Pomegranate Soup

Pomegranate Soup

4.2 23
by Marsha Mehran

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Random House Publishing Group
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Chapter One

For Marjan Aminpour, the fragrances of cardamom and rosewater, alongside basmati, tarragon, and summer savory, were everyday kinds of smells, as common, she imagined, as the aromas of instant coffees and dripping roasts were to conventional Western kitchen corners.

Despite having been born in a land of ancient deserts, where dry soil mingled with the crumbled remains of Persepolian pillars, Marjan had a great talent for growing plants. She had learned from an early age how to tempt the most stubborn seedlings to take root, even before she could spell their plant names in Farsi. Guided by the gentle hands of Baba Pirooz, the old bearded gardener who tended the grounds of her childhood home, young Marjan cultivated furry stalks of marjoram and golden angelica in dark mounds of earth. The dirt drew its moisture from melted mountain snow, which trickled down from the nearby Alborz into Tehran’s wealthier suburbs, before flowing into the Aminpours’ large octagonal fountain. Bubbling at the center of the walled garden, the pool was lined with turquoise and green Esfahani tiles.

While Marjan trained her eye to spot the first yellow buds of tarragon, or to catch a weed’s surreptitious climb up the stalk of a dill plant, Baba Pirooz would recount the long line of celebrated gardeners who had been born on Persian soil. “Avicenna,” Baba Pirooz began, clearing his throat, “Avicenna was the most famous plant lover of them all. Did you know, Marjan Khanoum, that this wise physician was the first man ever to make rosewater? He squeezed the soft petals for their oils then bottled the precious liquid for the world to enjoy. What a Persian, what a man!” the old gardener would exclaim, pausing only long enough in his lectures to ignite the strawberry tobacco he smoked in a knobby little pipe.

As an adult, Marjan carried the warm memories of Baba Pirooz and her childhood garden with her wherever she went. Not a day passed by that she was not on the lookout for some mound of soil to plunge her fingers into. Using her bare knuckles, engraved with terra-cotta dust and mulch, she would massage her chosen herb or flower into the soil’s folds, whispering loving encouragements along the way. And no matter how barren that slice of earth had been before, once Marjan gave it her special attention, there was no limit to all that could blossom within its charged chambers.

In the many places she had lived—and there had been quite a few in her twenty-seven years—Marjan had always planted a small herb garden, consisting of at least one stem each of basil, parsley, tarragon, and summer savory. Even in the gloomy English flats she and her sisters had occupied for the last seven years since leaving Iran, Marjan had successfully grown a rainbow of cooking herbs in the blue ceramic flowerpots lining her kitchen windowsill. Always the consummate professional, she could not be tempted to give up planting by any amount of rain.

Marjan tried to keep her past perseverance in mind now as she stood in the old pastry shop’s kitchen mixing a second batch of dolmeh stuffing. She wished she’d had more time to cultivate a healthy ensemble of fresh tarragon, mint, and summer savory to add to the dolmeh that she and her younger sisters, Bahar and Layla, were making. Perhaps if she had planted something here in Ballinacroagh, she could have avoided the anxieties that were now creeping up her spine. But then, Marjan reminded herself, it was best not have such regrets, especially when she couldn’t do anything about them. There was still one more batch of the stuffed grape leaves to go—not to mention a half dozen other mouth-watering delicacies—and Time, that cantankerous old fool, was not on her side.

The Babylon Café was set to open in less than five hours. Five hours! In this new town whose name she could hardly pronounce, let alone spell. Ballinacroagh. Ba-li-na-crow. A whole town full of people who would come to taste her fares with questioning eyes and curious tongues. And unlike her other stints in the kitchen, this time she would be responsible for everything.

Marjan’s heart quickened as she browned the ground meat and onions together over the low, dancing flame. The satisfied pan hissed as she introduced dried versions of her precious herbs, the only sort she had been able to buy at such late notice. Even in Iran, there had been times when Marjan had had to resort to cooking dolmeh with dried herbs. By soaking them overnight, she had discovered, they worked almost as well as their fresher relatives. Using her entire torso, Marjan mixed the herbs with the cooked rice, fresh lime juice, salt and pepper. She stirred with all her might despite the unrelenting ache in her shoulders, for such strong rotations were necessary to the dolmeh’s harmony.

Pausing to rub her tired arms, Marjan glanced across the kitchen at her sister Bahar, who was rolling up the first batch of dolmeh. With her wide and piercing eyes, Bahar always looked intense when she worked with food—as if her life depended on whichever vegetable or herb was being sacrificed on the chopping block before her. Surprisingly, of the three Aminpour sisters, it was petite Bahar who possessed the greatest upper arm strength. Fragile in most every other way, Bahar had shoulders and arms that were as powerful as those of a man twice her size, which came in handy whenever jars needed to be opened or there was mixing to be done.

Marjan picked up the wooden spoon and returned to the dolmeh. Her sister looked too busy now to help her beat the remaining stuffing, for not only was Bahar concentrating on rolling her own grape leaves but she was also keeping Layla’s work in check. No matter how many times Marjan was reminded of the differences in her younger sisters’ personalities, there was nothing like the simple act of rolling dolmeh to show her how poles apart Bahar and Layla really were.

Bahar, guided by a stern inner compass, smartly slapped each grape leaf (vein side up) on the chopping block. It was a consistent, methodical march that started with a no-nonsense scoop of stuffing with her left hand, followed by a skilled right-handed tuck of the grape leaf. Then, bringing the dolmeh to a clean surrender, she briskly rolled the grape leaf from the bottom up. Despite her rather gruff manner, Bahar’s method for rolling dolmeh was always successful; she ensured that her little bundles of good fortune were secure on the road up, lest all that she had gathered should fall asunder.

Rolling was always where Layla faltered, for her method was more carefree and altogether too trusting. Although Marjan and Bahar demonstrated the right way endless times, Layla would still leave her dolmeh vulnerable to the elements. One could always tell which bundles were hers, for if neither of her older sisters was quick enough to catch the spill of stuffing, rerolling the grape leaf while shaking her head, the moment of truth came forty-five minutes later with the opening of the oven door. Among the neat, aromatic green fingers expertly tucked by Marjan and Bahar would be the younger girl’s unmistakable burst parcels of golden filling. And for some strange reason, they always smelled of Layla’s signature scent—rosewater and cinnamon.

It was a familiar enough smell, this faint perfume that accompanied Layla’s every move, but odd for a recipe that did not contain either ingredient. The cinnamon-rose dolmeh never really surprised her sisters, though. Layla had a way of raising expectations beyond the ordinary.

when thomas mcguire’s spits and curses hit the pavement outside the old pastry shop, Bahar was in the middle of removing a ready tray of dolmeh from the oven. After forty-five minutes they were as perfectly symmetrical as the greatest Persian carpets, the tray a clean loom upon which the stuffed grape leaf fingers were lined in even clusters and patterns. Although the kitchen was at the back of the shop, the sound of Thomas’s vulgar excretions carried clearly to Bahar’s sensitive ears. Gasping with surprise, she reached for the hot tray of dolmeh with bare hands and paid dearly for her distraction with the start of smoking blisters.

“Quick! Get under the cold water! Layla—aloe vera! Bahar, stop squeezing your thumb like that!” Marjan yelled, pushing her sister toward the sink. As the eldest of the three, Marjan was accustomed to directing her sisters in emergencies.

Bahar shuddered as the cold water ran over her scorched thumb. In the upstairs flat, a small one-bedroom residence that the Delmonicos had used as an office and storage area, Layla scrambled through open cardboard boxes looking for the green bottle of soothing gel.

“I can’t find the aloe! Are you sure you packed it?” she yelled down to the kitchen.

“Yes!” Marjan hollered. “Look in the small box that says ‘Miscellaneous’!”

“Don’t worry. It’s stopped already. See? I’ll just put an ice cube on it,” said Bahar, sticking out her hurt thumb so Marjan could see the rising welts.

Bahar tried to put on a brave face, but inside she felt a lot like that thumb of hers. Born, as her name indicated, on the first day of the Persian spring, she had the superstitious nature of people whose birthdays fall on the cusps of changing seasons. She was forever looking over her shoulder for fear that she had stepped on cracks or wandered under a ladder. Bahar’s inherent nervousness had escalated to a deeper malaise in recent years, the result of unspeakable events that had left indelible scars. Although her neurotic tendencies often irritated the more hardy teenager Layla, Marjan’s heart just softened a bit more every time she saw her sister jump so.

“Are you sure you’re all right? Listen, I’ll finish the dolmeh. Just mix the rice for me, okay?” Marjan gave Bahar an ice cube wrapped in a torn piece of newspaper and placed the piping tray of dolmeh on a low wooden island in the middle of the kitchen.

Made especially for a man of Napoleonic measurements, this rectangular table had been the centerpiece of Luigi Delmonico’s kingdom, where he rolled, powdered, slapped, and whipped the exquisite paninis and chocolate-filled brioches he would later showcase in his beloved Papa’s Pastries. It was also where Estelle, his bride of forty-five years, had found him dead—three hours after the bowl of meringue he was preparing had stiffened into a pink, cotton-candied tutu.

Of course, Estelle had failed to mention this last point when she had shown the three sisters around the place five days ago, though in reality, it probably would have made little difference. The girls’ battered boxes were already shipped over and waiting to be picked up in Castlebar. Besides, the shop, complete with all the appliances and utensils of a working kitchen (albeit outdated and a bit rusty), was perfect for what Marjan had in mind. And it came at a bargain price.

“My niece told me that you are the best chef she has ever seen. Gloria, she’s a very good girl, no?”

Mrs. Delmonico had stood in the kitchen after the grand tour, the dying afternoon rays entering lazily through a narrow, stained-glass partition in the back door. The sun rays illuminated the dust particles floating above her peppery hair. All surfaces, from countertops to the stacks of pots and dishes, were cloaked in a good inch of the snowy stuff.

“Oh, Gloria was very good to us when we arrived in Lewisham. A great friend,” Marjan said. Behind her, Bahar and Layla both nodded in agreement. “But I think she was exaggerating a bit about my abilities. I was only a sous chef. She was the real talent at the restaurant.”

“Yes, Gloria knows how to cook parmigiana and manicotti, but who doesn’t? Maybe to those English that is gourmet, but you should have seen my grandmother cook! Pfff! If she was still alive today she would be rich from her cooking, I tell you!”

Estelle Delmonico laughed and placed her chubby hands on her hips. The good-natured widow cocked her head and offered a smile to each of the three young women. Fate had it that, although blessed with the welcoming girth of childbearing hips, she had never been able to give Luigi a baby of their own. It was one of her few regrets in an otherwise fortunate and colorful life. But her barrenness had never turned to resentment, a blessing Estelle often accredited to her niece, on whom she was able to practice all the loving criticisms her own mother had lavished upon her. Gloria was a great source of release for Estelle Delmonico, and now she had sent her three darlings to look after as well.

“Okay, then? You will take the store, eh?”

Marjan turned to Bahar and Layla, both of whom appeared to be asleep standing up. Their drawn, exhausted faces had the look of torshi, pickled onions that have been pulled from their bed of vinegar and salt. Who could blame them, really? It had been a long four days since they left London, shipping off their hastily packed boxes and throwing a few personal belongings into two worn plaid suitcases, the same suitcases that had seen them through the Iranian desert a long time ago. The plane ride from London to Knock had been painfully tedious, immigration and customs even worse. Answering the same questions about their religion and ethnic background over and over again. Then two days holed up in a backpackers’ hostel in the nearby town of Castlebar, waiting for their boxes to arrive while they survived on white bread and some hard cheese that Marjan had bought from a corner grocery. Layla, of course, had complained all the way (such was the prerogative of her age), but Bahar had remained sullen, her big doe eyes wet with frightened tears.

But, thought Marjan, the worst certainly seemed behind them. Especially now that they were standing in this dusty little kitchen, with this generous Italian woman. It was time for a new start, time for them to take all the money they had in the world and finally make something of those years of hardship.

“You stay, yes?” Estelle Delmonico pulled a heavy, corroded key from a hidden pocket in her black dress. Toothy and archaic, it was the kind of key that would have released Pandora’s own demons.

“Yes.” Marjan nodded, accepting the key. “We’ll stay. How would you like the rent paid? Monthly or weekly?”

“Agh, don’t worry about that now. You give it to me whenever you have it, yes? I think what is more important is to get you a big bowl of my minestrone soup. That would put some energy in this pretty face, eh?” Mrs. Delmonico walked over to Layla and lightly patted her left cheek.

Marjan, determined to keep up the momentum that had carried them from London over the Irish Sea and into this land of crazed sheep and dizzying roads, shook her head, more to her sisters than to the jolly widow.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Pomegranate Soup 4.2 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 23 reviews.
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librachic More than 1 year ago
In the sleepy town of Ballinacroagh in Ireland,three strangers arrive to shake things up,The different but exotically beautiful Aminpour sisters,Marjan,Bahar and Layla arrive to start Babylon cafe which sells traditional Persian food,delicacies and drinks.Well most of the townsfolk are welcoming,there are some who detest the three sisters such as Thomas McGuire who wants the sisters cafe space for his disco,Layla goes to school and because of her beauty attracts the attention of most of the boys at school,she is extracted to broody Malachy who is Thomas's half son and is very different from his father,Malachy is attracted to Layla,so much that he knocks over a tower tampons at the convenience store much to my amusement,Bahar has a very scarred past with an abusive husband so she finds it hard to trust people,Marjan is the oldest sister,kind and motherly plus she cooks awesome tasting food.The ending was not spectacular but heartwarming and sweet.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the characters - Recipes are great - I have actually tried a few. A good rainy day read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It was wonderfully written and made you want to really know the sister's stories. I was intrigued by the setting and the wonderful recipes included in the book as well. Great read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was wonderful! The characters, especially the three sisters, were very well-drawn. What I'm wondering, though, is if this is the beginning of a series about these three young women. I can kind of see where the eventual saga is going, but I'd like to see how it gets there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not my normal read but this made me happy! Took me forever to get the book but the wait was worth while. Thanks E-Bay!! Full of humour, food, love and drama! This book is for everyone and at the end you feel warm and fussy. All my friends will be borrowing this book that's for sure. I dont think they will wait for paperback and out local liberary is gettin it in.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Marsha Mehran's Pomegranate Soup is a wonderful first novel, she manages to fuse the magical mysticism that surrounds Croagh Patrick with the exotic Persian cuisine of her native Iran. The story captures the lack of tolerance that sadly, is all too common today and the power of friendship that enables people to fight that intolerance. In an ever-changing Ireland where many from abroad have sought asylum, Marsha Mehran has managed to capture the feeling's of loneliness and despair that many feel upon arrival in a new country. She also strips away the veils of religion and nationality to prove the point that fundamentally we are all the same in our goals for love, happiness and a place we can call home. Hats off to Ms Mehran and here's to reading her next novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Loved this book!!! Perfect for the Fall!The narrative is brisk, detailed and charming, the humor is delightful and the story, while simple, is addictive. Mehran effectively captures both the lexicon and atmosphere of the Irish and the Persian. The best way to describe it is to call it a modern, enchanting fairy tale in which multiple cultures and foods interact so effectively that they defeat the human tendency to ostracize because of racism and intolerance. Not only are the Irish and Persians apt to fall in love with the story ¿ but people of just about any other culture or ethnic group given half a chance. The author shows an exceptional imagination bound to lead her to a prolific writing career.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not my normal read, but I did enjoy it from start to finish. Liked the food part. Deffinately a movie book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read a number of books this summer but so far this is the one that made me smile.Its like I took a trip to two countries in one book and ended up with a story that is similar to 'Chocolat' but with a hint of 'The Field'. The Irish caracters are great and the recipes are wonderful.This might be the authors first book, but I have read many books by some very well known writers and there storytelling does not even stand up to this book. THIS IS A NICE STORY! It was nice to finally find a good read this Summer!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I agree!Really great read and perfect for the beach. This town that she sets the book in is so like the small towns in Ireland its uncanny. The bully, the gossip, the dreamer. Its does remind me of Like Water for Choclate but thats brill as I loved that book. I hope she continues writing like this because she has made a new fan!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a great read. I picked it up in B&N on Sunday after review in Newsday. What a wonderful fun and light-hearted read. It made me feel many different emotions. The three sisters made you feel part of there journey as they tried to blend into a new country. The caracters in Ireland reminded me of my trip there in 86. This book I read in two days. But I was smiling for all those days.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Recieved a review copy from a friend and I must say from start to finish I loved it. The humor is bright, the recipes are delicious (made the elephant ears three times already!), and the drama is a little heart wrenching. But over all I cant wait for her next one!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is only the description. The cabin is in the next res.)) A simple and ominous building of obsidian. An archway made of translucent quartz stands before the door. The door itself is built from bronze with gemstone inlays. The interior of the cabin is plain, with a cold steel fountain for Iris messages and several bunk beds.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked how different this book was, however it failed to really grip me. It took quite a while for me to finish because I just wasn't that interested in the characters or what happened to them. I may or may not read the follow up novel.