At Mona's house in Westbrook, when a guest comes to visit, this is what she makes: a platter of yellow rice topped with golden bone-in 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 if her husband's working so she'll have to make all this and watch her four 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 three-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 culture.
SUPERVISING Omar, 10, makes sure the dolmas are cooking properly, under a plate and a jar of water.
Mona puts the gidduh on (a pot with a bell-shaped lid). She puts a quarter-cup of 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, gen-er-ous salt (three times more than I ever would have guessed), turmeric, minced onion, garlic, and six whole green cardamom pods. She puts the lid on and gives the chicken some private time under the lid with the spices. After a while, she adds enough water to almost cover the chicken, puts the lid back on and shifts to making the rest of the meal.
She has rolled the dolmas before I arrived, arranged layers of them in a spiral pattern in a large soup pot, and 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 US, is nearly fluent, and 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 blasted apart by the boiling water.
Mona sprinkles an unidentifiable gray 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 she got placed in Copenhagen when they got placed here, when the family left Iraq. 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 is a combination of ground green cardamom pods, cinnamon powder, whole cumin, whole clove, and black pepper. She calls it bar timon. Then she ads turmeric to make the rice yellow. Once the chicken has cooked through in the spices and 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 it 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.
For Mona's recipes and how-to photos, and to contact the author, go to immigrantkitchens.com.