in honor of your birthday

because i love you so very much,
and because you are the best birthday rememberer i know,
because you always manage to get a card to me on my birthday,
and yet somehow i can't ever get my act together enough to do the same for you:

kelly, melissa, spanish and french/octet tryouts/everyone i met my first year in berkeley was in love with you, and with good reason/you taking me and melissa to san pablo ave./ oh, the drama with kelly/ melissa and i got you that strange wwf thing for your birthday out of sheer randomness/nursing your first true broken heart/ london, nice, monaco and italy/ those panini/ tweezing hairs on the beach/ coming to san diego--the answering machine/ YOUR ACCENT!/ you were the one who led me to cp/ the slides/ japan, italy, spain, new york/ working together in the kitchen (and amazingly we are still friends)/ trips to the farm/ walking out on the berkeley pier/ late summer dinner on the porch/ beehouse teapots!/ just so much randomness--you warm my heart.

you are so much more than i could have ever dreamt for in a friend--you let me be my truest self with you, and i hope that i do the same for you. i love you. happy birthday.

a typical spice and snacks shop in tehran. i love how ornate it all is. you never see that here.

there's a sweet article on iranian food in the dining out section of the nyt. in part, i find it sweet because something so commonplace as a mother cooking for her kids was deemed interesting enough to write about in the times. i don't think i've ever met one iranian mother who wouldn't do the same.

i was indescribably lucky to be born to a woman who cooked every single day for me and my brothers. my grandmother once told me, exasperated, that ours is the only cuisine that requires the cook to be in the kitchen all day long. that may not be completely true, but i'm willing to bet that only a few other ancient cultures manage to draw out making dinner into a day-long (or sometimes multiple-day-long) ordeal. on top of cooking time, my mom, displaced like so many others, searched high and low around town (or even as far away as l.a.) for the perfect ingredients, ones that could reawaken dormant taste buds that had given up hope of ever meeting with the flavors of the past--of the old world.

i remember feeling an incomparable inferiority to my cousins the first time i went to iran and met them, because there was no way i'd ever be as iranian as they were. and later, i realized that the food i grew up eating wasn't actually the "real thing," but my mother's closest approximation of it--the yogurt my mom made wasn't as sour as the yogurt i tasted at my grandparent's home on the shore of the caspian, and pita bread, the bread i'd eaten for breakfast nearly every day of my life, was nowhere to be found in iran. i also realized that the culture of convenience hasn't spared iran, either, and pre-prepared foods are just as common in kitchens there as they are here. no matter where she was, i saw, the care and time my mom put into making everything for us from scratch was the most authentic part of our meals, something even many iranians didn't have anymore.

i thought of all of the homes of the diaspora i visited during my childhood, with each family's own version of the past set at the table, all slightly different than what we had at home. my mother's obsession with organic produce that led us to hippie coops and natural food stores wasn't caused by any trends or quest for health-foods as much as it was a search for the flavors of her childhood, passed sitting in plum and walnut trees at dusk. for me, my mother's food was always the best (who doesn't feel that way?).


last thanksgiving, i worked all day, and left around 3 pm to go home and rest. i was exhausted after two very long weeks of very long workdays, getting ready for beaujolais nouveau and thanksgiving. i think i was also fending off the flu.

when i was satisfied that everything would be alright at the restaurant, the cooks plated me up some turkey and everything else, and i got in my car to come home. i don't answer my cell phone at work, and half of the time i forget it at home (anyone who knows me knows that the thing looks like it's straight out of 1992), but i typically check it for missed calls and messages when i get into the car. i'd parked in someone else's spot, since she wasn't working on thanksgiving, and the sun was over the bay, shining into my eyes.

i had several missed calls, which was strange, and two from one of my brothers, which was even stranger, since my brothers rarely call me, and we'd just spoken a few days before on their birthday. there was a message from my dad, too. so i called back my brother, who was at work, and he told me that our uncle had a brain tumor--a glioblastoma multiforme, a tumor he was born with, the size of a golf ball or bigger. stage iv cancer. very aggressive. prognosis: one year, maybe 18 months.

(it is the terrible truth that cancer is so much more than something to worry about or be afraid of--it is something that will inevitably touch everyone's life. but it will never be easy for anyone to watch someone she loves be eaten away to nothing. i don't want to lessen anyone else's pain by talking about mine--simply put, this is something i need to do. i have a large family, entangled like the neverending branches of a banyan tree, and looking back upon our history from where i stand, it seems that pain and hardship are what have created the strongest bonds between us. i could be wrong, or just caught in a moment of negativity, but even in the limited experiences of my lifetime, difficult experiences are what have brought me closest to others.)

this year has, in many ways, been the first year i've had to be an adult. in many ways, it's been my worst year, and i can only hope that things improve for me and the people in my life.

i have always appreciated small things, and savoring mundane beauty has certainly become an important part of my vita quotidiana. this journal is above all a place for me to catalogue these bits of magic, and for that i am grateful.

thank you, universe, for my family and friends (my second family), for good health and delicious food, for doors that magically open whenever i know where i want to go (and for giving me the people who open them for me), and for beautiful art, books and music. thank you for my healing hand, with no permanent damage, and for tilden park, where i find myself almost every single day now. thank you for pizza. and ice cream. and thank you for every day you give my uncle, in the midst of his umpteenth round of chemotherapy, not too much better, but not too much worse, either.

handmade gift: assortment of salts

along with your main course at the french laundry, you are brought a selection of three fancy salts in a precious silver caddy, complete with tiny spoons (and we all know how i feel about little spoons). because i was there with someone who was considered a vip, we got five or six salts. later, when i met someone whose wife works there, i was told that the really important people get nine. nine salts! there aren't even nine bites of meat on which to sprinkle salt! it's amazing.


salt. my best friend. i love salt. i'd marry salt. in a heartbeat.

the funny thing is that persian food is traditionally very lightly seasoned. and perhaps because she was really health-conscious, my mother was very light-handed with the salt. i was raised with a bland palate.

and then i became a cook.

i remember when i was just starting out at cp, seasoning something and bringing it to a chef to taste. he'd taste it, come back to my pot with me, and oh-so-confidently add handfuls upon handfuls of salt before tasting it again. i'd get upset with myself--how could i have been so far off? this happened time and time again, and with many different chefs and experienced cooks, until one day, i finally got that taste in my own mouth. after eating that food day after day, i began to understand what my goal was, with salt, with acid, with herbs and spices. it's why alice keeps saying you have to taste--tasting is the only way to know, to learn.

anyway, at that time, we used kosher salt in the kitchen. that's part of the reason why they'd add so much of it. kosher salt is only about 1/3 as salty as table salt. when i went to florence, land of the salt lick, i really learned to take things to the edge of saltiness. it's a delicate line to tread, oh, but it makes so much difference. in italy, i got used to using sicilian sea salt, which is quite a bit saltier than kosher salt, for everything. and when i came back, cp had switched to sea salt, too.

at the farm, bob insists on using celtic sea salt, which is unprocessed and chock full of minerals. my other favorite salts are maldon sea salt, fleur de sel, and sel gris.

at le sanctuaire (and this is just a bit too precious for me, but i do think it would make a pretty beautiful gift), you can get black lava salt, hawaiian red salt, japanese deep ocean salt, jurassic salt (one of the ones they bring you at tfl), murray river salt from australia, and pure welsh salt.

so my gift idea is an assortment of salts--you can be as daring or practical as you like. fill a few lovely jars or metal tins with different salts, stick on a beautiful label, and tie on a sweet ribbon, and you're set to go. write a little note with some history about each salt, and let people taste and learn how amazingly different each one can be. the beauty of it all is you don't even need to go to yountville to taste nine salts anymore!


weck--european canning jars

whole foods--has practically every kind i listed

country cheese shop--i heart berkeley. i know they have maldon, sicilian and fleur de sel.

le sanctuaire--salt, salt, salt (expensive!!!)

celtic sea salt

sks bottle--metal tins with clear tops that would be perfect for this project, as well as lots of glass jars that are really cute

lehman's--more european canning jars

my grandparents have a citrus orchard on the coast of the caspian sea in iran, and the last time i was there it was late spring, so my grandmother sent me and my aunt out to collect bitter orange blossoms for jam and orange blossom water.

we were out there all day, picking the sticky little flowers one by one. being a cook, i kept trying to come up with more efficient ways to pick the flowers, but nothing i tried worked. i even dug up a tarp out of some shed and tried to shake the flowers off the branches, but that was disastrous because it shook everything else off the tree too, and ended up creating more work.

after two days of picking blossoms, we brought them back to my grandmother. she saved about a quarter of the blossoms for jam, and distilled the rest. words cannot describe the perfume the blossoms released--the house smelled so sweet and citrusy i had to leave several times throughout the day.

the next day, i had to return to tehran, but my grandmother wanted to make me lunch first. the water in town is very hard, and unpotable, so everyone uses bottled water for everything. five years ago, my grandmother was hit by two cars, and though she's had an incredible recovery, she hasn't quite been the same since. there's a lot of forgetfulness and repetition of stories on her part--more than i remember, anyway.

as my friend arash might say, to make the story short, my grandma used the two liters of orange blossom water to rinse the rice. two days of work literally down the drain. i was so sad i had to leave before lunch was made. later, my grandma said that the rice was delicious. all i have to show for the work is this photo of my aunt with a rabbit she befriended beneath the orange trees.

oh, italy

alright, here is an excellent story that i never got around to telling most people because i was so exhausted by the time it was over:

a few days before new year's, i went to the very south of italy (a town called montalbaro, in basilicata. the godfather was filmed not far from there.) with my friend, CB, to visit her best friend and family. i was stoked to go, because i haven't really explored the south, and i wanted to see what the food and people and land were like. i knew it wouldn't be the kind of traveling i usually do, because we'd be staying with a family, but i was excited about the change. so CB sent me out to buy the bus tickets--we were going to take an overnight bus because it was faster and more direct than the train--since the station is not far from my apartment. she told me not to buy return tickets, which i thought was odd. i ALWAYS get, if not a return ticket, at least a ticket out to my next destination (unless i am traveling on the train; even then sometimes i buy a return). i'm not saying i am the king of traveling or anything, but i know this much. she swore that it's not really the most popular route and that of course there would be return tickets. ok....

so we left on the night of the 29th and got there on the 30th. the people we were staying with were extremely generous and warm, but they had many visitors. the thing i learned about rural italy that i had forgotten last year is that people are awfully provincial and closed-minded. yeesh! from the second i got there, i became known as "The Iranian" and it took these people nearly a week to learn my name. now, it would have been one thing if they had stuck to their little prejudices about me being iranian, but i have the sad disadvantage of also coming from america. so i was also "The American." most of these people have never left the countryside, let alone italy, so.....let the gross generalizations begin!!! it was really too much.

not only that, but then they found out i can cook, so they tried to get me to make them dinner one night, which i would have been happy to do. except that, the only thing that most italians are more opinionated about than food is soccer, so no one could agree on what they wanted me to make, and we all know how i feel about picky eaters. so i said, no way, i am not cooking for you people. besides the fact that they couldn't decide what they wanted, those people had a major aversion to salt. the food there was ridiculously bland (i thought it was the entire region that ate like that, but it turns out that i just got unlucky and found the only family in southern italy who doesn't use salt), and i was always adding salt to everything. they told me, if i cooked, i couldn't add salt. they said salt is bad for you. i'm no doctor, but i'd venture to say that the teaspoon or so of salt that i eat everyday is a lot less unhealthy than the pack of cigarettes each of them was smoking daily. i rebelled and refused to cook. then they thought i was offended.

i wasn't offended, i was just sick of 20 people ganging up on me and judging my every habit: you take a shower every day? you're going to go bald! you put milk in your tea? disgusting! you eat ricotta with honey? nasty! (except that's one of the most traditional dishes in rome. hello, WHERE did these people come from?) you don't blow dry your hair? you are going to DIE! you want to eat a snack? you have the weirdest eating habits IN THE UNIVERSE! it was too much, and after 5 days, i wanted to leave. plus, i was behind in my work (big surprise) and i wanted to get back and catch up.

so i told CB i wanted to leave, but that she could stay if she wanted to. she is the least independent person i know, so i knew that she couldn't imagine taking the trip home alone. but CB had been busy while we were there. busy eating. and she had eaten too much, and become sick. first constipated, and then with diarrhea. our bus was leaving at midnight, but she still had diarrhea at around 4 pm and begged to stay another day. it would have been cruel to make her leave (even though there is a bathroom on the bus), so i agreed to stay another day.

finally, i woke up on the day we were to leave, saturday. CB had been so sure that there would be tickets, and no one had mentioned buying them, so i figured it would be ok. then, around 12.30pm, CB asks the mom to ask their friend who lives by the bus station to go down and get our tickets. well, not only are they sold out for that night, but they are sold out for 10 days. i almost fainted at the idea of staying there for another 10 days, and told CB that i had to leave. i nearly threw a fit. i told her i didn't care, and that i would take this extremely slow and uncomfortable train that they were all talking about. so she called the train station, but it was closed. everything in rural italy is closed, not only on sunday, but on saturday, too. all of the ticket agencies were closed, too. and of course this train station was totally from a wile e. coyote cartoon and the only train there was the kind from the 1800s where you had to pump it to get it going, and of course there was no automated ticket machine inside where we could buy tickets. there was a ticket machine, but it still accepted lire.

i told CB that i would buy the tickets through the internet. it was actually easy enough, and i reserved seats and everything. they even sent a confirmation message to my cell phone. ta-da! i'd never reserved online before (i am a little sketched out by the italian internet. italians are totally distrustful of technology. in fact, i read in the ny times not long ago that 2 out of 3 italians don't know how to use a computer. i believe it.), so it was a little weird not having a paper ticket, but i figured it would be fine. all of the people in that house were doubtful of my success, but i knew it would be fine.

at 12.30 am we went to the train station. our reserved seats were in car 5, seats number 75 and 76. the train came rolling up to the station: there were cars 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7. but no 5!!! there was no car 5! how were we assigned to car 5 when there wasn't one? this was ridiculous!!!...

to be continued....i have to go to work....

ok, i'm back.

we freaked out about there not being a car 5, and we asked the conductor what this meant. of course, the first thing he asked was to see our tickets, and i, with a broad smile and more than a little pride, flashed my telefonino in his face, with the message with out confirmation number blazing on the screen. he was like, what the heck is this? i smirked that it was our confirmation number, and shouldn't he type it into his little machine or something? well, he was not amused, and he told me to go into the station and print out a ticket. but of course, the machine in the station was from the 1920s or before, and had no printing capabilities. he gave up, and said we'd figure it out, so he put us in the conductor's car with ANOTHER couple who had been assigned car 5, and they had bought their tickets at the station where the train originated, when the train was out on the tracks! oh, italy. oh, italy.

so we started to commiserate with this older couple, and i said something like, "this would only happen in italy." of course the man got totally offended, thinking i am all america-is-the-best or something, and i spent the next 25 minutes trying to calm him down. finally, i succeeded, and we turned off the lights and tried to go to sleep, it being 1.30 in the morning. but of course, as soon as we started to nod off, the conductor came back and asked for my confirmation number. i gave it to him. it was something like ADW2RP, and he started punching it into his little keypad: A-D-W....wait a minute, there was no W and he couldn't figure out how to enter one. first, there was no car 5, and now there was no W. oh, italy. then, he started to curse at me and said that he'll be back.

we tried to go back to sleep, but he came back an hour later and had figured out W and said that i owed him 113 euros. excuse me, no ticket costs that much, plus i had already paid 85 euros on my credit card to get that reservation. i argued with him about it for a while until we were approaching the next stop, where he said he was getting off and would pass us to his colleague.

the colleague was a lot nicer and more understanding and explained that we were on a slow train (duh!) and that they didn't have the fancy computer system to process the online tickets. ok, that's fine. but my question is this: if you can't process the tickets, then why on earth do you make it possible to book the tickets through the internet?

furthermore, he told us that he wasn't even going to enter our code in anywhere, and theoretically when we got to florence, we could get a refund. this man, an employee of trenitalia, was telling us how to rip off trenitalia. oh, italy.

i asked him if i should print out tickets once we got to rome, for the second train, but he said no, it wouldn't matter at that point. so when we got to termini, which is quite possibly the most wonderful, beautiful, best train station in the universe, we had a little coffee and toast at my favorite little bar there, and then got on to the next train. immediately, we asked the conductor where we should sit, since we didn't have tickets, and he was like, "what do you mean you don't have tickets? get off the train and go print out the tickets!" but the train was already moving out of the station, so he told us to get out of his sight and go to the other end of the train.

so we schlepped all the way to the other end and waited.

finally, this younger conductor came and asked to see our tickets. i told him, "listen buddy, we have no tickets. sit down, we have a story." so he sat down and we told him the entire story, with lots of swearing and laughing involved. he was dying, and he let us slide, thankfully.

when we finally got to the station, we went to the ticket booth, printed out the tickets, and got them refunded. but i still can't figure out if it was worth it.

oh, italy.