Every week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
One night when I was four years old, my mother came into the room that my sister and I shared, and said, “Dad is sad tonight, because his mother died.” I hadn’t even known that she was alive. The only thing I knew about her was her name, Robabeh, which was also my older sister’s middle name, and to us it sounded like “rhubarb.” She lived very far away, in Tehran, Iran, where my dad was raised, but neither she nor my Dad’s past in that mysterious country were open subjects in our house.
As the years passed, I would occasionally wonder about my grandmother and eventually small details came into focus. Her name was often mentioned when my mom, on my father’s prompting, would cook Persian food. My dad had taught my mom how to make his favorite dishes from Iran, and invariably, they were all my grandmother’s recipes. Robabeh was renowned for being a gifted cook, and like any good Iranian wife, she excelled at making the full spectrum of khoresh, the sumptuous Persian stews that feature the fruits, vegetables, and herbs of lush Iranian gardens. Unlike an English stew, khoresh is quite thick, like a cassoulet, and is meant to be eaten with a fork over rice – never with a spoon.
In the same way that American families enjoy pumpkin, apple, and blueberry pie year after year, Iranians have similarly been preparing pomegranate, peach, orange, herb, and okra stew (depending on the season) for many generations -- indeed, for thousands of years.
One of our family favorites during summer was khoresh-e bademjan, or eggplant stew, a thick, tangy, ruby-studded mass of eggplant, tomatoes, onion, and turmeric. On a quiet Sunday when there was sufficient time, my mom chopped, soaked, fried and simmered away the many hours that it takes to make a traditional bademjan recipe, which typically involves frying diced eggplant, and cooking it with meat or chicken. A light layer of oil floating on top is your cue that the stew is finally done. Bademjan is surely delicious, but make no mistake: it’s hardly fat-free. In fact, when my father, a respected cardiologist, discovered that he had high blood pressure, the eggplant quickly moved out of the frying pan and into the oven, and the meat disappeared overnight. Thus was born our family’s lighter take on my grandmother’s trademark dish.
Though I would never know her during her lifetime, my grandmother’s sensibilities have been passed down to me through the recipes, like her bademjan, in which she took such pride. And evidently, she passed along her physical characteristics as well; so much so that a piece of computer photo software, into which I’ve recently scanned her images, began tagging photos of her with my name. A name, I have discovered, that has nothing to do with rhubarb. Rather, it turns out, a “robab” is an ancient Persian stringed instrument, much like a lute, a beautiful creation made of wood and string. May her melodies play on through the lovely harmony of ingredients in this 21st century bademjan.
2 pounds Japanese eggplant, peeled and diced
5 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1/2 cup split peas
8 cups water
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 medium to large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock, boiling
Freshly ground black pepper