I love the cover! What the picture doesn’t show is the shininess of the copper-colored outlines of the flowers and the words, and that it is embossed. I love the color palette. I first heard about this book in an email from Simon and Schuster, and it sounded like something I’d enjoy. I absolutely loved the first chapter, how it drew me in so powerfully. It is the story of 17 year-olds Roya and Bahman in semi-democratic Iran in 1953. Roya is a bookish girl, whose father supports her desire to get an education. He sees great things in the future for both Roya and her younger sister, Zari. Zari is outgoing and outspoken, and sometimes, I just wanted her to be quiet! So much so that I wrote in my notes. “Zari, please, just shut your mouth.” Bahman is politically active in his support of Prime Minister Mossaddegh, but still had to be careful about concealing his political orientation, as there were always rumors about government overthrow, and people of many factions quite willing to give up a neighbor to the authorities. The stationery store is where they first met, and it, too, has a story.
I learned a bit about Persian culture, as when Roya’s mother told her that “our fate is written on our forehead when we are born.” It can’t be seen, can’t be read, but it’s there in invisible ink, and your life follows that fate. I don’t know if generalities can be made about Iranians in general, but the characters in this book were superstitious, especially about “chesm,” the evil eye. Roya’s mother performed a cleansing of their house with incense after a negative encounter with a guest, and asked for the jealous eye to be blinded. In a touching moment between Roya and her sister-in-law, Patricia, there was also a reference to the Haft Seen seven s’s table, with items that all began with the letter ‘s’ in Farsi, a traditional practice during Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebrated on the vernal equinox. Kind of like the Italian tradition of the seven fishes at Christmas to celebrate the bounty of the seven oceans.
I can’t conclude my discussion without a caveat, dear reader: this is a sad, sad, book, and when I was done reading, I, like Roya, was wrecked, and needed several hours to recover. In spite of the sadness, it was a beautiful story. And now is the perfect time in my life to be reminded of the healing power of love, and that love still exists in an otherwise cruel world.
The poetry of Rumi was important to both Roya and Bahman. The following poem appears several times in the book:
Look at love
How it tangles
With the one fallen in love
Look at spirit
How it fuses with earth
Giving it new life
When I googled “Persian art colors,” trying to figure out if the colors on the cover had any meaning, these images, among others, came up:
A special occasion dish called Jeweled Rice was mentioned several times in the story. I did buy the barberries online, but I did not opt to purchase really good Persian Basmati rice because you had to buy it in ten pound bags, and there’s no way my husband and I would ever go through that much in a year, so I used a supermarket Carolina Basmati instead, which was very good. If I’m ever in a Middle Eastern market, I’ll look for more authentic rice in a smaller quantity to see if it really makes a difference.
Persian Jeweled Rice
2 C best-quality Basmati rice
2 T Kosher salt
Unsalted butter, 6 tablespoons in total
1 large onion, diced small
¼ tsp saffron threads, crumbled and soaked in 1/4 cup hot water
Large pinch ground cinnamon
Large pinch ground cardamom
Large pinch ground allspice
Large pinch ground black pepper
Large pinch ground cumin
⅓ C chopped dried apricots
⅓ C golden raisins or currants
⅓ C dried imported barberries, goji berries, dried cherries or dried cranberries soaked in warm water for 5 minutes and drained
⅓ C blanched slivered almonds
⅓ C roughly chopped pistachios
Rinse the rice several times in cold water until the water runs clear. Drain. Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a large pot with 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Add the rinsed rice and boil, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, then drain well in a colander.
Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, season lightly with salt and cook until softened and lightly colored, 4 to 5 minutes. Moisten with 1 tablespoon saffron water and stir in the cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, black pepper and cumin. Cook for 1 minute more. Stir in the apricots, raisins, and barberries (or goji berries, cherries or cranberries).
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed enamel or nonstick Dutch oven over medium heat. Spread half the par-cooked rice over the bottom of the pot. Spoon over the onion-fruit mixture, then the remaining rice. Leave the pot on the flame, uncovered, for 5 to 8 minutes to gently brown the rice. (Do not stir or move the rice — you will need to rely on your nose to tell if the rice has browned.)
Drizzle the remaining saffron water over the rice and put on the lid. Adjust the heat to very low and leave undisturbed for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest at least 10 minutes.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat and gently toast the almonds and pistachios for a minute or so, taking care not to get them too brown. Set aside for garnish.
To serve, spoon the rice into a wide bowl or platter. With a spatula, carefully lift the bottom crust, placing the crisp side up. Sprinkle with the toasted nuts.
I’m so proud of the crust! When made correctly, the tahdig (crust) can be detached from the Dutch oven and served whole, which is what I attempted to do. I forgot to let it sit after I turned off the heat on the stove, so the first piece I tried to extract was a mess. But this one is a beautiful golden brown, and was crunchy and delicious.