Craving the Flavors of the Persian Gulf

Two New Books Explore Love, Family and the Jewish Cuisines of Iran and Iraq

Feastly Fixings: Persian meals are often accompanied by plates of herbs, nuts and vegetables.
Sara Remington
Feastly Fixings: Persian meals are often accompanied by plates of herbs, nuts and vegetables.

By Leah Koenig

Published April 10, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

If love, like food, has the ability to nourish, then the absence of love can leave us with deep and unquenchable feelings of hunger. An emptiness that is complete and all-consuming, as if we have not eaten in years.

Two books coming out this month, the novel “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots,” by Jessica Soffer, and the cookbook “The New Persian Kitchen,” by Louisa Shafia, tell stories of love, craving and family lost and gained, all through the experience of food — particularly the tangy, smoky, cardamom and saffron-spiced dishes of the Persian Gulf.

The Jewish communities of Iran and Iraq now live almost exclusively outside of their countries of origin. There are currently around 9,000 Jews living in Iran — more than many Westerners might assume, but a tiny fraction of the former population. Iraq’s situation is even more dramatic: According to a 2008 New York Times article, there are fewer than 10 Jews currently living there.

Diaspora communities, like Iranian Jews in Los Angeles or Iraqi Jews in Israel, must preserve their cultures, recipes and food traditions in foreign lands — a feat that grows increasingly difficult with the passing generations. Soffer and Shafia’s books, then, are akin to canning peaches for winter. They take the fresh memories and experiences of their relatives’ (particularly their fathers’) lives and kitchens, and produce something lasting and sweet.

In “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots,” Soffer weaves together two narratives — one of a wise but scarred 14-year-old named Lorca, and another of an aging Iraqi Jewish woman, Victoria, who fled Baghdad decades ago and lives in present-day New York City. Both women burn for different reasons: Lorca pines for the fickle affection of her narcissistic mother, a high-powered chef, and Victoria longs for the exclusive love of her husband Joseph. (Readers learn early in the book that decades before, Victoria convinced Joseph to give up their daughter for adoption out of fear that “he would love a little baby more than he loved me.”)

An Iraqi cooking class taught by Victoria brings the two women together. One young, one old, they cook together in Victoria’s apartment, mixing dough for shakrlama, a pistachio and almond cookie flavored with rose water, and chopping vegetables for a lamb and okra stew called bamia. Through their shared work and gentle explorations of one another’s lives, the pain each woman experiences begins to soften.

Soffer’s father, like Victoria and Joseph, escaped the mounting anti-Semitism of his Baghdad home in the late 1940s. In New York, he became the well-known painter and sculptor Sasson Soffer. Despite their age difference (the elder Soffer was 60 when his daughter was born), Jessica Soffer had a close relationship with him before he passed away three years ago. Partly as a result, Soffer said she “gravitates towards stories where an older person and younger person can heal each other.”

“Tomorrow There Will be Apricots” regrettably contains only one recipe — for masgouf, a spiced grilled carp that plays a central role in the story and is considered the national dish of Iraq. “It’s a very nostalgic recipe for Iraqi Jews,” Soffer said. “Everything my dad’s family remembers from growing up in Baghdad is completely gone.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.