Wisconsin, U.S.A., 1991: the “Persian Recipe Sampler,” a collection of thirty-six recipes, is created by my mom (Lorraine, who now goes by Nura). She had just had her first baby (me!) and was working as a microbiologist—and, somehow, she also found time to write this cookbook. Her motivation was twofold. First, there was a philanthropic motive: she sold copies to raise funds for her local Bahá’í community. Second, there was a familial motive: she wanted to record the recipes her late grandmother, Katayoon, had taught her.
Yazd, Persia, circa 1913: Katayoon Shahrokh, née Ghobad, is born. Her family had belonged to the Zoroastrian faith for countless generations, but when she was a child, they joined the Bahá’í Faith. Nonetheless, her parents maintained their connection to the Zoroastrian community, and when Katayoon was a teenager, they arranged her marriage to a prominent Zoroastrian named Keikhosrow Shahrokh. She moved to his home in Tehran, where he taught her to read and speak English. Keikhosrow died in 1940, leaving Katayoon a twenty-something widow with two young sons, Fereydoon and Darius. Trying years followed for the young family.
After her sons had grown up, Katayoon devoted her energies to exploring the world and sharing her love of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. Despite having only an eighth-grade education and having lived within the confines of a traditional patriarchy, she courageously traveled to countries including Libya, Scotland, Italy, and Brazil. When she was not traveling, she lived with her sons and their families in Spain and the United States. In the later years of her life, Katayoon resided permanently in Wisconsin in the household of Darius (my mom’s dad) and became a U.S. citizen.
Katayoon’s presence in Wisconsin was a blessing for my mom, who adored her grandmother and today, decades later, still cherishes her gestures of love:
My grandmother’s hands: golden brown skin, short nails, and a thumb that could bend backward. Her hand scraped every rice grain from the colander. Her hand jerked back when splattered with hot oil as she laid discs of dough into it. Her hands deftly worked a paring knife, peeling sections of grapefruit for me as a child, feeding me piece by piece as though I was a baby bird. She chewed the bitter membranes to which bits of fruit clung. I asked my grandmother to have some of the fruit, but she declined, telling me she liked the bitter part and the fruit was for me. In that moment, I learned that the hand that feeds a loved one is connected directly to the giver’s heart. When my grandmother was older and becoming frail, she asked me to reach up to a high shelf in the cupboard to bring down a heavy dish. She said, “Be my hands.”~Nura Amerson
In 1986, Katayoon passed away. Her passing caused Nura, a college student at the time, great anguish, but Katayoon had left her a rich legacy of love, one symbol of which was her recipes. This brings us back to 1991, the year Nura recorded these recipes in her “Persian Recipe Sampler,” as well as the year of my birth. While I never met Katayoon, and I have never traveled to her homeland due to the persecution of Bahá’ís there, making her recipes helps keep her heritage alive.
While these recipes have a familial significance to me, they can be appreciated by anyone. Many people—not just Persians!—agree that Persian cuisine is uniquely delicious. Its flavors are delicate yet substantial, and the predominance of fresh herbs, veggies, and legumes means it’s relatively healthy. There are Persian cookbooks available in the United States, but I’ve found they tend to call for specialty ingredients. One thing I appreciate about Katayoon’s recipes is that they use ingredients most of us in the States can pick up at any local grocery store. So, I invite you to give them a try and to let me know the results by leaving a comment.
Noosh-e jan! (Bon appétit!)