in her hometown, who were also caregivers to other elderly people in Israel, each shut away in apartments far away from home. A few lived in the same small town, meeting up rarely in the only nearby strip mall or park. Sometimes they met at a mall that was about a 30-min bus ride away. They didn't know that it was faster to walk there. Like my mother, Rahnamou's world had shrunk to the immediate neighborhood around the apartment amidst a jungle of high-rise apartment buildings.
Every morning, Rahnamou measured my mother’s sugar level in the morning, and gave her insulin shot and pills. She helped Maman dress and took her downstairs to wait for a van that took Maman to her new moadon.
When my mother was gone, Rahnamou braided her own long black hair, put on her earbuds and spoke to her family as she cleaned the apartment, did the laundry, and cooked. She waited for my mother at 3:00 p.m. when the van dropped her off.
The two women then went for their daily walk in the park, stopping every 10 minutes for my mother to rest her aching back. They sat by the water and cracked sunflower seeds and fed the ducks with leftover bread. On weekends, they sat side by side in silence, watching other people’s children play, other families picnic on the grass.
They were two lonely women with little to say to each other, with no common language to communicate.
I also struggled to understand Rohamou’s Persian mixed with Hebrew words and words from other languages.
Once my mother asked her for a “livan” which, in Persian, means a glass teacup. Rahamanou offered her a lemon. My mother said “livan” louder. Rahamanou, obviously dumbfounded, offered the lemon again. This time my mother said “kos” a Hebrew word for cup. I took the teacup out of the cabinet and gave it to my mother. She started laughing, and trying to make Rahamanou feel better, pointed to her private part and said, “and kos in Farsi means this,” and we all laughed out loud, our eyes tearing. We all laughed hysterically from this linguistic acrobatic game we had to play every day.
My mother has forgotten her recipes!
I cooked when I visited, giving her a taste once in a while to see how to adjust the flavors. Being from Shiraz, Iran, we grew up to like everything a bit sour. Every time my mother tasted the ghorme sabzi (herb stew) or khoresh bademjan (eggplant stew), the dishes needed more lime juice. “Torosheesh kameh,” she commented. It needs more sour.
The first Friday I was in Israel I made ghormeh sabzi, an Iranian herb stew that we always had on Friday nights in Iran. My mother had continued the tradition in Israel. Served over basmati rice, this mixture of herbs, meat and lime juice was our comfort food.
As I braised the meat with onions, I commented that there was too much beef for the stew. Rahnamou asked for some of the meat to make a dish from her home. So, we cooked side by side, each thinking of meals we had enjoyed with our extended families.
This is her recipe:
Pilov: A National Dish of Samarkand
* I kilogram of basmati rice-- add salt (1 T or to taste) and soak in hot water
*One onion cut into thin strips
*Two heads of garlic, peeled
* Ten carrots, cut into thin matchstick
* Two pounds of beef cut up into big pieces
* 1 can chickpeas ( or fresh chickpeas, soak overnight)
* 1/2 C Raisins
* 1/2 C barberries (zereshk) optional
* 2 handfuls of cumin seeds
1. Cook the meat in 1/2 inch of hot oil. It will get charred on the outside.
2. Add onion strips to cooking meat with two cloves unpeeled garlic.
3. Add 1/2 of the carrot strips and put them into the bottom of the pan.
4. Add the rest of the carrots and the two heads of garlic
5. Let simmer in the oil
6. Add chickpeas
7. Add raisins and zereshk
8. Add cumin seeds
9. Add cold water until it is barely covered
10. Bring to a boil and keep at a fairly robust boil (more than simmer) for about a half hour
11. Add rice and 2 1/2 t of salt on top so it covers everything
12. Add hot water until there is about a 1/4 to spare on the top — do not put the top back on and make sure it is boiling at a simmer for about 10 minutes
13. Dig air holes. Then make a mound and dig more air holes and then cover with a glass plate for 5 minutes before putting the top back on. Then set the stove to low for 15 minutes
14. When cooked, gently take out the rice and put it onto two plates, on each left plate put the garlic head and then heap the carrot mixture on top.
15. Separate the cooked meat and set aside on a different plate. Cut the meat up into small chunks — two large pieces of meat for each mound of rice
16. Put the meat on top of the mound and serve hot.
17. You will have more stuff left In the pot to make more servings of this later.
I would like to thank Susan Feit for reading and editing this story.