Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Growing up bilingual means knowing some things are so hard to translate that they will never be communicated properly, and sometimes the more effort you put into an explanation, the less understood it ends up being.

This feels particularly true in the kitchen. The hardest thing to explain to my adventurous food-loving friends who have asked me how to cook Iranian dishes is the concept of jah oftadan, which means "falling into place." You just have to keep cooking the food until it hits the right flavors, long after individual elements are thoroughly cooked enough to be edible. Though cookbooks will tell you that it's an hour or two for flavors to fall into place, they lie to sate marketers and publishers. Few Iranian dishes can be pulled off without 4 to 5 hours of straight simmering. On rare occasions, I've overdone it and overcooked dinner. But rarely.

If it wasn't clear before, it should be apparent now why European and American cooking is conceptually refreshing to me. The appeal lies in their embrace of the concept of overcooking as a flaw -- steaks are served medium rare, pasta is served al dente and the French like to cook a la minute for fresh fare, fast.

Maybe part of the intrigue is the mouth-wateringly long wait it takes for foods stew in their own juices, allowing for unlikely marriages of flavors like cinnamon and eggplant. It's fairly normal to not see a scrap of dinner before midnight at many Iranian dinner parties. The hunger and excitement such food repression creates is immeasurable.

A facet of jah oftadan goes beyond the melding of tastes, and deals with consistency and tenderness. You never want a soup or stew to be ab o doon jodah, which literally means "water and bits separate." When I think of this phrase, I can almost see my mother in my head, frowning while spooning at a bowl of Campbell's style chicken soup, allowing the broth to drip and splash before bits of carrots plopp into the bowl. You want herbs to have cooked into melting smoothness, meat that requires little chewing and beans and vegetables that are mushable with a spoon.

I tried to capture the difference with pictures of an ash e joh or barley soup that I made this week. It's made by browning stew beef with onions and turmeric. Add various beans (dried kidney, white, lentils, split yellow peas and garbanzos in this pot) and water to the pot, boil an hour. Add barley, boil an hour. Add a huge mess of herbs and spinach, boil for an extremely long time until everything is perfect.

Ab o doon jodah. See how you could fill a spoon with a wad of very green herbs or a hunk of beef and a bit of water, never getting everything the soup has to offer in one great bite? No good.

Ja oftadeh. See how the greens have boiled down into an olive-colored base for the broth and the soup is dense enough to stand up to its fried medley of garnishes (onions, garlic and mint)?

Perfect. I now have a massive pot of this in the fridge and a bunch of it frozen for cold days... assuming we get any more of those this winter. Oh, California.

Equally perfect but much less labor intensive is this black cherry Jell-O, morello cherries and whipped cream dessert parfait.

You are so beautiful... to me.

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