By Lindsay Sterling
When a guest comes to see Mona, an Iraqi immigrant in Maine, for a cooking lesson this is what Mona shows her how to make: a platter of yellow rice topped with golden chicken pieces, tomato-and chili-flake soup, a platter of beef dolmas, flatbread, pickled vegetables, fresh salad, watermelon and a lemon-yogurt drink. It doesn’t matter that her husband is working so she’ll have to make all this and watch her 4 kids under the age of ten at the same time. Let the boys jump off the couches like diving boards. Give the teething baby some Cheetos to chew on. Let the 3-year-old watch Arabic cartoons on YouTube. A guest has come, and cooking must be done. It’s amazing what you can do when it’s your native culture.
Mona puts the gidduh on (a pot with a bell shaped lid). She puts ¼ cup oil in it and then a whole chicken, the breast bone split so the empty body cavity is wide open. She throws something into it that looks like a black golf ball. It’s a lime that has been boiled in salt water and then sun-dried until completely void of moisture. Next, in flies a cinnamon stick, bright red Madras curry powder, generous salt (three times more than I would ever have guessed), turmeric, minced onion, garlic, and six whole green cardamom pods. She puts the lid on and cooks the chicken with the spices for a while, and then adds enough water to almost cover the chicken. She puts the lid back on and starts making the rest of the meal.
She has already rolled the dolmas before I came and arranged them in layered spiral pattern inside a large soup pot. She now covers them with water. I ask her ten-year-old son, Omar, “Why is she putting a plate on top of the dolmas, and then a big jar of water on top of the plate?” I ask him because his English, after three years in the U.S., is nearly fluent. She speaks but a few words. He explains that the weight of the plate and the jar keep the carefully rolled and arranged dolmas from being opened by the boiling water.
Mona sprinkles an unidentifiable grey powder into the rice and vermicelli noodles. I say, “Wait! What’s that spice?”
Mona looks at me. She has no idea what I’m saying.
“Omar,” I say over my shoulder. “Omar?”
He’s in the living room talking to Grandma on Skype. For some reason when they escaped Iraq and were living in Syria, she got placed in Copenhagen when they got placed here. It’s sad to be so far away from one another, but at least they have Skype.
The gray spice she was putting in the rice, Omar tells me, is a combination of ground green cardamom pods, cinnamon powder, whole cumin, whole clove, and black pepper. She calls the mixture bar timon. Then she ads turmeric to make the rice yellow.
Once the chicken has cooked through in the spiced water, she takes it out of the gidduh, and then pan-fries the whole chicken in a wok. The spice-infused bird takes on a crispy texture and gorgeous golden-brown color. She mounts the golden chicken on a platter on top of the yellow rice and sprinkles sautéed golden raisins and onions all around. When the water has disappeared from the dolmas, she turns the pot over onto a platter, and the dolmas tumble out steaming like a minor miracle.