One of my favorites! Originally posted on my website in March, 2017.
The Scent of Food is Memory and Love
Azedah took the leaves off of the last small, round eggplant, then cut through the dark purple flesh until she had turned it into a pile of thick slices. She added them to the others already simmering in olive oil in her largest frying pan, so wide it covered most of the cooktop on that side of the stove. When both sides were golden brown, she lifted the eggplant pieces out of the pan and put then aside to drain. Quickly, her fingers moving with long experience, she chopped a large yellow onion; the fine slices sizzled when they hit the hot oil left in the pan.
“Azedah,” the house said. “The visitors have arrived.”
“Ah, they are early! Is Yasmin out of the shower?”
“Yes. Yasmin is in the study,” the house replied.
Azedah stirred the onions with a worn wooden spatula, and the smell of their cooking spread across the large kitchen. “Ask Yasmine to greet our guests,” she said. Behind her, the pressure cooker beeped, its cycle finished. She tapped the “natural release” icon, and turned back to the stove.
She reached to her left – but her hand closed on empty air.
“House,” she said aloud, “where did I put the tinned tomato paste?”
There was a beep from one of the long pantry cabinets near the refrigerator; the door opened softly. Azedah gave the frying pan a small circular shake and set it back on the heating element before sprinting over to the open cabinet. She pulled out a small can and rushed back to the stove.
Yasmin’s voice preceded her like a bubbling stream overflowing its seams. “It’s been so long,” she was saying happily. “Azedah has been cooking for hours.”
The voice became a woman with shiny black hair that cascaded in curls down her back, ending at her lowest rib. Her ruby-painted lips were parted in a wide smile, showing her perfectly even, white teeth. She wore a bright blue dress of textured silk, cut to fit her without restricting her movement. There were threads of gold shot through the bottom foot of Yasmin’s dress, and a tiny gold rocket clipping her hair out of her face; she wore no other ornament, and didn’t need any.
Azedah paused a moment to take in the sight of her wife, like always.
“This way,” Yasmin said, waving their guests into the room.
The visitors floated in from the hallway as if they were swimming four feet off the ground, unaffected by gravity. They were longer than the numerous stray cats that Azedah had fed and petted as a child, but smaller than the chocolate lab that lived next door, with a metallic silver coat that could be fur, if any metal on Earth were as pliant.
She peeled the lid from the tomato paste and spooned half of it into the pan with the onions. As she stirred them together, the three visitors fanned out to explore the adjoined dining room, twisted slowly in midair as they moved. Yasmin gave Azedah a reassuring smile.
Azedah did her best to not stare at their guests while she vented the last of the steam from the pressure cooker and took off the lid. A cloud of delicious scents enveloped her as they rose up from the pot: beef, tumeric, black pepper. She breathed it in and relaxed.
The smallest of the three visitors swam over to the kitchen island. It wore a bronze-colored cap that covered where she though its eyes should be, and buckled under its chin. From a small square device attached to its chest, a genderless digital voice said, “Hello, wife of our friend.”
“Hello, friend of my wife,” Azedah said shyly. “I am cooking Khoresh Bademjan. Yasmin asked me to make something fragrant.”
“Please continue,” the visitor’s box said.
Azedah nodded. She poured the broth from the cooked beef into the pan in front of her, and set the pot onto an unused burner on the other side of the stove. She stirred until the tomato and liquid were well mixed, turned up the heat, and waited for it to boil.
The visitor turned onto its back and twitched its tail like a swimmer kicking off from the edge of the pool. It circled Azedah languidly.
“The smell is very good,” its box said.
“My wife is the best cook that I know,” Yasmin said loudly from across the room. She gestured to the other two visitors, inviting them into the kitchen. They swam around her as she stepped carefully toward the island, giving them their distance.
Those two were the same size, and all three were exactly the same color, but one wore a buckled cap that Azedah thought looked a redder bronze than the others. All of their hands and feet were identically shaped, and had digits (like the paws of a raccoon, maybe), kept tight against their bodies.
Red Cap’s box said, “Yasmin was our first friend when we discovered your planet,” and did a barrel roll.
“I am lucky to have been on that mission, my friends,” Yasmin said. “And I am lucky that you have remembered me with a visit three years later.”
Large (Azedah called it in her head) swam over to join Small. They circled the kitchen as Azedah added the buttery-soft chunks of beef and the seared eggplant to the now-boiling broth. They moved closer, the glass whiskers on their heads fanning out, and Azedah eyed them nervously.
“Yasmin,” she called out. “Could you hand me the sour grapes from the refrigerator?”
Her wife laughed, a deeply exuberant laugh, when you would expect a more delicate sound from her lips. In public, she laughed without making a sound. But she was unreserved at home, and for that, Azedah loved her more.
Large and Small moved out of Yasmin’s path as she brought the tub over. She stayed, watching Azedah measure out a cup of the grapes, carefully separated from their pickling liquid, and dumped them into the pan.
“Normally, I make this in a covered pot,” Azedah explained to their floating guests, “but I wanted it to spread out in the large pan so the scent would be wider.”
“You think well of us,” Red Cap said.
“We do not eat your food,” Small said as it passed behind Azedah.
“The smell is delicious,” Large added, circling Yasmin playfully.
Azedah sprinkled a few tablespoons of dried Persian lime into the simmering stew. The visitors drew close again, swimming through the edges of the steam that floated up. Azedah reached out her hand to pet Small as it passed…
“No!” Yasmin cried, and Small darted away.
“I’m so sorry,” Azedah said. “I don’t mean to offend.”
“No offense,” Small said, swimming closer. “We are sharp, wife of our friend.” Its fur stood on end for a moment, a forest of needles, before settling flat again.
“I’m sorry,” Yasmin said, kissing Azedah’s hand. “I should have explained better why I told you not to touch them. I was just in a rush, getting approval for them to be here, setting up the cordon – I should have said.”
“You don’t talk about space because you miss it,” Azedah said quietly. “I understand.” She kissed her wife’s cheek.
“Is this the meal?” Red Cap asked.
“One more ingredient,” Azedah said. She pulled away from Yasmin just enough to reach a small ceramic jar on the island, next to the stove. Opened, it revealed brick-red threads of saffron. She sprinkled some over the top of the sizzling meat, grapes, and eggplant. Then, she and Yasmin stepped back, allowing their guests to swim into the steam over the pan.
“Thank you for joining us for dinner,” Yasmin told them as she hugged Azudah tight.
The three visitors dipped and cavorted, delighting in the scent of Azudah’s dish, as it simmered.
“Let me tell you about being the first team to make contact with an alien species in space,” Yasmin said to her wife quietly. “Now that you can see them. Now that,” she paused, shrugged, and gestured toward the scene. “Now that I can tell it as well as you deserve.”
Notes, January 2019: Ignacio Gallup-Diaz asked me for a story about space otters, and 1360 words later, here we are. I like a lot of things about this story, but one bit I’m particularly proud of is that you read as Azudah’s cooking a traditional Persian dish which really exists, exactly as she would have cooked it. I hope you can imagine the delicious smell of it as you read, and maybe you’ll even want to make it for yourself. (There are many recipes for Khoresh Bademjan; you can try this one or search online for lamb, chicken, and vegetarian versions.)