Last week, a new friend of mine, J, brought me a gorgeous bag of birthday goodies. Seriously, gorgeous, and also really thoughtful. Included was a cookbook she'd long loved and cooked from but didn't use enough anymore; instead of holding on to it, she wanted to pass it to me.
Written by Najmieh Batmanglij, it's a Persian cookbook called Food of Life, and this gifted copy is the original from 1986. As I thumbed through it, some of the pages splattered and all of them soft from use, an old recipe fell out. Jotted on a scratch piece of legal pad paper now stiff with age (a funny juxtaposition to those supple cookbook pages), it's for paella (not Persian) and is roughly sketched; arrows, underlines, circled words all remind J what she would and wouldn't want to include and do.
I was, and still am, incredibly touched by such a generous, personal gift. I asked J if she wanted the paella recipe back but she said "No, keep it with the book." Old recipes, hand-written, are treasures, and I plan to carefully tape the yellow paper into the front cover of Food of Life. They've been paired for a while now, and I see no reason to separate them.
Fast forward a few days, and another dear friend, M (who is Iranian), brings me a heavy, wrapped gift. "There's something small tucked inside*," she said, as I proceeded to tell her about the "amazing Persian cookbook" J had given me and how I intended to use the book and the barberries M gave me few months back to finally make Zereshk Polo, or jeweled rice, a favorite dish of mine.
M laughed and said, "Well now you have two amazing Persian cookbooks and can definitely make the rice."
Later, I opened her present and found it to be the 25th anniversary copy of, wait for it, Food of Life. Now subtitled Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, this updated version is heftier and contains more photographs. It also includes updated language and recipes which I find fascinating.
For example, what was in 1986 called Eggplant Kookoo is now, in 2016, written as Eggplant Kuku. The new recipe includes fewer eggs, less garlic, more and different spices, and a yogurt garnish. Where the generic eggplant was originally called for, Batmanglij now suggests using Chinese or Italian eggplant.
Brain Kookoo has been omitted completely, and an option for Zucchini Kuku has been added. I'll be making the latter for dinner tonight.
Food is such a fascinating lens through which to observe societies, regions, evolving tastes and culinary trends. An individual's recipes, especially those from a person considered an expert on a given cuisine, are a hyper-personal way of studying the same things.
I think of the way I was taught to make gumbo and cranberry sauce, for example, and how I've morphed those teachings into my own ways of crafting those dishes. I don't make my mom's or grandmother's recipes exactly, but the tastes are resonant and the inspiration clear.
Having these two versions of Food of Life, and having received them at the same time, is like a crash course in one woman's cooking life: eggplant kookoo as a young woman, eggplant kuku twenty-five years later with decades of experience and changing ingredients and a shifting palate influencing the outcome.
I'm thrilled to have these books and will share with you each time I cook from them, adding wear and splats and notes of my own to the pages as I go.
*That little something tucked inside? A packet of saffron! WOW!