I’ve often viewed birthdays as a time to challenge myself to do the scary and uncomfortable. I promise myself to try at least one new thing by my next birthday. Silly things such as hot air ballooning or learning how to ride a horse featured prominently on my lists until one year when my birthday goal was to have a child. But by the time the next year dawned, my biological clock had stopped ticking prematurely, rendering pregnancy impossible. After that, my only goal was to get through the next few birthdays without letting childlessness define me, because I’d previously viewed myself as a woman destined for motherhood. Instead of setting my priorities, I focused on building my businesses until they became my children.
Then three years ago, during a surprise birthday trip to Europe, I finally got the message loud and clear. My jaw dropped upon opening my Facebook page. Instead of the usual birthday wishes, my eyes darkened as they fell on condolences for a close friend named Doly who died that day after a brief but painful battle with cancer.
One of the worst things about this realization was that I hadn’t seen Doly in a long time and she hadn’t told me of her illness. Her sister told me Doly didn’t want to burden anyone with the sad news of her diagnosis just six months before. Doly and I had been in touch in the years since my husband’s job had taken us to Uganda, but in the meantime, I had opened two restaurants and was too busy juggling the demands of my businesses to talk to her nearly as much as I’d wanted to. We had discussed her visiting me in Uganda many times, and I realized I’d again put off something that I could never go back to fix. Another year had passed, and this time Doly was gone.
Doly was a Persian Jew whose father immigrated to Israel from Shiraz, Iran. After Israel’s victory in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, anti-Semitism swept Iran. Up to a third of Iran’s Jewish population fled to avoid increasing violence and harassment. Because Doly’s family name was Yehudiha, there was little doubt that the sons of the wealthy and successful family needed to leave the Iran of their childhood, one of privilege and grandeur. Eventually, one of those sons — her father — married and had four daughters, the oldest a spitfire named Dalia, who got the nickname Doly while serving in the Israeli military.
She would glue you back together with food from her father’s homeland.
If you didn’t mind being the subject of a thorough interrogation, you could visit Doly’s tiny corner apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv, assured that no matter your problem, you’d always leave well fed and in a much better mood. If your expression was slightly off-kilter, she’d notice immediately. She’d poke and pry until you spilled the beans. When she was satisfied she couldn’t extract more information, she would get up, open the refrigerator door, stare as if she was looking in a mirror and ask what you wanted to eat. It was as if, content in the knowledge that she had pulled you apart and dissected you to the best of her ability, she would then try to glue you back together again with food.
The food of her father’s homeland always featured prominently in her household for the Shabbat meal. Since I had many Persian friends while growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, I was exposed to Persian food prepared by my friends’ mothers. I even badgered one of these incredible home cooks into teaching me how to make zereshk polo — my favorite dish.
Zereshk polo is a rice dish with chicken, saffron and barberries — tart and sweet dried berries with a flavor similar to pomegranates. I must have impressed Doly with my knowledge of Persian cuisine when we first met because I remember that one of the first gifts she gave me was dried barberries her mother had acquired from an aunt in Iran.
Doly cooked for me many times in her tiny kitchen, pulling from precariously hung cabinets mismatched hand-me-down pots that never seemed to have lids that fit. While she cooked, she would smoke, drink coffee and continue the interrogation, stopping only to look at me with squinting eyes if her finely honed bull— detector noticed any discrepancies in my statements. Every few minutes she would get a phone call, swing back her long black curls and continue chatting and laughing with the caller while cooking. Phone on her shoulder, knife in hand, she would squeal in hilarity, her bright eyes sparkling and shining like stars.
Finally, five hours or so after you had “just stopped by for a coffee,” Doly presented you with an insanely amazing plate of food — simple, fresh and perfectly cooked. Something as no-nonsense as roast chicken with rice and salad prepared with a little pinch of this and that, exactly what you felt like eating and with so much love oozing out of it that it felt as though you were in your mother’s kitchen. At least 10 times during the meal, Doly would bounce out of her chair and pull another delicacy out of the fridge — a condiment, a lemon slice, a chili pepper, a dusting of sour and earthy sumac. “Try this, try that, eat this with that,” she’d say.
This birthday, I will cherish this zereshk polo, using the last of Doly’s barberries. I was so utterly miserly with them that they have darkened and soured, their remains still buried in my freezer three years after her death. They don’t taste so good anymore, but that’s part of the lesson. Hopefully, eating them will be a bittersweet reminder not to put off events and people that are important. Instead, this birthday my goal will be to remember to eat the barberries now before it’s too late.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.