At seventeen, following an unconventional childhood, Jennifer Klinec finds herself in Dublin. She goes to school and lives alone in an apartment overlooking Dublin Bay.
…and there I found the love of my life: I began to teach myself to cook.
When she returns to Canada, her mother’s surprised to see she’s gained weight, assuming she would have been living on ‘spaghetti and tuna fish’.
Instead of being shunted out of the kitchen, I now took my rightful place beside her, forming a partnership as tender and sturdy as the fingerprints we pressed into the chestnut-flour dumplings that we scattered on soft tea towels.
Her mother continues her culinary education by teaching Klinec her favourite childhood recipes. She continues to discover new dishes throughout her time at university in Montreal then, after a whirlwind romance with a New Zealander, she moves to the UK. The romance doesn’t last but Klinec decides to stay and lands a job working at an investment bank in London.
Eventually she grows to hate the job and, after a weekend visiting her parents, she quits and starts her own business, ‘Eat Drink Talk’, giving cookery classes in her own flat. Occasionally she takes trips abroad, learning to cook dishes that are ‘important and historical’. In The Temporary Bride, she takes the reader with her on a trip to Iran.
I have precise ambitions, one more specific than all. I want to eat that most famous of Iranian delicacies: I want to eat Iranian rice.
Iranian rice is unlike any other. It isn’t boiled or steamed or thrown unceremoniously into a rice cooker. Iranian rice is first soaked and bathed like a Hindu princess, rinsed in three changes of just-warm water. It goes into the pot with a spoonful of salt, carefully simmered just until it begins to yield, its determined character and bite remaining intact. Finally it is drained and returned to the pot in a footpool of melted butter, over the gentlest of heat, until it is so impossibly light and fluffy it could fill the quilts and pillows of Buckingham Palace.
Tipped out into a wide, shallow serving bowl, each grain of rice is perfectly separate and served piled high like wedding confetti, adorned with streaks of bright yellow saffron and dotted with a final, loving pat of yet more butter. But the best part of all is still to come: the tahdig. A crisp, buttery, golden crust of rice left to scorch on the bottom of the pan to just the right thickness, the tahdig is shattered into gem-like shards and scattered on top of the rice. It crunches and crackles and splinters in your mouth as you eat.
I quote Klinec at length so you can get a taste (haha!) of her wonderful descriptions of the food she cooks and the dishes she tries. She conjures not only the sight of them but often a sensation of how they might taste too. It’s this that drives most of the first half of the book.
Klinec spends her time in Iran cooking with a woman whose husband and son she meets in the café of her hotel, the first day she’s there. The son, Vahid, is gruff and, after an afternoon sightseeing, he deposits her back at the hotel with his name and address and an instruction to ‘Call me tomorrow at one p.m’. She tells us, ‘I was unsure whether I would call him at all’.
But call him she does. As she spends time in his mother’s kitchen and eating with them as though she’s a member of the family, a relationship of sorts begins to develop between her and Vahid. One that really begins to take off when his mother is out and he accompanies Klinec on a food-based sightseeing tour of Yazd.
Any relationship they have is never going to be straightforward, however. Firstly, there’s the power-imbalance between a western woman and an Iranian man; secondly, there’s Iran’s strict laws and customs regarding relationships. Throughout the advancing of their courtship, Klinec employs the skills she used to describe the food to place the reader almost in the position of a voyeur. There were moments I felt uncomfortable seeing her and Vahid together, partly because they were so intimate but also because I was very aware of the danger they were placing themselves in. At one point, I was concerned about the ethics of the memoir itself and skipped to the end of the book to see if it would allay my fears. Even knowing the outcome didn’t prevent me from feeling the tension and the anxiety that Klinec projected as she and Vahid try and stay safe in a climate set against them.
The Temporary Bride is a fascinating memoir and a glimpse into a country little explored in western literature. Klinec’s writing portrays the beauty of the food, the cultures and customs of the country, and the burgeoning love between her and Vahid. It’s well worth a visit.
Jennifer Klinec is currently on a tour of UK libraries discussing The Temporary Bride, you can find out more here.
Thanks to Jennifer Klinec for the review copy.