Sunday, February 6, 2011

When I was 11, we took my first trip to Iran that I wasn't in diapers for. Customs officials around the world met my families deepest, darkest food fantasies while rifling through our luggage in search of contraband.

It was a long flight to Germany, then to Iran. We flew Luftahnsa, and I remember feeling cold for the whole flight, and that my mother was furious that we were seated one row ahead of the smoking section. I also remember dutifully eating the hard, dark brown bread with strange cheese they served in-flight because my mom told us that this was the sort of food her father had eaten in Germany, where he was educated.

Because each passenger was allowed two suitcases, my mother, me and my younger sister each lugged two massive suitcases to Tehran. That was the first flight I'd ever been on where you got off the plane and stood on the tarmac _ I had only experienced travel in the cool confines of American terminals. Ever the anxious child, as we stood in the middle of the night on a runway that smelled of fuel, I kept whipping my head around, certain that we were standing in the takeoff path of a zooming jet. We rode a very quiet bus in to the terminal, where everyone seemed anxious for what lay ahead of us: customs. After we managed to get our hulking suitcases onto carts and get in line, we watched as bored, sweaty customs officials rifled through the suitcases of the people ahead of us under unforgiving fluorescent lights. Everyone looked so wan and tired. There was a large sign greeting arrivals at Mehrabad Airport in those days, with Ayatollah Khomeini's beatific-seeming visage and the words Death to America on it. I felt offended but kept this to myself _ after years of playing the de facto (and sometimes unintelligible) translator to the numerous newscasts we watched in my home, I knew this was a common refrain.

Customs officials were flipping through books, asking if travelers intended to resell the 8 pairs of Levis in their suitcases that still had tags on. Many terse words seemed to be exchanged and I remember assuming the travelers' innocence and pitying their lack of foresight -- we had snipped tags from all the new clothes we'd brought as presents for our family, careful only to leave the small plastic tag-holders so that they would know they were not receiving hand-me-downs.

Our turn came. It wasn't long before our customs official became quite amused with our suitcase. He picked up the jar of peanut butter -- Jif, because my mother is quite choosy (and because she wanted to fatten up my cousin who was a picky eater). Laughing, he showed it to other customs officials. He picked up the salami, beef jerky and other meat products my uncle had come to miss in Iran, after spending his college years in the States. There was more laughter. I hoped they wouldn't see the pièce de résistance: in my mother's carry-on was a cold Big Mac, a food that I'd never eaten as an American citizen, but her brother had fond memories of. The customs official joked that Iran had food and asked if we were afraid of starving. My mom said no, playing nice. He then asked if we'd been back since the Revolution. My mother said we hadn't, and it was my first trip. He took pity on us, or deemed us to be the harmless weirdos we are, and let us through without further scrutiny. I breathed a sigh of relief that my most valued possession, the Donkey Kong handheld game in my backpack, had survived the trip without being confiscated.

When we came back to the States, we went through customs in Los Angeles. Again, we lugged all sorts of foods that are hard to explain and smelled a little funny to the table in front of a bored customs official. He was a tall white man, a little sweaty, a little tired, wearing a variety of uncomfortable things: a tightly tied necktie, a belt that must have dug into the underside of his considerable gut, and plastic gloves in the dog days of August in a windowless corner of an airport basement in Los Angeles.

"Tokhmeh? Pesteh? Badoom?" he asked, in accented Farsi. My mom, my sister and I giggled at this big white man asking us if we were smuggling in toasted seeds, pistachios or almonds into the country _ which did not amuse him. So as not to undermine his sense of authority, my mom dutifully showed him everything in our suitcase, trying to explain what things were.

"What's this?" he asked, raising a small mass of piroshkies wrapped in many layers of plastic. Knowing me, I'm fairly certain my mouth watered involuntarily at that moment, as it does now remembering it.

"Piroshki," I chirped, feeling very protective of one of my favorite foods. "It's like a jelly donut, but with custard or cooked ground beef in it," I said, underselling it a bit. My mom had brought a bag home for my dad _ they've been sweethearts since they were 15, and on their dates they would often go to a special vendor to get their piroshkis. I breathed a sigh of relief when he let us through.

My parents recently returned from Iran, bringing back a bunch of food souvenirs once more, including two favorites. Iranians eat lots of seeds and nuts, and one of my family's favorite snack foods (sold in movie theaters and the like) is berenjak, a mix of puffed basmati rice, sesame seeds and shahdooneh, which are hemp seeds or pot seeds, I'm not sure which. The seeds are toasted and salted, and the mix seems tart with lemon juice to me, but I'm not sure how it's prepared. To eat it, you scoop some into a saucer and dip your tongue into it, letting the tiny bits stick to your tongue. It's not the most attractive thing to watch, but the crunch and snap of the seeds and rice are endlessly satisfying.

Berenjak: from top to bottom, sesame seeds, puffed rice, shahdooneh.

Something we've only discovered in recent years are the delicious crackers of Iran. Again, it's the same ingredients in a sense: finely milled rice flour, sesame and shahdooneh.

From left to right: sweet, cardamom-scented morning crackers with sesame; savory shahdooneh crackers and sesame crackers.

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