‘If you knew my grandmother, you wouldn’t think she was a pickle-making kind of woman’
My most treasured food memory: Author Sabrina Ghayour
Sabrina Ghayour: Unlike many Iranians, I grew up in a family where home cooking was thin on the ground. Photograph: Kris Kirkham
Unlike many Iranians, I grew up in a family where home cooking was thin on the ground. My mother was always ushered out of the kitchen as a child and thus never learned to cook and my grandmother absolutely hated cooking and was only forced to learn a few recipes once we moved to London in the late 1970s.
My childhood food memories were made up of visits to other people’s homes, eating out, the birth of convenience food in the 1980s, and a few sparse memories here and there of my beloved grandmother reluctantly spending time in the kitchen.
For some reason, one such memory stands out in my mind more than others. Me, knee-high to something a bit bigger than a grasshopper, perched on the kitchen counter, in our tiny kitchen, watching my grandmother make pickles. Now, if you knew my grandmother, you wouldn’t really think she was a pickle-making kind of woman. With her immaculate hair, long red nails and flawless skin, she would be more at home in a beauty parlour, than a kitchen, if I’m perfectly honest, but yes … pickles.
She would basically choose a Sunday, once every month, when she would reluctantly concentrate all her efforts into making enough stews and food for the coming month’s entertaining. It would duly be frozen/preserved/stored until needed. It always makes me giggle when people suggest you mustn’t freeze rice because I was virtually raised on it.
It makes me sad to think children don’t spend more time in the kitchen these days because although my grandma was no domestic goddess and hated cooking with a passion, I actually think she was really rather good at what she did manage to make.
She used to beg me not to cook for Christmas and would say “Why on earth do you want to go through all that hassle? We can buy it all ready-made from the supermarket, if you like?”
She never quite understood what it was to love food and to have a passion for cooking it. I guess I wish I had spent more time watching what she did in the kitchen, but on those rare occasions I got to watch her making pickles (usually a mixed aubergine/cauliflower/carrot one called Litteh), or one of only four stews (Persian lamb and aubergine – lamb and braised celery – lamb, herb and kidney bean – chicken, walnut and pomegranate) and three rice dishes (lamb, tomato and green bean – lamb, broad bean and dill – lentil, raisin and saffron) that she knew how to make. There was a meatball dish too that was so good, I now teach it in my cookery classes (lamb, rice and split pea meatballs).
I was absolutely mesmerised by it all and just listing the dishes here makes me realises that perhaps she was a bit more competent than she’d let on, and for the rest of my life, I will cherish those memories so much because they connect me to her in a special way.
She never lived to see the day when I became a chef and she always did wonder where I got my love of cooking from. But maybe it had more to do with her than I thought. I know she would certainly have been very proud, even if she did think it best for me to just nip to a supermarket and buy it all in, ready-made.
Sabrina Ghayour’s latest cookery book, Feasts, is published by Mitchell Beazley.