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“La Vara”

  Occasion: Cuisine: Area: Cost: Rating:
  Night Out Spanish Brooklyn Moderate Great

Sephardic Jewish cooking— and those who know it should not be surprised —is magical. Truly, it is. It’s an aromatic, exotic, and mesmerizing cuisine. It’s a world steeped in turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, and saffron layered with dates, pomegranates, pistachios, and oranges. My Persian grandmother, who I called Bibi, raised me on Sephardic food. She was a Mashhadi Jew who fled to Turkey when it became clear that the Jews were not exactly welcome to stay in Iran. She cooked with every part of her. Her soul was in those pots, her heart, her love, her hopes and dreams for herself, her kids, her grandkids, and heck, even for you if she’d known you. That’s the way she was. Always hoping, always worrying, always cooking, always loving.

After she died, we went through her pots and pans. She had so many and most were still in great shape. But then we found the POT of all pots. It was the size of a college student’s laundry basket: deep and wide and large enough for several loads. We all looked at each other. “She cooked rice in this pot,” my mother said, shaking her head in disbelief, staring down into the abyss that was the mouth of the pot. I had never seen anything like it. “Rice? Was she cooking for an army?” I asked. The pot could have taken up four burners. I pictured my little Bibi, cooking rice in her big pot. Did she use a stepladder? It’s possible. But that’s the way she entertained. None of us claimed the pot. We’d never use it. I was ashamed.

In my memories, Bibi cooked like some sort of wonderful Tasmanian devil, whirling around her kitchen with a Moore perched on her lips, monitoring pots of rice steaming on the stove, Sabzi greens frying in a pan, preserved lemons, pierced to let their sour-sweet hearts flavor pots of Khoresh, the entire apartment growing humid with the smells of basmati rice and dill. And she fed us just as fervently, piling on the rice and the Khoresh like our lives depended on it. She was the simply best cook I have ever known. I know I will never eat that way again. The sad part is, I truly have no ability to cook the food she cooked for me. I have tried, and at times there is a glimmer of recognition between the past and the present, but it’s rather like passing someone you think you know, then only to realize they’re a stranger. It’s a unique form of heartbreak, not only to miss the person, but to miss t ... [more, click below]

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