Irresistible Persian Comfort Food From Dina Nayeri's Refuge
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Refuge resonates with a ring of truth. Dina Nayeri reveals her own story, her own experience as an expatriate, her own insight into the life of Iranian refugees seeking shelter in Europe, and all under the wispy veil of two words, inserted in a tiny font, between the title and her name: ‘a novel.’
In 1987, Bahman Hamidi watched his country’s descent into a long, slow madness and realised that his wife’s Christian faith and medical career made her a target for the moral police. ‘I will give up my children,’ he decided, ‘so they can leave this place.’ He arranged to have Pari and his two children, Niloo, 8, and Kian, 4, smuggled out of Iran. Bahman remained behind, unable to forsake his home, his identity, his dental practice or, perhaps most significantly, his source of opium.
Now, in 2009, he still clings to aging photographs of his son and daughter. Some date from the time when they ‘relied on him for every small joy’ and more from the four brief visits he has made to see them in the twenty-two intervening years, finding in each successive encounter that they were less and less able to fathom each other. He is rooted but alone while his family drifts, anchorless, away from him.
Pari, meanwhile, has successfully hauled her children across the hurdles of refugee status in Europe to make a life in America. Niloo has gone to Yale, become an anthropologist and married a solid, flawless European man. She has been disciplined, has toiled endlessly to conform, to fit in, to be in every way unobjectionable. But she can never relax.
My nightmares involved my classmates exposing me for this or that. I was afraid they would find out that I had missed an entire decade of American music, that I was from that country that forces women into drabness, that I knew only about a quarter of their slang. I was afraid they’d find out I was afraid. My antidote to the fear was math...
Niloo carries a well-stocked back pack at all times. She travels equipped with a tin-opener and a package of salt for fear that the world will, once again, be tugged from underneath her feet.
The parallel struggle for Bahman and Niloo is to realise that Home is more about people than place.
Dina Nayeri’s writing struck me at first as being almost too perfect. Her precise and careful prose felt like being invited to someone’s home for dinner and being served food that was haute cuisine, both in style and portion size. It was undeniably good but restricted somehow. Refuge opens with a tone that is as guarded and eager to impress as any asylum seeker. Niloo’s pride in escaping the condition of refugee is placed at the forefront – ineffectively masking the inescapable shame that the refugee, the homeless person, carries in their heart, or perhaps in their back pack.
She’s just a village girl, a twiggy kid under a boulder of a pack, finally turned American. Hearty and iron-legged, she doesn’t rely on fragile genetic adornments like talent or brains. The thing she has is stamina...
Robert Frost wrote, ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.’ As Refuge progresses, so too does the build up of emotion and the sense of the personal. Nayeri lets her guard down and the reader in. There can be little doubt that her tears, and her fears, were poured into this book. By the closing pages, I found that my chest had tightened and as my head was nodding in respect. This novel reads like a true story, because it is. Neither Niloo nor her father are extraordinary people and, sadly, nor is theirs an extraordinary situation. Refuge is admirable in its restraint, its lack of melodrama and its honest representation of what is, for millions of dispossessed people, normal life.
Nayeri brings the reality home with something we all understand: food.
In Refuge, the symbolism of food begins with the primal. Bahman is a dentist. Niloo is an anthropologist who studies the changes to human teeth throughout history. People might pretend to be all sorts of things, educated, cared for, nourished, or not. Bahman and Niloo both know how to read the truth in the teeth. What’s more, the teeth are a primary interface between the world outside and our inner selves.
In Farsi, there’s an expression of longing, my teeth itch for you. It covers many animal urges. Lovers say it to each other. Parents say it to especially delicious toddlers. Kian used to get it constantly as a kid, his fleshy balloon cheeks always on the verge of being chomped by some adult’s waiting maw. Siavash said it once to a leg of lamb he was barbecuing.
While Bahman sweetens his lonely existence with a constant supply of cakes and sugar, his son Kian, ‘with a taste for the unknowable and the delicious,’ becomes a chef, studying ‘how to make teeth itch for new tastes.’ These two find a bond, a shared poetry, in food when the adult Kian cooks a feast for his father.
He toasted walnuts, sweated eggplants, hand-crushed garlic, and picked fresh pistachios out of their double shells...Baba was the happiest I had seen him.
For Niloo, food is more complicated. It is perhaps easier to not care too much about food than to allow the insatiable longing for the flavours of home. She is wary of joining fellow refugees in ‘feeding off each other’s misery.’ She avoids thoughts of her lamb stew with fenugreek and coriander, her favourite Persian dish, focussing instead on what she has gained.
"canned peas are amazing,” she says which is true. She’s loved them since she first tasted them at the refugee hostel outside Rome, where she ate them warmed and salted, or smashed into a piece of bread from lunch, every Saturday afternoon in the courtyard while reading her first English storybooks. Canned peas taste like Europe and no amount of prosperity will change that for her.
Later, her grandmother sends a jar of advieh, the spice mix made once a year by the village women.
Usually they grind over thirty spices in the mix, all from leaves and roots and nuts, nothing preserved or bought –turmeric root and cumin seeds, naturally, but also coriander, ground teas and flower petals, onion, garlic, maybe ginger, a fistful of fenugreek and pinches of pepper. Each year the quality and the ratios change, maybe even one or two key ingredients, so that over a decade the taste and smell transform, but year by year they only adjust, like a lover aging.
Everything is there in that list of ingredients, the scents and tastes of her grandmother’s kitchen, the time they have lost and the love. It is a heady mix and, for Niloo, an irresistible one. She opens her heart to the tastes of home.
My knowledge of the food of Niloo’s homeland is sparse and nothing, as Nayeri puts it, ‘can match the taste of a meal at her grandmother’s table, the herbs picked from her garden, the lamb butchered outside her door, the spices ground by her friends.’
I can only take my lead from Niloo’s suggestions. Some canned peas seem inevitable and some labneh, a strained yogurt I love to eat. I have devised a spice mix, nothing to compare with Grandmother Hamidi’s advieh, but with plenty of turmeric since ‘adding turmeric makes a thing Persian.’ All this is doused in oil and mopped up with an incredibly fast and easy flatbread because, as Kian tells his Baba, ‘Ei Baba, you have to do it with the bread. It’s more delicious.’
Serves two, with leftovers.
For the labneh:
500g thick, Greek-style yogurt
1 Tbsp beetroot powder, optional.
For the crushed peas:
Tin of peas
Pinch of salt.
For the advieh:
1 oz hazelnuts
2 tsp sesame seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp freshly grated or ground turmeric
1 tsp dried rose petals
½ tsp sumac.
For the bread:
160g self-raising white flour
¼ tsp salt
100 mls water.
First, ideally a day in advance, make the labneh. Place a nylon sieve over a bowl and line it with a double layer of muslin or a finely woven tea towel.
Pour the yogurt into the muslin. Fold the muslin over the top and allow to drain for at least 6 hours in the fridge.
The labneh is now ready to eat. For added flair, scoop a dessert spoonful of labneh into the palm of your hand, shape it into a ball and then roll it in some beetroot powder. It’s a messy business but worth it. The sweet flavour of the beetroot works a treat and looks very pretty on the plate.
Next, drain the peas. Add a pinch of salt and mash them with a fork.
To make the advieh, toast the nuts and seeds in a hot, dry frying pan, just until they release a warm, exotic aroma. Add all the ingredients to a pestle and mortar and pound to a rough, rubble. You can use a spice grinder but be careful not to reduce the mix to a paste.
Make the bread at the last possible minute. Use your hands to mix the ingredients together to form a soft pliable dough.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces and roll each piece into a circle roughly the size of a side plate. Place the bread, one at a time, on a hot pan and cook, on one side only, until quite charred. Bend the bread, while still hot, around the handle of a wooden spoon. It will be fixed in shape by the time the next bread is fried.
Arrange the bread, a couple of labneh balls, a scoop of crushed peas and a heaped teaspoonful of the spice mix on each plate. Douse generously with good olive oil.
Should you choose to enjoy a glass of wine on the side, Niloo’s choice, to my surprise is a bottle of that stalwart of my student parties, Valpolicella:
A strangely Iranian flavour, this wine like cherries from her family’s orchard. Baba would like it.