When I went to pick up Maman so we could food-shop for my book launch party, she climbed into the car wearing her usual beautiful smile. I said Hi, and when she did not reply, I glanced at her. Her lips shivered, and tears rolled down her cheeks. She said she had been up until 2:30 a.m., reading the first half of my book, a memoir. Since the book is in English and her best language is Farsi, it was a chore she had managed with a dictionary. “You made a monster of me,” she said brokenly. “Was I that bad when you were a teenager?”
I put the car in park and sighed. Putting my hand on her shoulder, I tried to find the right words. I had been expecting this episode. She is a kindhearted woman who raised not only me but also my daughter, Parnian, until she was 16, which allowed me to go to college, work professionally, and immigrate to the United States. After my five-year wait to become naturalized, they were able to join me in America. But, as most mother-daughter relationships are, ours was fraught—maybe more so because at the time she was raising me, Iran was undergoing dramatic change, and I was chafing under the confines of both the dictator regime and her traditional, strict parenting.
Our plan for the party was to provide Persian finger food, and we had invited more than 200 people. So I wouldn’t have to pay for catering, my mom had offered to cook. It was one of countless times she had saved me money.
A few long seconds of silence passed. I didn’t want to give her false sympathy, to minimize the history of the punishment and shaming that had hurt me deeply, but I wanted her to know that, through compassionate eyes, I understood her situation.
I wiped her tears and said, “Maman, you did the best you knew. To raise good children, most parents thought there should be punishment when a child didn’t obey the cultural norms. You wanted to raise a good daughter. Plus, you were in a bad marriage under a lot of pressure. You will read in later chapters about how you sacrificed and raised my daughter, letting me grow.”
A few minutes later she calmed down and gently said, “Let’s go. We need to practice one round of cooking tah cheen [saffron rice cakes] cups tonight.”
By the time we got home, it was late, but she started washing the rice. I got yogurt and eggs out of the shopping bag and grabbed saffron and canola oil from the pantry. She was examining the cupcake trays and calculating out loud, nervous lines appearing on her forehead. “If a hundred people show up and each eats two cups, we will need two hundred of these. Each tray makes twelve cups and needs to be in the oven for twenty minutes. How many do we need? Ahhh, I can’t get it right.” I suggested that we FaceTime with Parnian, who lives in California and has a talent for event planning. The three of us got together (one virtually) and made plans for 120 cups of tah cheen, along with salad olovieh (potato and chicken salad), kashk bedamjoon (sautéed mashed eggplant with liquid whey), cheese and crackers, and a good amount of Persian sweets.
As we worked together, I could tell that Maman was focused on this project, determined to make the best food for my party. I brought the water in the pot to a boil, and she added basmati rice to it. The smoky aroma reminded me how hungry I was. I stirred the rice while she mixed yogurt, oil, and eggs. “Don’t stir it too much,” she said. “You’ll break the rice. Just watch it and remove the foam.” When she added saffron to the sauce, it turned bright orange. I poked my head into the bowl to inhale the aroma that takes me back to Maman’s kitchen in Iran where she cooked two fresh meals for us every day.
She checked the rice. “It’s ready. Rinse it.” As I took the pot off the stove and stepped towards the sink, the oven started beeping. “Ahhh, we need to rush!” Maman said.
“Calm down, Maman. You are too frantic. The oven can wait more patiently than you think.” We laughed.
“Spray the trays generously.” She added rice to the sauce and mixed. Spooning the mix into the cupcake tray, wiping drops from the surface, she talked to herself—or to the cups—until two trays were filled.
As the tah cheen cooked, the house smelled wonderful. My mouth watered as I watched the cups turn golden and puff up.
Twenty minutes later, Maman took them out. I couldn’t wait to eat one. She put two on a plate and cut them to cool quickly.
The first bite melted in my mouth, filling it with the floral musky saffron flavor.
On the morning of the party, Parnian arrived on a red eye. Without complaining about lack of sleep, she led a crew of family and friends to organize the chairs and tables, blow up the balloons, and decorate the food. When I arrived at noon, wonderful aromas filled the air and everything looked astonishingly beautiful. Parnian, Maman, and I hugged each other. With her beautiful smile, Maman said, “I am very proud of both of you.” Her eyes were shining with happy tears.
Parnian, wiping Maman’s tears, reminded us, “Maman, you’re very important to us, and not just for cooking the best food.” Our group hug got tighter.
Shabnam Curtis is a writer in Northern Virginia/Loudoun County, whose memoir is My Persian Paradox: Memories of an Iranian Girl. She can be found at https://shabnamcurtis.com and Instagram.
Tah Cheen (Saffron Rice Cakes)
2 T. plus 2 t. kosher salt
2 c. basmati rice
1 t. saffron threads, finely ground
3 large eggs
1 c. plain whole-milk yogurt (not Greek)
1/2 c. vegetable oil, plus more for dish
1 t. rose water (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 2 T. salt.
Place rice in a strainer and rinse with lukewarm water, swishing rice around with your hands to get rid of excess starch. Continue to rinse until water from rice runs clear.
Add rice to pot and give it a few stirs to prevent rice from sticking to the bottom.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until rice begins to rise to the top and is tender but still has a slight bite to it, 6 – 8 minutes.
Drain and rinse with cold water.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine saffron and 2 T. hot water in a large bowl.
Let sit 10 minutes to allow saffron to steep and draw out as much color as possible.
Mix in eggs, yogurt, oil, 2 t. salt, and optional rose water.
Mix in the rinsed rice with the mixture and gently stir.
Spray a cupcake tray with oil and fill with rice mixture (each hole should be completely full but not overflowing).
Cover the tray tightly with foil and bake until rice on the bottom and around edges is a deep golden brown, 20 minutes.
Let cool 10 minutes; discard foil.
Loosen the rice around the edges using the point of a knife.
Take each cup out and serve upside down to show the golden crunchy part.
(Adapted from Bon Appétit)