Monday, January 21, 2013

Ice in Heaven and Other Culinary Imponderables

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)?”
And don’t get me started on rice. English speakers make do with only one word for this versatile grain. But such simplicity is far too vague for a Persian cook. In Farsi, rice is berenj when it’s raw, polo when it’s mixed with vegetables, meat, and sometimes nuts and dried fruit. Steamed with butter or oil, it’s called kateh. Cooked in a two-step method, where the rice is first parboiled like pasta then steamed and served with a splash of golden saffron on top, it’s known as chelo. And let’s not forget tadigh, the crispy rice from the bottom of the pot.

Santa Claus melons
Then there are the names of things. The most puzzling one for me is kharbozeh, a melon with sweet, pale flesh and a mottled green and yellow rind. It takes its name from two animals—khar (donkey) and boz (goat). Donkey-goat melon? Trying to figure this one out gets me tangled in a confusion of mental images. Shaped like a football, it looks nothing like a goat. And since it’s easy to cut, peel, and serve, I can’t say it’s “as stubborn as a mule”—like a coconut, for instance.

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.


  1. Yum, now I'm hungry, It all sounds so very tasty!

    1. They are! Especially the ice in heaven. Just love that name...

  2. The little shop with an Iranian proprietor near my home in Rome sells that crystalized sugar with saffron that you display near the tea.

    1. Patricia, that sugar is called nabat, and its very tasty with tea. It's also an excellent remedy for indigestion, in case you ever over-indulge on that wonderful Italian food. :) You just dissolve it in hot water or tea.

  3. Heidi, I'm getting a little miffed with you. Your posts are bringing out the Persian in me. You've already got us to celebrate Noroooz with poetry and pomegranate. We've actually had those Santa Claus melons (how did you do that??). And now the multitude of rice recipes you're clearly forcing me to look up. What next? I draw the line at cardamom. Sorry, can't do the cardamom...

  4. I think "donkey-goat" melon is much more fun to say than Santa Claus melon!