The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction
How to Make Jeweled Rice (Shirin Polo)
“My tale is entirely American.” —Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies
Gather your ingredients, Mom says. Basmati, of course. Then the jewels: Almonds, apricots, barberries. Candy the orange peel, julienne the carrot, crush the cardamom. Pluck a rose.
Smell the saffron before you buy. It should remind you of home, of your father, brothers, me. For this only, pay what they ask. You need the real thing.
The rice I ate in childhood was not my father’s chelo in Iran, where I wasn’t born but grew up feeling I was from. My rice came in the orange box with blue letters that said it was “original” yet “converted,” “natural” yet “vitamin-permeated,” a rice that was “The Greatest Thing That Had Ever Happened to Rice.” My rice was Uncle Ben’s.
Uncle Ben looked like the grandfather I never met on my Dad’s side, with glowing skin and a wide smile. He wore a bow tie, a step up from Aunt Jemima’s red-checkered headscarf.
Uncle Ben disappeared from the logo in 1971 but returned 12 years later, after I’d finished college. By then my rice was wild. I’d learned that “uncle” was a way to avoid saying Mister. I saw that no matter who bought the food, chances were faces of color would sell it: Mrs. Butterworth with her wide hips, Chiquita Banana and her dimples, the Land O’ Lakes girl, the Frito Bandito, the Eskimo and his cold Pie.
Even so, when I want the taste of childhood, I buy Uncle Ben’s.
My mother taught me how to make it: Sautè the grains in butter. Add water, less than directed. Throw in an onion. Most importantly, never stir the pot.
Made this way, Uncle Ben’s was a polo, not the watery mush alongside “ethnic” dishes that daring 1960s housewives made: I remember Rice-a-Roni Chop Suey, Rice ‘N Spam Creole. Yet even Mom’s rice was a taste of something lost.
My father’s chelo was a long-grain rice called “black end,” or domesiah. It comes from Mazandaran province, where he was born. The box his mother stored it in could hide a child.
As soon as Basmati was available, we stopped eating Uncle Ben’s. But how could we forget him? His story of assimilation was a lot like ours.
Around the time a camera snapped Dad graduating from a pre-med program in southern France, black hair foaming into a Persian Afro, arms folded over his first lab coat, the Ladies Home Journal touted Uncle Ben’s as “the sunny-colored rice that cooks white.”
During the 1950s, while Dad was dating Mom, and my grandmother Mimi grudgingly accepted him because he made her laugh, ads noted that Uncle Ben’s was now “approved” by Ebony.
The 1960s brought brown rice to America, and us as well. By 1971, when my 7th grade classmate told me my skin reminded him of the Black track star enshrined in our school’s trophy case, Ed McMahon was promoting rice with shish kebabs.
We had arrived.
Google unclebens dot com today and you’ll be redirected to bensoriginal dot com, the new URL for the rebooted website. There’s a section now on modern slavery. Just like the America he fed, Uncle Ben’s is changing.
True, it’s still a side, not quite the rice that breaks Ramadan, that inspired Bashō, that my grandmother treasured. Yet Uncle Ben’s got Americans eating the grain that more people worldwide consume than any other. Demand since 1960 has seen a steady rise; this year, the U.S.D.A. estimates, America will rank 12th in global rice consumption.
Promoted to “board chairman” in 2007, Uncle Ben retired last year, his identity a mystery. According to the Museum of Food and Drink, the face of Uncle Ben’s was Frank Brown, a Chicago waiter; others say he was a fictional Black farmer.
Whoever he was, Uncle Ben stirred the pot.
Arborio, bomba, congee. Jollof, paella, sushi. Bhutanese Red, Carolina Gold, Black Forbidden. Sticky, dirty, fried. God forbid, never Minute.
How can you be from a place you’ve never been to?
Cook your rice.
From Grandmother Khadijieh, in letters Dad read in Farsi from right to left:
- Wash three cups of rice five times, until the water runs clear.
- Heat a large pot of water to boiling. Add the rice. Cook for 10 minutes and drain.
- Prepare the tahdig (crispy crust): Mix four tablespoons of oil, half a cup of water, two spoonfuls of rice, four of yogurt. Spread this in the pot.
But Mom says: Slice and fry a potato instead. This isn’t your grandmother’s tahdig, but it’s delicious, like French fries. We like that better.
Dinnertime at my Uncle Tamaz’s house in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I’m 12, just old enough to misbehave on purpose, so we can go home.
It’s not that I don’t love Uncle Tamaz. His daughters are my play sisters, skinny and brown, chattering about boys and going to Kermanshah last summer. Unlike me, they’ve visited Iran several times. They observe Persian customs, as much as you can in Kalamazoo.
What I don’t like is my uncle’s house. It’s thick with carpets; I feel muffled, as if they’re rising up to choke me. Silver cups and bowls gleam in the living room gloom. His daughters’ bracelets click when they move. Sury has necklaces with turquoise straight from Iran, not the cheap kind Americans buy. Turquoise is Persian, Sury says, not Spanish or even Turkish. It’s like saffron; you can’t find the real thing anywhere else.
I’ve never been to Iran, and I don’t want to go. I imagine it as a land of even thicker carpets and more of that gloomy silver. Last summer Sury’s family tried to fix her up; you’re 12, they said, time to think about a husband. “Can you believe it?” she giggles. Unlike Uncle Tamaz, my father hasn’t taught us Farsi and seldom talks about our aunties, though I know that one of them is named Cobra, which seems fantastic and frightening. Whenever I ask about Iran, my father tells me I’m lucky that I wasn’t born there.
“Here you can do anything, be anything,” he says. “Over there, maybe you couldn’t go to school. Don’t you want to go to college?”
We sit down to eat. I close my eyes and smell what’s coming: A Persian food fest, with none of my American favorites, like pizza.
There is khoresh, a meat stew; cinnamon gives it a sweet taste that I despise.
There is eggplant, slimy with oil. There is ice water with rosewater, a scent that makes me think that I should be eating with my nose.
There is noodle soup, one strand like a snake curled up at the bottom of the bowl.
“You eat this before you go on a trip so that you can find your way home,” Uncle Tamaz’s mother says, and I think, maybe this is why people leave in the first place, but I eat it.
For dessert, there’s pastry dipped in sugar, then honey. I take a bite and my lips glue shut. I beg to be excused and they say yes.
Finally it’s time to leave. We wait in the car while Dad says goodbye. I’m happy, so happy, that I have the modern parents, the father who left everything behind, and the mother who is stylish and pretty and too French to cook all that Persian stuff.
I want to be American; I want to be exactly like everyone else, indistinguishable and unremarkable and white, like a grain of rice. I bounce in my seat. Even here I can smell the cinnamon. Roll up the windows! Let’s go!
It would be years before I realized how much I lost in choosing to assimilate. The funny thing is how simple it was. The art of losing isn’t hard to master, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote; you just lose, faster and faster. As my father knew, it’s remembering that hurts.
Spoon by spoon, return the rice to the pot. Alternate with orange peel and carrot. Mix the spices and sprinkle half onto the rice. Repeat, building a pyramid. Cover and cook for 10 minutes.
Mix ½ cup olive oil with one cup water and ½ cup of the candied orange syrup. Pour over rice. Place a clean dish towel over the pot, cover with a lid and another towel. Steam for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, put a stick of butter and saffron in a small bowl. Using the back of a large spoon, make a well in the rice. Place the bowl inside. Replace the lid.
Wait until the saffron blooms.
How long? You’re Persian, aren’t you?
When the saffron’s ready, you’ll know.
A Sunday in August, so hot birds can’t fly. We’re heading home from Mass, all seven of us in our Town & Country station wagon. Today’s sermon was a rant against the culotte skirt, a fad our pastor doesn’t like; too much like pants, he growled, another sign of that women’s lib.
His black cassock flapped like the chadors my aunties wear in the videos they send us. I’d pressed my knees together in the pew, culotte skirt burning under my thighs. So what if Dad left Iran? Girls here still sin so easily.
By Catholic standards in Milwaukee, our family isn’t big, but my parents still have to run errands once a week. Mom hasn’t yet learned how to drive, so they go together. Now that I’m old enough to babysit and make the rice for dinner, she and Dad have begun going out on Sunday afternoons.
In the way of immigrant families everywhere, I’m godmother to my youngest brother. Lately the others have taken to calling me “little Mom.”
I don’t want to take care of anybody. I don’t want to. I didn’t want to go to Mass but I had to. I have homework and then I want to fix my hair and listen to Marvin Gaye.
“What’s Going On” was playing everywhere that summer of 1971, stirring me in ways I was afraid to admit. From the very first sounds of the crowd — What’s happening, man? Hey, how you doin? — the laughter and whispers, the sax that starts wailing, a sexy vibe grows and then it’s Marvin, no introduction, no hesitation, just Mother, mother/There’s far too many of you crying, Marvin explaining You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today Marvin more deeply Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t don’t punish me with brutality/Talk to me so you can see Marvin so sweetly, when am I gonna grow up, when will I start asking Oh what’s going on/What’s going on
But I can’t say that.
It’s tight in the front seat. Fix lunch, Mom says, give the little ones a nap, not too much TV for the others. I press against the door. I’m 13 but unlike American kids I can’t go to the movies because you do that with people outside the family and we’re not sure about people outside the family. And there’s still so much to learn. A few weeks ago when I mentioned culottes, Mom understood it in French: “You need underwear?”
Dad pulls up to mad barking: Our collie, Silver, strains against the steel line in the front yard. He completes our American Polaroid: Five kids, a dog and a basketball hoop in the driveway. Perfect.
The boys spill out. I open the door, so angry I’m scared. It’s worse than when Dad used our family’s one vote to re-elect Nixon. It’s not like the protests I can’t attend or being told my skirt can drive a boy to sin. It’s not even the anger everywhere, about Vietnam, abortion, and the long gas lines that everyone blames on Arabs who look like us.
For the hundredth time: We’re not Arabs. We’re Persian.
What’s going on?
Mom leans out the door. “I almost forgot,” she says, “defrost the chicken. And watch those boys, don’t go off dreaming in a book like you always do.”
Fuck you my lips move and I hear the words but I can’t see I don’t want to see the door is smooth under my palm it’s hot now and I slam it.
Mom screams. Or what I remember is, I see her mouth open, then the scream. I missed it, Mom’s fingers resting on the door frame. She collapses, hand curling like a broken bird. Dad jumps out, all doctor, and helps Mom into the house.
Years later, when I have my own family and I see dishes in the sink — who left those dishes in the sink? — that anger will return. It’s excessive, explosive. What’s the big deal, my husband will say, but because the anger’s familiar, like a bruise you press and still feel pain, it is a big deal. I’ll slam another door, so hard it breaks; I’ll sob and scream; I will slap my husband. It will take years for me to undo this, to undo myself.
Even now, part of me is the one who sweeps, who folds, who makes the rice. I know her. I appreciate her. Every day is a choice not to be her.
Dad looked at me. “Go to your room,” he said quietly.
That Sunday no one went out. Dad bandaged Mom’s fingers and she had to have a splint so I made the rice without anyone asking and we had dinner as usual. Then we ate and I waited and waited for someone to punish me. But no one did.
To serve, remove the butter and transfer the rice to a platter. This will take time; treat the rice gently. Drizzle the saffron and scatter the jewels: Almonds, apricots, rose petals, everything.
Before serving, take a piece of tahdig for yourself. Eat it, enjoy it. No one has to know.
Now call your brothers, Mom says. It’s time to eat.
No matter how I speak or dress or smooth my hair, I never really blend. On the other side of the world, my aunties and uncles and cousins are eating and working and making love and babies. I don’t belong there. But because they’re there, I don’t belong here.
The lack of a shared language — the Farsi I never learned — is an enormous loss. “Only connect!” cries Margaret Schlegel in Howards’ End, trying to unite her family, “live in fragments no longer.” But fragments are all I have, along with an errant DNA, a sense memory I inherited but can’t always translate. Like Proust’s madeleine, the scent of dried lime can make me stop in mid-stride, as if someone’s called my name.
On a business trip to Los Angeles, I glimpse Shaquille O’Neal and several women who could be Michelle Pfeiffer. At the gym, I see a woman with rhinestones glued onto her belly. Walking down Rodeo Drive, I struggle to recall my opposition to liposuction, eye lifts, lip plumping. These people look incredible. I can’t blend.
But when I go to the neighborhood that Persians call Tehrangeles, I do. I see men who look like my father and brothers, and fruit stands with melons and mint. No one’s wearing rhinestones. There are no natural blondes. Near Flame Persian Cuisine, where I’ll have dinner, I count five waxing salons, a sure sign of women who’ll do what it takes to be beautiful in America.
At the Ketabsara bookstore, I see an elderly woman, splayed out in a lawn chair; her moon-shaped face reminds me of Uncle Tamaz’s mother. Moon Lady’s conducting a conversation in Farsi from which English bubbles escape: I told him. That’s what I heard. Well, you don’t eat enough.
Wandering the aisles, I pull out a book and turn it backwards and then upside down before I realize how it opens: Right to left. Photos are easier: I find a book about Mount Damavand, north of Tehran. It’s stunning: Damavand looms over lush fields; Damavand glowers at sunset; Damavand hides behind clouds, revealing little.
This Damavand is how I think of Iran — not the Persia of melons and mint, but the Iran I can’t read, the one Americans fear.
Suddenly Moon Lady materializes. “Salaam!” she cries. As usual, I apologize; all I know is hello.
“Oh,” the old lady says, then reaches up to cup my face, turning it from side to side. “What are you? You are looking so Persian, I can tell you are Persian, but there is something else. The shape of your face. What is it? Ashkenazi?”
No, I reply, trying not to flinch; my father is Persian, my mother is French. The old lady nods excitedly.
“Oui, oui — je parle français,” she says. As a young girl she lived in Paris. “Ça me manque. C’est très joli là. J’ai beaucoup aimé Paris.”
It turns out that Moon Lady is Ashkenazi and Iranian; she’s lived in LA for 35 years. She’s so likeable that I don’t immediately notice her skin, splotched pink and white and brown with vitiligo. Like mine, her face is a puzzle.
We switch to French. “You have to adapt,” she says, sorrowfully, “but this English is impossible. French is much more beautiful.” When I mention Babol, my father’s birthplace, she hurries off. Soon she returns, Ketabsara’s owner in tow.
It crosses my mind that maybe there’s no such place as Babol anymore; perhaps it’s been lost to history. Sensing my thoughts, the old lady pats my arm. “Don’t worry,” she says. “Everyone has heard of Babol, n’est-ce-pas? I know where that city is.”
The owner opens a book titled “Mazanderan.” Suddenly I feel hot tears: I see poppies — shahgayeh, Moon Lady translates, coquelicots, just like the ones I’ve seen in France. There’s a sweet lazy river, like the one in Arles where we picnicked one summer. I see a vast mountain range and a highway cut into the rock, like Highway 1 to Mendocino.
I see that my father left a place of indescribable beauty, then found the two places in the world that most resemble it — Provence, where he met my mother, and California, where we live now. I see what my father lost and how he kept living, right to left and left to right, in a way that eventually felt natural to him, and with every story he told, to me. If I ever visit Mazanderan, this book says, I’ll recognize it.
There’s a Farsi word for what we are: Chookali, a plant that grows where it doesn’t belong. We Persians are good at this; our diaspora is one of the largest in the world. Los Angeles, with its estimated 87,000 Persians, is one of the largest Iranian communities outside Iran. It shows an astonishing ability to adapt; in addition to religious regimes, Persians have endured waves of invasion, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, and the Arabs who introduced Islam. Over time, we taught our invaders how to run the government; we learned their languages; we married their sons. Thus the conquerors were conquered.
Resilience comes from the Latin, re + salire, which means to spring back, but also to leap again. Persia is the ancient word that describes our culture, Iran the modern country, diaspora where we live now. To look back and leap forward is what Persians do. Loss is where we begin.
“Iran is very beautiful,” Moon Lady says. “That is why no one wants to leave and everyone wants to go back.”
What’s your name? I ask. “Louise,” she shrugs. I kiss her cheek; it’s dry and soft, as I imagine my grandmother’s was.
“Merci,” I say, a word that sounds and means the same in French and Farsi.
Louise beams. “Mais bien sûr!” she says. “Khosh omadi — you’re welcome.”
Dinner at Flame. Shirin polo isn’t on the menu, but I find what I want under ash, soups.
The noodle curls in the bowl. The mix of garlic, lime and mint still confuses me. I don’t like the sour yogurt garnish.
But I eat it. I’m going home.
 Adapted from “Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen,” by Najmieh Batmanglij (Mage Publishers: 1994).
Beatrice Y. Motamedi is a writer, journalist and teacher. She was a Stegner Fellow in poetry and a John S. Knight Fellow in journalism, both at Stanford University. Beatrice’s work has appeared in Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora (University of Arkansas Press: 2006) as well as the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and The International Herald-Tribune. Her series, “The Long Arm of Childhood,” is part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s Story Tracker. Beatrice lives in Oakland, California. Follow her on Twitter, @writergirl