Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lunch Box Chronicles: Day One Hundred Fifty-Seven (On Cellular Memory and My Grandfather's Cuisine)

Is there such a thing as a cellular memory in which your body, heart, and soul remembers something, not because you personally have ever had the experience to remember, but somewhere in your ancestral past, someone that preceded you, had the experience and your body remembers it?

Bizarre, no? But, I swear I have had this experience with food, and I witnessed something similar with my youngest daughter.
Several years ago, I frequented a now closed Persian restaurant in Portland, Maine, and had a dish that I had never tasted before – Fesenjan. I was immediately taken by the first bite. I absolutely loved it! Despite never having tasted anything like this before, it tasted like home, transported me back in time, and created a sense of déjà vu.

It was a Mediterranean dish made with ground walnuts, pomegranate paste, onions, sugar, salt and pepper blended together. I couldn’t get enough. I was enthralled; I brought my 8o year old mother to the restaurant to sample the dish. “Mom, try this. It is so good.” She tasted it and gave me this faraway look, “Yes, yes,” she said, “I know this dish, my papa use to make it; he brought the recipe from the old country.”

But, her papa had died years before I was born, and I never met him. The recipe was lost with him. My mother did not carry that recipe forward. It was something tucked away in the past. “But, mom,” I protested, “How come you never made this for me?” She lamented, “With 9 kids in the house during the Depression, we needed to stay out of the kitchen and leave the cooking to mama and papa. When I was older, I learned a few recipes, but not this one.”

Now having tasted Fesenjen, it was a part of my present sense. I wanted it again, but the Persian restaurant closed, and I became wrapped up in daily life, and the longing for the taste was tucked away.
Yet, last month, my recent memory was sparked, and my cellular memory went into overdrive when I happened upon a bottle of pomegranate paste in an international grocery store. “I’ve got to have that bottle!” I proclaimed to my business partner. A little perplexed, and slightly amused, he took out $5 to buy the bottle of the mystery syrup, the likes of which he had never previously seen.

I scanned the internet and found a recipe for Fesenjen. I was worried that my expectations would not be met, but I made the dish, tasted it with delight, and gave it to my family with great anticipation as to what they would think of this exotic dish. 

The appearance is brown and grainy with a tart, sweet, and tangy flavor. Certainly, something that typically does not appeal to the average American kid.

And yet, when 9 year-old Olivia gave it a try, her face lit up. “This is one of the best things I have ever tasted!” It was as familiar and comforting to her as a hug from a grandparent or a great grandparent. She knew this taste; she loved this taste; but she only now first experienced it. Like I did several years earlier, she too was experiencing a cellular memory of her ancestral past.

And, here is the recipe for generations to come, borrowed from Whats4Eats website.
4 to 6 servings
Butter or oil -- 1/4 cup (I used extra virgin olive oil)
Chicken, cut into serving pieces -- 2 1/2 to 3 pounds (I used boneless chicken)
Onions, thinly sliced – 2 (I chopped the onions finely)
Walnuts, finely ground in a food processor -- 2 cups
Stock or water -- 1 1/2 to 2 cups (I suggest the lesser amount)
Sugar -- 1-3 tablespoons
Salt and pepper -- to taste
1. Heat the butter or oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium flame. Add the chicken pieces a few at a time and brown on all sides. Remove to a plate and set aside.
2. Add the onions to the pot and sauté until translucent.
3. Stir in the ground walnuts and stock or water and return the browned chicken pieces to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
Stir in the pomegranate juice, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for another 15-20 minutes until the chicken is tender, the sauce is somewhat thickened and the walnuts begin to give off their oil. Adjust seasoning and serve with plain white rice.

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