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.
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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.”


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