Food & dining

The dish my mother made me

Danielle Rehfeld's recipe for spaghetti with yogurt and garlic.
Karoline Boehm Goodnick
Danielle Rehfeld's recipe for spaghetti with yogurt and garlic.

In my mother’s native tongue, Lishan Didan, “chatch” means yogurt and “tuma” means garlic. The words together, chatachtuma, name the dish her mother made her as a child and my mother made me. Spaghetti with yogurt and garlic sauce, drizzled with hot butter or olive oil.

I have a joke about my mother when she eats this dish. She’s only truly enjoying it when her face is flecked with spots of yogurt.

It will forever be my comfort food: the dish I come back to again and again.

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The Middle Eastern answer to cacio pepe, chatachtuma has origins as elusive to me as the language and people who created it. In fact, the only people I do know who speak Lishan Didan are my family and one other woman I’ve met over the years.

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Nash didan, or “our people,” represent a now dwindling population of Jews who came mostly from Iran, Turkey, and Syria. While Eastern European Jews spoke Yiddish, the Jews that inhabited the Persian empire often spoke Farsi, but their main modes of communication were a few dialects of modern Aramaic. Lishan Didan means “our language.”

As I stand cooking chatachtuma in my parents’ kitchen in the Bronx, my mother passes me the garlic cloves. I smash them under my knife, removing the peel. I place them in an old, oxidized press, the same one we’ve had for more than 40 years. As the garlic and juices squeeze through the little holes, I slide my paring knife across the surface of the press and scrape all the bits into a bowl of plain yogurt. I’ve made this dish hundreds of times, and my mother hundreds of times before me.

Escaping their home in Tblisi, Georgia, my grandmother Nasi and grandfather Joshua crossed the Black Sea to Tehran in 1940.

There, Nasi gave birth to my mother, née Zina (now Dina), in 1942, then my uncle Yossi. Without a birth certificate, my mother is still uncertain of her actual birthday.

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She watches me and dimly recalls her early years in Tehran, eating this dish on the floor with her family in a humble room spread with tattered cushions.

I think about this as I crack lots of fresh pepper into the yogurt, add salt, and taste. The pasta is boiling in a pot on the stove behind us. I drain it, pour the steaming hot spaghetti over the yogurt, and use the same pot to melt the butter until it foams and sizzles. I pour the butter over the bowl and use two forks to toss the long strands of pasta until they’re swimming in warm white sauce.

My mother toasts some bread, whatever we have, and we stand at the counter with two forks, eating from the same bowl.

“You know, Danielle,” she says as she hovers over the bowl, digging her fork deep into the bottom to get at the hottest spot. “You really make the best chatachtuma.” She looks up and has a streak of yogurt across her cheek.

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Danielle Rehfeld can be reached at danielle@theinheritedplate.com.