Fall 2008, Volume 25.1
Kathleen M. Herndon
Kathleen Herndon is a devoted reader of cookbooks, a kitchen adventurer, and a committed food explorer. She serves her experiments to her husband, Al Smith, fellow traveler and gourmet. Kathleen lived in Isfahan, Iran, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for ten years. She is a member of the English faculty at Weber State University and English Department Chair. Her academic interests are in Middle Eastern Women Writers and English Education. "Black Pearls" is part of a larger collection of food essays currently under development.
When I accepted an English teaching job at The American School of Isfahan in late spring 1975, I had no idea what was in store for me. My travels had never ventured farther than Mexico, British Columbia and a ski trip to France. I found in Iran a new and exciting world of exquisite architecture, welcoming people, my future husband, luxurious handcrafts, and exotic foods. Caviar was as foreign to me as the Farsi I was learning to speak.
I had my first taste of Iranian caviar just before Christmas in 1975 in the elegant dining room at the Shah Abbas Hotel in Isfahan. Al arranged the event as a Christmas present.
The waiter taught us that caviar is to be eaten on crustless toast with chopped onion, eggs separated into whites and yolks and chopped, and juice squeezed from small lemon wedges. The only acceptable beverage is iced vodka. We listened intently to his instructions and placed our order. Tuxedoed violinists strolled around the dining room playing requests. Al asked for "Lara’s Theme."
The caviar arrived in a cut-glass icing bowl nestled in a larger stemmed container filled with crushed ice. Perfectly toasted triangles of bread formed petals under the pedestal. Small piles of onion, egg white and yolk and lemon slices were served in another divided serving dish. Our tiny glasses were frosted and the frozen vodka was positioned in a silver ice bucket. Iranians always accompanied caviar with vodka that had been placed in the freezer for several hours until thickened to an icy syrup. The waiter poured and then demonstrated the arrangement of caviar, onion and egg on a piece of toast. He served me and waited eagerly for my first bite.
Crisp toast crackled with my bite. The smooth, salty caviar mingled with the egg, onion and lemon. I chewed and then sipped the icy vodka. I looked across the table at Al who was waiting for my reaction. I smiled at both him and the waiter. "Wonderful," was the only word I could think of. I could have eaten the entire bowlful myself. The tiny eggs seemed to pop inside my mouth. They piled up in little mounds on my toast, just like individual black pearls. I wanted to use my moistened finger to pick up the few that dropped on my plate. I wanted to lick the bowl.
I don’t remember what else we ate that night.
Caviar was government controlled in Iran in the 1970s. It could be ordered in elegant restaurants or purchased in the duty-free caviar shop in the Tehran airport after passing through passport control. I purchased a tin nearly every time I left the country.
In early December, 1977, Al flew to the States to attend his son’s wedding. He purchased a large tin of caviar to take to the various wedding parties preceding the nuptials. He was disappointed to discover that hardly anyone would taste the glorious black pearls from the Caspian Sea. He carefully re-wrapped the tin and brought it back to Isfahan to share with friends over the Christmas holidays. I was delighted. We joked a little about people who were squeamish at the thought of eating fish roe.
"None of the rehearsal dinner guests would even touch that beautiful caviar I brought," Al remarked when he unpacked his carry-on bag upon returning to Isfahan. "Can you imagine that? They were an unadventurous group."
"Do you think we should share it at our Christmas Brunch?" I wondered.
"Let’s put out only part of it and keep the rest for ourselves," Al responded.
"Agreed. We can have it for a special dinner one night during Christmas break."
One summer we went on a fishing trip to the Caspian. We stayed in a fishing and hunting resort in Bandar Pahlavi. The Safari Lodge was a favorite of fishermen during the summer and hunters during the autumn. The buildings faced a lovely green lawn where the children of guests played and guests visited. During the day we fished with a guide and in the afternoons we relaxed on the front porch of our small cabin. On our first afternoon we struck up a conversation with the Iranian family next door. The husband was very friendly, spoke excellent English and finally asked us if we liked caviar.
"Of course," we replied in unison.
"Well, I’m going into town to the bazaar today and I plan to buy caviar. Would you like to go with me?"
A few minutes later we were strolling through the bazaar heading for an unknown location. Soon a man stepped up, spoke to our new friend; he nodded "bali," motioned to us, and we followed down an alley. At the end, our contact knocked on a door which opened cautiously. We stepped inside to find a man sitting at a tiny desk. In front of him was a large ice chest. Another fellow opened the lid and inside were stacks of caviar tins, all wrapped in the distinctive heavy waxed paper and tied with narrow brown cord, twisted at the ends and clamped with the government seal. Our friend negotiated the price and we walked out, he with two tins and we with one. Nonchalantly we got in the car and drove back to our lodge. Nothing more was said. We had just purchased black market caviar. The tins has been spirited away from the government controlled processing and packing plants before they could be shipped to the authorized government shops.
The next morning we ate a luxurious breakfast of black coffee, fresh barberi bread, sweet butter and generous spoonfuls of caviar piled on top. Our fishing trip that morning was not very successful, but we delighted in our breakfast, having already feasted on black pearls that morning. The afternoon before we left to return to Isfahan we ventured to the bazaar again and found a willing guide to take us to another caviar dealer to buy more of the black treasure.
After we left Iran we didn’t find Iranian caviar. We substituted Romanov lumpfish or salmon caviar for special hors d’oeuvres. It wasn’t the same. Then, one of my students in Dubai asked me one day if I liked caviar.
"Of course," I said. "Yes."
"My mom can get you caviar if you like," Raffey responded.
"That would be wonderful," I replied, not believing this sincere but often untruthful student with a need to brag.
I should never have doubted him. He was from an Armenian family originally from Iran. His father was a prominent architect who had hundreds of contacts. Sure enough, a week or so later Mrs. Vartanian came to my classroom at the end of a busy day. In her hand was a package wrapped in protective paper. I spotted the unmistakable heavy waxed paper, the brown cord, and the metal government seal. She refused payment saying that her husband always brought home more caviar than they could eat. I was in heaven.
This time we were in for a grand surprise. The tin contained golden caviar, the finest quality and the kind previously reserved only for the Shah’s family and the court. It was pearlescent and not as dark as beluga. It was nearly the color of dark golden straw. Finding golden caviar was unpredictable. There was no way to determine which sturgeon carried the golden roe. Discovering gold was always a surprise. We loved every bite.
After that Mrs. Vartanian brought me caviar one or two more times. Eventually she allowed me to pay her for the black pearls. She must have realized that I had no intention of accepting caviar as baksheesh to change Raffey’s marginal grades.
Once we shared a tin of treasure with an American couple who lived in our apartment building. When Al asked Lloyd how he liked to eat caviar, Lloyd replied, "With a spoon!" We laughed, knowing full well that each one of us could have consumed the entire tin alone.
I don’t enjoy Iranian caviar very often now. Three times, returning to the States from Europe, I bought a tiny tin for Al at the duty-free Caviar House, once in Frankfurt, once in London, and finally in Amsterdam. The clerk asked, "Why don’t you buy the Russian caviar? It’s less expensive and you can buy a larger tin for nearly the same price."
"No, thank you," I always answered each time before handing over my American Express card. "I prefer the Iranian caviar. You see, I used to live there, and the Russian variety just doesn’t match up."
We always eat caviar with finely chopped onion, egg white and yolk, a squeeze of fresh lemon and iced vodka regardless of the variety. Even Romanov lumpfish caviar tastes pretty good when served that way. And we always use the hand-carved mother-of-pearl spoons I purchased in a fancy speciality shop in Heidelberg to serve the caviar. The precious roe is never served with metal utensils because that will contaminate the flavor.
A few months ago I discovered, in one of my cooking magazines, mention of an American caviar industry in California. I checked it out and, for a holiday surprise, I ordered a 2 ounce tin of their middle grade caviar. On New Year’s Eve Al and I sipped syrupy, nearly frozen Russian vodka and ate American caviar with all the appropriate toppings. It was delicious, creamy, salty and buttery.
But it wasn’t exactly the same. There was no violinist serenading us with "Lara’s Theme."