My mother’s affectional currency was not so much hugs and kisses as it was food. Cooking and eating were central aspects of our Southern California Bukharian Jewish family life. It was a rare day that delicious aromas didn’t greet me when I came in from school. The first thing I always did was to uncover the pots to see what was cooking.
What was cooking often was unrecognizable to my 1960’s meat-and-potatoes-eating peers. Sunday brunch was not lox and bagels, but djouroti, a hot lentil and rice dish eaten in a glass, topped with cold yogurt and crushed, sauteed garlic. Hard boiled eggs and tuna fish were topped not with mayonnaise, but with fresh lemon juice and chopped scallions. Fancier fare usually included rice, lamb, raisins and pine nuts.
With olive complexions, dark curly hair and parents with accents, my siblings and I were the antithesis of the cool, blond Southern California surfer and even of my third generation American Jewish schoolmates, who by the fifth grade had figured out how to get the kinks out of their hair.
Even my mother’s hamburgers were un-American — they were made with diced onion, parsley and cinnamon. In a reflection of her years in Jerusalem, Alexandria and California, my mother’s meals often were accompanied by avocados mashed with lemon and garlic, artichokes dipped in a lemon-oil dressing, other fresh green vegetables, home-made pickled cucumbers, eggplant or peppers and always a fresh salad. Our freezer had nothing but meat, ice and juice, and the only cans in the house contained tomato sauce. On weekends, holidays or anytime my married brothers and sisters came to dinner, there would be a truly Bukharian dish — usually pilau — on the table.
Pilau (more authentically known as osh-pillo) was the centerpiece of most of our celebratory meals. Made with rice and lamb or chicken, pilau was a family favorite even though it didn’t occupy the honored spot at the top of the list. That place was reserved for kubeh (a bulgur-flour mixture shaped into a very fat cigar, pointed at both ends and deep-fried to a golden brown, stuffed with an unbearably delicious blend of finely chopped meat, minced onions, parsley, pine nuts and a dash of cinnamon) or dushpera (a thin, delicate and somewhat more aesthetic version of kreplach). But we were treated to these delicacies only three or four times a year, my mother claiming they were just too much work. We got dushpera on Rosh Hashannah, but pilau was the Shabbat and minor holiday specialty. While it did elicit a fair amount of mouth-watering anticipation, it didn’t rate skipping lunch, as did dushpera and kubeh — and maybe chelo, a meat and tomato-based soup with chick peas, rice and meatballs.
But pilau is where all Bukharian cooks start. For brides-to-be, it is the dish to master.
My mother, however, was one of two children and the only surviving daughter of a woman whose husband and three other children had died. My grandmother, known to us as Beebesh, spoiled my mother by not requiring her to clean, cook or do other household chores. After her marriage to my father in 1926, my mother lived in a household in Jerusalem’s Bukharian Quarter with her mother-in-law, a cook, a maid and a hired man who did the shopping. It wasn’t until my parents travelled to Bombay several years later that my mother tried to cook pilau. She always laughs when she recalls the consequences of that attempt. In a rice-based dish, she had omitted a crucial ingredient — water.
By the time I, the last of seven children, was born, my mother was 42 and a master at making pilau and other Bukharian dishes. We kids looked forward to every meal. Whenever we marvel at her food — and at our inability to replicate her dishes — my mother tells us what she considers the secret of her culinary success: “I cook with love.”
“Ema’s food was emotionally nourishing” my niece Miriam says. (We all — children, grandchildren, even in-laws’ families — call her Ema, mother in Hebrew.) “Her love comes through in her deeds. She enjoys cooking. It’s creative for her. It is her thing.” Of course, my mother’s accomplishments are not limited to cooking. She is widely respected in our large extended family for her sharp business acumen, her open mind and her chachmat chaim (life knowledge).
My oldest brother and sisters, who were raised in Palestine with my grandmother and various aunts and uncles, learned to speak the Tajiki-Jewish dialect spoken by Bukharian Jews. By the time I was born in Los Angles in 1948, food remained the second generation’s only real link to Bukharian Jewish culture. More than the language, music, dance and the exotic clothing, what’s been passed down to us is the food.
Like many accomplished old-time cooks, my mother does not work from recipes — nor does she give them out. “If you want to learn, watch me” is her constant refrain.
Ruth Mason is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her mother, Sivia Moussaioff (nee Babayoff and later changed to Mason), currently lives in Jerusalem.
1/3 cup vegetable oil
4 medium onions, diced
3-4 lb. fryer chicken cut into eight pieces
5-6 large carrots
2 cups white rice
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
3 cups water
1/4 cup raisins (optional)
1/4 cup roasted pine nuts (optional)
In a large pot, heat the oil, then add onions, stirring occasionally, until they are barely yellow. While the onions are cooking, thoroughly wash chicken, removing as much fat as possible. Add the chicken pieces and cook uncovered for 15 minutes over medium flame, mixing occasionally. While the chicken is cooking, peel the carrots, then make them into shavings using a vegetable peeler. Remove chicken and onions and place a handful of rice and a handful of carrots in the bottom of the pot.* Don’t worry if there doesn’t seem to be much oil in the pot. Replace chicken and onions, top with carrots, salt, pepper, cinnamon and raisins. Cook for 10 minutes, covered, over a low to medium flame. Sprinkle rice over the chicken, add water and cook uncovered over a high flame until if boils vigorously. Stir the rice, being careful not to disturb the chicken. Cover and reduce to a very low flame. Cook one-half to one hour or until the rice is done. (After 20 minutes, wrap the cover of the pot in a thin kitchen towel to absorb excess moisture.) Serve piping hot, garnished with pine nuts if desired. Serves 4 to 6.
For a vegetarian version, omit chicken and substitute sliced fresh mushrooms and red pepper. For crisper vegetables, stir in lightly sauteed vegetables just before serving the pilau.
*This creates tadiggi, the much-loved, in our family even fought-over, semi-burnt crust at the bottom of the pot. It also prevents sticking.