|Cha'i por rang|
By Heidi Noroozy
When I first began learning Farsi, my “lessons” often focused on the names of food and their methods of preparation. This is because I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, helping my Iranian mother-in-law prepare Persian meals. She’d teach me words in her language, while I’d supply the English equivalents. After a time, our conversations sounded like a form of pidgin, with comments like, “Heidi-joon, water joosh amad!” (“The water is boiling”—a signal for me to add the rinsed and soaked rice for making chelo.) Learning another language means discovering a new way of thinking, and the art of cooking can be an adventure in cross-cultural communication.
Take tea, one of the major food groups in Persian cuisine. In English, we describe how we like to drink this beverage in terms of taste. Tea is either strong or weak. But to an Iranian, color is paramount. “Do you like your cha’i por rang (with color)?” a hostess may ask, “or kam rang (with little color)?”
|Santa Claus melons|
The English equivalent is no more enlightening: Santa Claus melon. At least that’s what the vendors at my local farmer’s market call it. This moniker gets me wondering what St. Nick really does in the off-season. Raise melons in his North Pole greenhouse?
One of my favorite regional dishes is a garlicky appetizer from Gilan Province on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. To prepare it, you sauté some onions and lots and lots of garlic with tomatoes and grilled eggplant. Then you add some eggs and whisk it all together on the stove until you have a pan of vegetable-packed (and very garlicky) scrambled eggs. It’s called mirza ghasemi, a name that refers to a person called Prince Ghasem. “Mirza” is an aristocratic title that dates back to the 19th-century Qajar dynasty. I haven’t a clue who Ghasem was, or even if he was a prince, since the title is also used to show respect for a prominent statesman or scholar, just as Hajji (someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca) can refer to any older man, whether or not he actually went on the Hajj. Perhaps Ghasem was a chef of such admirable skill his name became associated with Gilan’s most beloved dish. Or maybe he was a distinguished academic with a special fondness for eggplant, tomatoes, and garlic.
I can’t end a post on unusual culinary names without mentioning dessert. In this category, we have cookies called zabon (tongue) and gush-e fil (elephant’s ears), both flaky pastries made with lots of butter and a sugary glaze. Or bahmieh, a fried pastry, drenched in date syrup, which is named after a vegetable (okra).
|Ice in Heaven|
Credit: Sholeh (Flikr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Another delightful Persian confection is yakh dar behesht, or Ice in Heaven, a creamy pudding made of wheat or rice starch, milk, and sugar, flavored with cardamom and rose water. Usually it’s served in a soft, custardy form, which makes me wonder how it got such a frigid name. But some recipes call for a lot of starch, giving the dessert a chewy texture, much like Turkish Delight, so that it’s firm enough to be cut into individual, sugar-dusted “ice” cubes.
I may spend a lot of time pondering the origins of these culinary names, but there’s no mystery about how the dishes taste. Garlicky, refreshing, or sweet, they are all delicious enough to be served in heaven.