Even Though We're Miles Apart, My Mother Still Guides Me at My Stove
Maman's chair at our kitchen table is empty, but she's always by my side as I prepare the Iranian eggplant and tomato stew yatimcheh.
Pictured recipe: Yatimcheh (Iranian Eggplant, Tomato & Potato Stew)
"The onion isn't ready yet, it has to be nice and golden or golden-brown with no white parts visible—I see a lot of white pieces. And watch how much salt you add to the eggplant," Maman, my mother, instructs me. I smile and deliver my well-rehearsed lines, assuring her that it's not a lot of salt, as I bring the phone closer to the sizzling onions to show her that most are golden with hardly any whites peeking through. She presses her face right up to the screen for a close and thorough inspection.
It's a familiar and comforting refrain between us. A two-person show with endless acts. And for the past six months, due to the unforeseen events of a worldwide pandemic, our show has hit the road; a virtual tour. Instead of Maman sitting comfortably at our kitchen table overseeing my work, she appears daily on my phone.
These months of quarantine and social isolation have forced the world to shift, adapt and connect in new ways. For me and my mother, who lives 2,000 miles away, it means checking in daily, cooking together and taking comfort in our old scripted rapport. Now, however, simmering between every line, there is the unspoken subtext of not knowing exactly when we'll be able to see each other again, when we can collapse into each other's embrace. And so we push through, one day at a time. Today we've set out to prepare yatimcheh, as I remind her to lift up the phone so I can see all of her face and not just extreme close-ups of one eye or part of her chin, like a cubist masterpiece. My mother, always the artist.
Yatimcheh is a cozy and nourishing late-summer vegetarian Iranian stew that has become my go-to comfort food as of late. Yatimcheh translates to "little orphan." It's not exactly clear why it has been named such, but there are a couple of theories. One is that it's a simple and economical dish requiring few ingredients; the other is that it's because it's missing meat.
As with many Iranian dishes, yatimcheh can be prepared with slight variations depending on the region and household. At its core, it's an eggplant dish that is cooked with tomatoes and sometimes other vegetables. Some preparations slice the vegetables thicker and layer them as they cook, and some chop them smaller and combine them. This version includes eggplant, sweet summer tomatoes and potatoes. Of course, like most Iranian stews, even the simplest ones, the flavors are developed in layers starting with getting the onion nice and golden or golden-brown, which is the foundation of the entire dish. Make sure you take your time with cooking the onion. Typically, the eggplant is first softened a little on the stove, but I like to quickly roast it in the oven while the onion cooks. The vegetables are then all simmered together with the addition of turmeric until the eggplant collapses into the tomatoes and the potatoes are soft and creamy. I like to serve yatimcheh with rice, or with a flatbread like lavash or sangak, with a side of plain yogurt, and with fresh herbs, such as mint, basil and green onion.
I lift the lid off the pan and focus the phone on the simmering yatimcheh. The camera fogs over from the steam. I tell Maman I wish she could smell it; I say I wish I could transport her a taste through the phone. She lets out her signature carefree laugh and tells me soon enough we'll be able to do that too. We both laugh and fill the space with all the unwritten and unspoken words. Our yatimcheh isn't missing anything—it's soothing and comforting just as it is—but our home and hearts are missing a lot. Our kitchen table is missing all the friends, family and grandparents. Especially the grandparents.