Monday, November 1, 2010

Chai-ye Arooz

When I married my Tehran-born husband many years ago, it never occurred to me that I wasn’t just marrying the love of my life. I was joining an enormous extended Iranian family (100 people attended our belated wedding reception in Tehran—and that was only the “close” relatives). When my in-laws came to visit several years later, and stayed for six months, I’d learned enough about this family-centered culture to work myself into total panic. What would they think of me, an American woman who’d married their only son? A daughter-in-law who didn’t speak their language or share their religion?

As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry. We got along famously from the start. It helped that I was eager to learn everything they could teach me about their world. I learned how to cook a proper chelo (steamed rice) without burning the crusty layer on the bottom of the pot. To tell the difference between an Isfahani carpet and a Tabrizi. I practiced Farsi until I could converse comfortably with family members so they wouldn’t feel bad about leaving me out. By the time my in-laws went back to Iran, we all cried at the airport.

“You are our arooz,” they told me. Our son’s bride.

It wasn’t until my first trip to Iran five years later that I understood what that word really meant. Determined to figure out what responsibilities were expected of me, I watched my sister-in-law every time we went to visit her husband’s family. From the moment we walked in the door, she was busy organizing everything: heaping rice onto platters and dishing stew into bowls. And late at night when we were ready to leave, tired and bursting with too much good food, she’d stay behind to help with the cleaning up.

Fine, I thought. I can do that. So I set about trying to make myself useful around the house. At least I tried to.

The thing was, no one would let me lift a finger. Sure, I was allowed to clear the table after meals. Everyone pitched in on that task, men and women alike. But after carrying the platters of leftover rice and kebabs from table to kitchen, I’d reach for an apron and join my mother-in-law at the sink for washing up.

“You look tired,” she’d say. “Why don’t you go watch CNN?”

When I tried to help my sister-in-law prepare chicken for the noon meal, she gave me a pitying look. “Have you ever cleaned a chicken with the beak and feet still attached?”

I had to admit that I hadn’t, but how hard could it be? At least the feathers had already been plucked.

“You’re our arooz,” my in-laws would repeat. “There is no difference between you and our natural daughters.” And yet they still treated me more like an honored guest than a member of the family.

“Don’t listen to them,” my husband advised. “Just do what you want.”

So when relatives dropped by one evening for a visit, I left my in-laws to their elaborate Persian greeting ritual, slipped into the kitchen, and set about making the tea. There is an art to this, but I’d been watching carefully for days. First you pour just the right amount of strong brew into sparkling glasses then dilute it with hot water from the samovar to achieve the proper color. For good Iranian tea should not be either too por rang (dark) or too kam rang (light).

The reaction when I appeared with the tray was explosive. One uncle leaped to his feet and tried to take the tray from me, a look of consternation on his face. The foreign guest serving the tea? What was my mother-in-law thinking? The lady herself simply sat in her chair and nodded her approval. The ice was broken.

Now, whenever I’m in Tehran, everyone accepts that making and serving tea is my special job. After all, as Iranians like to say: chai-ye arooz—tea served by the arooz—always tastes best.


  1. Heidi, what a lovely story. How wonderful to find your special niche in your family.

  2. I know it’s not exactly about marriage, but I just couldn’t pass on the topic of tea. Having grown up with the Tatars, I’m a tea addict, a tea fanatic, and a tea collector  On a typical day, you can find at least two dozen different teas in my house. I’m a lazy tea addict though – I usually brew my tea from a paper bag. But my father has his own tea-brewing ritual, his own mix, a ceramic pot (which has to be heated before you put the leaves in), a big cushiony wrapper to put on to keep the heat in – and the whole nine yards!

  3. Thanks, Patricia. I'm not sure that tea server is the most prestigious position, but it is definitely a conversation starter at parties whenever I do it.

    Lina, you are a woman after my own heart! I have an entire cupboard of tea, and I'm quite the impulse buyer. My husband only will drink black tea, though, which we brew in a kind of makeshift samovar on the stove. The teapot sits on top of the kettle, so it heats up along with the water.

  4. Really cute story. It's so nice to see your husband's family accepting you fully. :) I am a tea addict too. Have you gals read No. 1 Ladies Detective series novels by Alexander McCall Smith?? Besides solving mysteries and delving into insightful discussions about human nature, all they drink and talk about is red bush tea. :) Reading those stories along with my own cup o' tea is my idea of a good evening. You can find out more about the books here-

  5. I haven't read his books, Lavanya, but I have heard that they are very good. I love red bush tea - in fact, after reading your post, I have to go brew myself a cup. Power of suggestion!

  6. Does your sister in-law really clean chickens with their beaks and feet still attached? Or was that her way of getting you out of the kitchen? ;)

  7. What a wonderful way to find your place in the family!

  8. Supriya, I'm sure it was a little of both. :) She buys her chicken at the supermarket, just like we do here, but my mother-in-law prefers the traditional meydoon, like a farmer's market, where the chicken is sold intact (only the feathers removed). That incident was at my in-laws' house.

    Alli, I'm still finding my place in the family. It's always interesting to see who treats me as a family member and who still sees me as an honored foreign guest. The extended family is a bit confused about my role - they're not used to having foreigners in the family. :)

  9. You can buy chickens with feet and beaks attached here in Italy at the supermarket, but you can also get them packaged in pieces like those available in America. I bought a duck with head and feet attached in August. It was hard to cut it up.

  10. I never noticed chickens sold intact when I lived in Europe, but I agree that they are not easy to cut up. And in Iran the internal organs are still attached, not supplied in those handy little bags, stuffed inside the bird, like they are here in the U.S.

  11. So Heidi, what's the appeal of the intact chicken? And really, if I were your sister in-law, that would be the first job I'd be passing off!

  12. Supriya, the appeal is the price, I think. Much cheaper to buy an intact chicken at the traditional market than a nicely packaged one at the supermarket. Iran has very few supermarkets of the type we'd recognize in the west. An Iranian "Super" is a closet-sized store that differs from other stores only in that it sells more than one item at a time. Now how did I get off on that tangent?