Pomegranates + Walnuts
Even before I became a chef,
I’ve always thought of food as something everyone can understand: a universal language. Through different ingredients, preparations, dishes, we are able to access more than just aromas and flavors; we access history and density of the ingredient, and chef. Because of this, food grants me both the artistic ability and burden of telling the stories that thousands of years of developing culture have created. When I cook for an event or host a dinner, food, for me, is like sharing slices of my past, my memories, my parent’s past, and my culture.
I, for example, am a bowl full of pomegranates and walnuts. To explain, we go back to the 1970’s.
My mother and father first met when they were working at the Canadian Embassy in Iran together. My mother had just been widowed; her husband had died from substance abuse the year prior, and her daughter was taken from her by her late husband's brother due to the backwards custody laws at the time (which did not allow single mothers to raise their own children). She often says that meeting my father saved her life. They dated in Iran for almost 4 years. While they were dating, my Father helped her look for her then, 2 year old daughter.
After the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the political unrest and civil aggression towards government workers pushed my parents to flee Iran, and go into hiding. During that time, they were separated from each other. My mother traveled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. My father backpacked with his brother through the Arab Nations and Northern Africa. Eventually, my mother ended up in Toronto with her sister, and my father New York and Boston.
They no longer had contact with one another.
After a few years of my father working in New York, he made a friend who by coincidence married my mother's sister. One weekend, my Aunt's husband invited my father to stay with them in Toronto, where he finally found my mother. No joke.
The next day, they decided to marry.
After my brother and I were born, our parents took us back to Iran for a few months. By either fate or coincidence, when we were shopping in the markets, I spotted a woman shopping for pomegranates and walnuts who honestly looked like my mother, or at least was strikingly similar. I gained some courage and asked her about her parents. It became clear: she was my mother’s daughter. She was my half-sister.
The following day we spent dinner at my half-sister’s house. She cooked us this incredible stew of braised hen with walnuts and pomegranate called 'Fehsenjoon'. My mother’s favorite food is the pomegranate, and my dad - the walnut. They both grew up on farmland, and pomegranates grew excessively in my mothers village as walnuts did in my father’s.
Out of all of the dishes my mother cooks, none of them are cooked with such passion and integrity as Fehsenjoon. This pomegranate and walnut stew was their first date’s meal. It was their dinner on their wedding day. Fehsenjoon is history to them. And it is fehsenjoon that iconically captures the idea that two distinctly uncommon things can find each other and create passion and synergy.
Now, being a Persian chef, I strongly believe that I have a political responsibility to celebrate and share Middle Eastern culture with integrity and honesty through my food. Considering the conflict that has affected the Middle East over the past century specifically--rife with grief, turmoil, loss, and oppression--this is a daunting task. But, to me, this is what we need right now: we need a common language to talk about our own cultures and our neighbor’s. We need to not accept other’s judgements and just plain talk to each other. If this language is food, then I am on board. I want a way of sharing my Iran through Fehsenjoon. I want to balance the sense of camaraderie, the pervasive hospitality, warmth, openness, and love I know from my parent’s story and love of my country. And I want also to try to help people re-evaluate who they think deserves their fear and hate.
It is for this reason that I am determined to cook only that which was taught to me growing up Persian. In a world where information travels at lightning speed and judgements are passed even quick, I want to cut through the noise with food. And hopefully in that, I can spark a conversation about about the Middle East, about Islam, about me, about my family’s journey, about history, and, because I like biting off more than I can chew, humanity.