Featured Illustration: Ekaterina Kapranova
During my elementary and middle school years, I dreaded lunch period because I was embarrassed to open up the stainless steel thermos my mom bought me from Target that was stuffed with Kebob or other Persian foods like Ghormeh Sabzi. I’d stare at the Uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit gushers, and pacific cooler Capri Suns my classmates had, wishing I could have a taste while I suffocated my food by tightly covering the circular lid with my tiny olive-skinned hands in order to prevent the steam and smell of onions, herbs, and spices like turmeric or nutmeg from spreading. If I was too late, someone would crinkle their nose in disgust and say “Ew, what’s that smell?” or “Why can’t you bring normal food?” It got to the point that my mom noticed I was bringing back my lunch untouched and she emailed my first-grade teacher, who then pulled my six-year-old poofy dark brown curly-haired self-up in front of the class to sternly tell everyone, “Let’s be nice about what others bring for lunch. You wouldn’t want the same happening to you, right?” I felt humiliated because I wanted to “fit in” and suck it up rather than bring more attention to the situation.
Now as a sophomore in college, I am eager to go back to my home in New Hampshire given that my parents make it part of their routine to show and torture me on FaceTime when they’re grilling. My mom in her gentle voice says, “We’ll make whatever you want. Just let me know and I’ll find recipes.” By contrast, I’m in my dorm wearing black leggings and a sweatshirt, making dinner with the ingredients I have in my small white fridge, or eating one of my meals in my Ziploc container I prepared to have for four days straight. I have the option of ordering from Persian restaurants on Grubhub that deliver food straight to my dorm within 30 minutes but Lubia Polo, Khoresht Karafs, and all the Persian foods I once turned my head away from aren’t sold in restaurants. Even when I go out to eat Kebob with friends, I’m craving my family’s version and the preparation that goes into making it.
Usually men are in charge of the Kebob process, but my mom orders my dad and I around. She grew up watching my grandpa grill, and after she married my dad, she learned how to make Kebob. However, it was only until my parents immigrated to the United States did my mom actually start to make them because the apartments in Lausanne and Cambridge that they lived in were too small to host gatherings and barbeques. My mom tells me stories of when my dad first started to grill — he constantly burned the meat with feisty fires because he was afraid that they were going to be undercooked. “What??!!” he’d exclaim if my mom corrected him for it. Besides, Kebob Koobideh takes six minutes to cook while Chicken Kebob is eight to ten minutes. Over time, my dad got better because knowing and mastering the fire is hard as it varies from grill to grill and the distance the meat is from the orange and red scorching flames.
Therefore, as long as there is no pouring rain, frost or chilly wind, you’ll see my family in our white and gray-blue kitchen putting marinated meat on the flat stainless steel seekhs and huddling over the waist-length grill to keep an eye on the blazing fire. “Grilling is the easiest type of cooking,” is what my parents say about why we have Kebob so often, especially when my uncle visits us from Jacksonville, Florida, and who fills our fridge with ingredients for Kebob the entire time he’s with us.
My favorite kind is Chicken or Barg which typically consists of pieces of lamb or beef, but my family uses sirloin tips or boneless short ribs since they have more swirls of white marble. My mom likes the same as me because we aren’t big fans of Koobideh unlike my younger brother. My dad, on the other hand, will eat anything my mom makes so it doesn’t matter for him. My mom also uses different marinades than other Persian households; no surprise seeing that she has three spice racks in our walk-in pantry filled with seasonings of star anise, juniper berries or her home-grown dried herbs such as thyme. For Chicken Kebob, there’s onion, salt and pepper, tomato paste, grated tomatoes, lime juice, and pepperoncini. If my mom decides to go for a Mediterranean route, she’ll add cumin, paprika, oregano from our garden, and home-made yogurt. Koobideh and Barg are simple with salt and pepper and grated onion, and all three types are marinated overnight so the flavors combine and blanket the naked chicken and meat. Kebob differs greatly from province to province in Iran, however it doesn’t stop us from experimenting.
I’m in charge of the side dishes for Kebob that don’t require grilling because I’m not confident with fire and watching the meat, chicken, and veggies like plum or globe tomatoes, royal purple eggplant, and jalapenos as my parents are. My brother is more involved with their role and says to them in a demanding tone, “Why can’t you let me do the whole thing by myself?” Basmati rice with golden yellow saffron drizzled in our huge orange pot is a must as well as an herb salad containing sliced pickled red onion, salt, sumac, and chopped basil, parsley, and cilantro. I set up the table too, picking plates depending on my mood. Sometimes it’ll be glossy snow-white ceramic plates or mustard yellow trimmed ones with a muted blue wildflower in the middle surrounded by tiny specs of grass and a beige background. The entire house smells like smoke throughout this task and my parents shout “Close the door!” to me if I peek my head out of the sliding door to see when they’ll be done (though my mom will give me a few bites wrapped in delicate, chewy pita bread).
Once everything is finished, the sun sets, displaying its array of warm-toned colors such as magenta, lavender, and marmalade orange. Our chattering only gets louder and more intense as we pack our plates with food, bonding over topics such as world politics, the next travel trip, or school, with music softly playing in the background from Georges Moustaki, Charles Aznavour, Mercedes Sosa, and Manu Chao.
Now when someone asks me about my Iranian identity, I confidently talk about my family and culture, like Kebob, because the embarrassment I felt throughout my youth no longer consumes me as I reminisce on the memories of when my family and I make Kebob or other Persian foods. I even offer to friends and new people I meet, “I can take you to a Persian restaurant, but I can’t promise you that it’ll be as good as my mom’s.”