"Pomegranate Soup" by Marsha Mehran & Gush-e Fil (Elephant Ears)
Anyone who reads this blog will appreciate the blend of literary and culinary experience that is Pomegranate Soup. Food is inseparable from Marsha Mehran’s short novel about three Iranian sisters who flee to Ireland on the cusp of Iran’s revolution. Still shaky from their relocation, the sisters set about opening a café in their new home, the small village of Ballinacroagh. The eldest, Marjan, has a gift for cooking and the novel is interspersed with her recipes. Her food exudes a potent but recognizable form of magic: how certain dishes reawaken old ambitions, stoke forgotten memories or soothe our heartaches.
There isn’t much ambiguity to this story. The bad guy is 100 percent bad and the good guys are 100 percent good. Although the sisters fled in part because of the middle sister Bahar’s fundamentalist, abusive husband, the sisters’ love for each other is never in question. Layla falls in love with the bad guy’s sensitive son but it all goes alright. Emotions aren’t very complicated and personal growth seems relatively easy. The plot turns are a bit cliché, but it’s hard to deny that Pomegranate Soup is a book with a lot of soul. It’s a sweet read, easily digested and with a nourishing (if predictable) happy ending.
However, while this is a well-told story, it’s not a very well-shown one (to paraphrase Mark Twain). The prose isn’t very elegant and occasionally the food-based metaphors veer dangerously close to overwrought. There are, nonetheless, a few gems. Like when the youngest sister Layla’s exotic allure captivates Benny, the town’s baker, and reminds him of the youth “he had forgotten in all these years of kneading the unsavory rolls of both his profession and the body of his cold wife.”
Despite the limitations of the writing, I enjoyed the story for personal reasons. I’m always sensitive when reading about Ireland, a country I simultaneously belong to and don’t. Like an estranged child defending a mother she barely knows, it’s a country that I want desperately to think the best of. So it was nice that while Mehran doesn’t neglect Ireland’s less palatable parts (anti-foreign sentiments, pious bitches, aggressive bullies), she shows off its kind and interminably good-natured sides too.
Rather than attempt a variation on the book’s namesake recipe (which is likely beyond my culinary talents), I decided to try making the gush-e fil, or elephant ears, that charmed so many of Ballinacroagh’s citizens. Some of the book’s featured dishes are linked to the sisters’ more troubled memories, but the fried doughnut-like elephant ears are “made in celebratory moments, when the satisfaction of their simplicity is unmatched by more complicated desserts.” In keeping with the lightheartedness of gush-e fil, my variation on Mehran’s recipe is minimal but in keeping with the novel’s setting: I added chocolate whiskey dipping sauce.
GUSH-E FIL (ELEPHANT EARS) WITH CHOCOLATE WHISKEY DIPPING SAUCE
Makes: 15 pastries
For the gush-e fil:
- 1 egg
- ½ cup milk
- ¼ cup sugar
- ¼ cup rosewater
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom (or nutmeg)
- 3¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 6 cups vegetable oil
- confectioners sugar for garnish (optional)
For the chocolate whiskey dipping sauce:
- 5 ounces milk or dark chocolate
- ½ cup milk
- 3 teaspoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons whiskey
Beat egg in bowl. Add milk, sugar, rosewater, and cardamom. Slowly mix in flour, kneading into a dough.
Roll dough out on a clean surface with a floured pin until it is paper-thin. Using the rim of a wide-mouthed glass or cup, trace and cut out a circle. Pinch the top of the circle with your thumb and forefinger. Set aside. Repeat until all circles (approximately 15) are done.
Heat oil in a deep pan. Fry each ear for 30 to 60 seconds. Lay pastries on paper towel to drain and cool. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar, if desired.
For the dipping sauce, break chocolate into pieces and set aside. In a medium saucepan, whisk together milk and sugar. Bring milk to a steady simmer, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add in chocolate pieces a few at a time and whisk until smooth, then whisk in cream. Let mixture come to room temperature, then mix in whiskey.
Chocolate Whiskey Dipping Sauce adapted from Carrie Vasios Mullins’ recipe.