The intoxicating scent of boiled lentils and saffron hangs in the air as I’m greeted with three kisses on the cheek and a scalding cup of organic berry tea. Outside my friend’s two-bedroom apartment, tucked behind rows of bright-blue apartment blocks, several billboard ads confirm I am still in Bratislava. But as I walk into the kitchen, where foreign spices are simmering and sputtering and making my mouth water, I realize I’ve crossed the border.
Today, I’m spending the afternoon in Northern Iran.
Shohreh, a sweet and generous Iranian woman, is a good friend from my Slovak course
who once told me “our countries may be enemies, but we are friends”. She invited me, along with a few other friends, over to her house for a home-cooked Iranian meal.
After gorging myself on a four-course culinary masterpiece, paired perfectly with great company and some light gossip about friends-of-friends who spent all their savings in Tehran on plastic surgery, I have now concluded that Iranian food is the best the world has to offer. In fact, I’m not sure how I managed to live for 24 years without the scrumptious, sensational magic of Khoresht Gheimeh, Tahdig and Kashke Bademjan.
Before the main meal, we attempted to study for our soon-to-begin intermediate Slovak course over tea and Lavash, a slightly sweet Iranian flatbread. Soon after, dinner was served. I reached for one of the many large, red pots filled to the brim with Khoresht Gheimeh, a widely popular stew made with beef, lentils, tomatoes and other delicious and mysterious spices. This paired perfectly with Tahdig, which literally translates to “underpot,” a rice dish stained bright yellow by saffron, which settles to the bottom of the pot during cooking. After course one, there was Kashke Bademjan, smoked eggplant mixed with garlic and tomatoes, and cucumber salad, and chocolate cake, and figs brought over from Iran. Pure heaven!
Afterward, we all sat in Shohreh’s topaz blue living room, decorated with Persian rugs and Shohreh’s father’s poetry, and watched Shohreh’s wedding video. This was followed by an Oscar-nominated Iranian film called “A Separation”, featuring every Iranian woman’s favorite actor, Shahab Hosseini. Somehow, in my Oompa Loompa state, I managed to enjoy a bowl of chocolate ice cream with Shohreh’s two young daughters when they returned home from school.
It’s easy to forget that countries associated with conflict and violence also have national dishes, beloved actors and inside jokes. That head scarfs, which women are required to wear in public, can be colorful, in vogue and avant-garde. That there are such obvious differences between extremists, devout Muslims, and what Shohreh jokingly refers to as “fake Muslims”-those who don’t answer the calls of prayer or completely follow the Quran.
There is no doubt that certain parts of Iran are very dangerous right now, especially for American tourists. But my afternoon in Iran on the outskirts of Bratislava was safe and delicious, a strange and inexplicable cure for temporary homesickness.
And after spending the day with Shohreh and her family, I had a clarifying thought: There is an important difference between cultural acceptance and cultural celebration that we don’t always recognize. Acceptance is allowing a culture to live their lives the way they please, appreciating them from an observer’s point-of-view. Culture celebration is taking part in the fun, evolving from passive observer to active participant. By eating second helpings of ‘‘underpot’’ and flipping through collections of poems in Farsi, my friends and I celebrate more than just one culture that seems so different from all of ours.
We celebrate a union of complementary differences, a fusion of tradition and innovation, flavor and simplicity. Borders are redefined as endless rows of open doors that lead to fragrant kitchens, and topaz blue living rooms, and a supremely different world that fits so easily into our own.
I originally published this piece in the Keene Sentinel as part of my “Back to Bratislava” column.