Not Your Mother’s Sunday Brunch

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I don’t cook my mother’s food.

She would never eat lamb, for one. I take the pieces of lamb shank out of the plastic bag and wash them under the sink, bits of blood and bone swirling down the drain. I’m getting better at buying lamb. The first time I went to the halal butcher, on a humid May afternoon, I found myself suddenly conscious of my arms, bare in the summer heat, as I stood tongue-tied in front of the silent bearded man wearing a bloodied apron.

Do I just say I want lamb? Are there different cuts? Do I apologize for not greeting him with Assalaam alaykum? Should I explain why a blonde American girl with naked arms wants halal meat in the first place? I managed to mumble something about two pounds of lamb, and as soon as I had paid for the plastic-wrapped package of meat, I fled without a word, back to the familiarity of my car.

But these days, the experience is almost the reverse. I enter the store with a feeling of relief. Here, my scarf-wrapped head doesn’t inspire pity or fear; rather, it means that the butcher might call me “sister.”

I chop several onions and sauté them, together with the pieces of lamb, until browned, then add water and simmer on low heat. I sprinkle in some turmeric.

I’d never heard of turmeric growing up. It’s taken me about 25 years to realize that my professor mother, with her published titles and international travel, is actually just a simple Alabama country girl, the daughter of farmers and hillbillies, on a lifelong daytrip to The Big City. You’d think I would have figured that out sooner, given our family’s prosaic daily fare: beans, cornbread, coleslaw, casseroles, mashed potatoes, chocolate cake from a box. The occasional burrito was as exotic as it got.

The simple food matched my mother’s simple views of life. Church was all that mattered, the Bible was literally true, and how sorry we felt for everyone in the world who wasn’t Christian—though of course this remained theoretical, since we didn’t know any non-Christians.

Now I break all the rules. My mother thought parsley was just for decorating the Thanksgiving turkey once a year? Well, I’m going to chop up four cups of it and stir-fry it with cilantro and fenugreek until the smell of cooking herbs fills the kitchen with a smell she never knew existed. Then I’ll boil it with the lamb for two hours, together with a quarter cup of ground lime, until the lime’s sourness pervades the air and the meat falls from the bone, defeated.

And then I will eat it, this halal meal, not just permissible to me but liberating as well. Watch me chew with relish the very embodiment of a non-Christian religion, watch me swallow it in great gulps, see my face go slack with satiety as my body obtains nourishment from this foreign feast. Then I will embrace my equally gratified husband, wash the dishes, and feel safe from the suffocating world my mother wished to bequeath me.

But where did I learn this recipe, one of Iran’s most famous dishes, Ghormeh Sabzi? Not from my mother-in-law, still in Iran, whom I have never met. Not from my husband, a kind and gentle man, who adores the food he grew up eating but doesn’t know much about making it.

No, I learned it from a Persian cookbook, given to me as a gift during that penultimate of Christian holidays, Christmas. Who gave me this beautiful and expensive cookbook, a key to the heart (via the stomach!) of my Persian beloved, a doorway to a new culinary freedom and a new cultural, even religious, belonging?

It was, of course, my mother.


Fresh Herb Khoresh (Ghormeh Sabzi)

2 pounds lamb shank cut into pieces

2 onions, chopped

2 tbsp oil or ghee

Stir-fry until browned. Add:

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp turmeric

Saute for one minute. Transfer to Dutch oven, add 4-5 cups water. Add:

2/3 cup dried kidney beans

Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.

4 cups chopped fresh parsley

1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 cup chopped fresh chives

3 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves

2 tbsp oil

Stir-fry the above ingredients for 20 minutes, being careful not to burn. Add to lamb mixture. Also add:

Juice of 1 whole lime

3 tbsp ground dried lime

2 cardamom pods

Cover and simmer on low heat for 2 hours, or until meat is tender. Serve with basmati rice.

Pearl B Lawrence (pen name) is a journalist who writes about international affairs. She grew up in the American Southwest living abroad for several years before moving to the East Coast, where she now lives with her husband. She converted to Islam one year ago, and knows less about Islam than what you think. You can find her musings about life, religion and feminism on Twitter @PearlBLawrence.

One Comment on “Not Your Mother’s Sunday Brunch”

  1. Alan Howard says:

    I also cook this! It is an excellent and relatively easy dish. but this article makes it much more exotic to me now. 🙂