In Adib Khorram’s novel Darius the Great Is Not Okay, protagonist Darius Kellner, a self-described “Fractional Persian,” visits Iran with his mother, father, and younger sister. There, he comes to terms with his identity and his place in his family, he strikes a new friendship with Sohrab, and he eats a whole lot of food. Darius also loves tea — it’s a ritual that calms him, and one he can share with his dad, with whom he doesn’t necessarily see eye to eye.
Like Darius, Khorram loves food and tea too, which is why it plays such a large role in his first novel, as well as the sequel, Darius the Great Deserves Better, which comes out on August 25 and is currently available for pre-order. In the new book, there’s plenty of food scenes — “food plays a big role because as always, I was hungry when I was writing,” says Khorram, and he teases that, yes, there’s plenty of Iranian food, tea, and even breakfast for dinner. (Khorram also has a children’s book, Seven Special Somethings, coming out next spring, all about Nowruz.)
During Eater Book Club, Khorram shared that he likes Harney & Sons and Steven Smith Teamaker as tea brands, and for Iranian tea, he suggests a mix of Assam and Earl Grey, or looking for Iranian tea blends. He recommends people who want to cook Persian food for the first time start with the cookbook New Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij. His favorite local bookstores are Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas, and the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas.
Below, find an excerpt from Darius the Great Is Not Okay, which Khorram read live for Eater Book Club on Instagram Live with host Sonia Chopra on Thursday, April 2, as part of the Eater @ Home virtual event series (and check out the video if you missed it).
I gave the horseshoe knocker three quick raps. Mahvash Rezaei answered. There was a smear of white powder across her forehead, and some had gotten into her eyebrows, too, but she smiled when she saw me—that same squinting smile she had passed down to her son.
I always felt weird, if someone said “Alláh-u-Abhá” to me, because I wasn’t sure if I should say it back—if I was even allowed to—since I wasn’t Bahá’í and I didn’t believe in God.
The Picard didn’t count.
I pulled my Vans off and set them in the corner next to Sohrab’s slender shoes.
There was a wooden partition separating the entryway from the rest of the house, with shelves covered in pictures and candles and phone chargers. The rugs were white and green with gold accents, and they didn’t have little tassels on them like Mamou’s. The house felt cozy, like a Hobbit-hole.
The air was heavy with the scent of baking bread. Real, homemade bread, not the mass-produced Subway kind.
“Have you eaten? You want anything?”
“I’m okay. I had breakfast.”
“Are you sure?” She steered me toward the kitchen. “It’s no trouble.”
“I’m sure. I thought I should come visit, since it’s the day after Nowruz.”
I felt very Persian.
“You are so sweet.”
Darius Kellner. Sweet.
I liked that Sohrab’s mom thought that about me.
I really did.
“You are sure you don’t want anything?”
“I’m okay. I had qottab before I came.”
“Your grandma makes the best qottab.”
Technically, I had not tasted all the possibilities, but I agreed with Mahvash Rezaei in principle.
“She sent some with me,” I said, holding out the plastic container I’d brought.
Mahvash Rezaei’s eyes bugged out, and I was reminded of a Klingon warrior. Her personality was too big and mercurial to be contained in a frail human body.
“Thank you! Thank your grandma for me!”
Khanum Rezaei set the qottab aside and went back to the counter by her oven. It was dusted with flour, which explained the mysterious white powder on her face.
Her sink was overflowing with whole romaine lettuce leaves, bathing under the running water. I wondered if it was for the bread. I didn’t know of any Iranian recipes that involved baking romaine lettuce into bread, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any.
“It’s Sohrab’s favorite,” Khanum Rezaei said, nodding toward the sink. “He and his dad love it.”
I felt so bad for him.
Also, I felt confused, because I didn’t know anyone whose favorite food was romaine lettuce.
Sohrab Rezaei contained multitudes.
“Can you take it outside for me?” Mrs. Rezaei scooped the leaves into a colander, banged it on the sink a few times, and handed it to me. “Put it on the table. I’ll go get Sohrab.”
The Rezaeis’ garden was very different from Babou’s. There were no fruit trees, no planters of jasmine, only long rows of hyacinths and a collection of huge pots filled with different herbs. The largest was right next to the kitchen—it was nearly two feet across and three feet high—and it was being assimilated by fresh mint.
Mint is the Borg of herbs. If you let it, it will take over each and every patch of ground it encounters, adding the soil’s biological and technological distinctiveness to its own.
There was a charcoal grill in the middle of the garden, the big round kind that looked like a miniature red Starbase. The only table was a Ping-Pong table, close to the door where I stood holding the dripping romaine leaves.
There was no answer.
Was the Ping-Pong table the one I was supposed to put the romaine on?
Did Iranians say Ping-Pong, or did they say table tennis?
We didn’t cover the history of Ping-Pong/table tennis in Iran during our Net Sports Unit in physical education, which now seemed like a ridiculous oversight.
Khanum Rezaei popped up behind me. I almost dropped the lettuce in fright.
“I forgot this,” she said, squeezing behind me and flapping a giant white-and-blue tablecloth over the Ping-Pong table. It tented up over the little posts for the net. “You can spread the leaves out to dry some.”
“Okay.” I did what she asked, spreading the leaves out so they overlapped as little as possible. The water seeped into the tablecloth, turning it translucent.
Sohrab grabbed me around the shoulders from behind and swayed me back and forth.
My neck tingled.
He was wearing plaid pajama pants so huge, he could have fit his entire body down one leg. They were cinched around his waist with a drawstring. I could tell because he had tucked his green polo shirt into his pants.
As soon as Sohrab saw the lettuce, he let me go and ran back inside, talking to his mom in Farsi at warp 9.
I had become invisible.
As I watched Sohrab through the doorway, he seemed younger somehow, swimming in his pajama pants with his shirt tucked in.
I knew without him saying it that he was missing his dad.
I felt terrible for him.
And I felt terrible feeling sorry for myself. Another Nowruz had come and gone for Sohrab without his father, and I was worried about feeling invisible.
But then Sohrab looked back at me as I watched him from the doorway, and his eyes squinted up again. His smile was a supernova.
“Darioush, you like sekanjabin?”
“Sekanjabin. You’ve had it?”
“No,” I said. “What is it?
He pulled a short, wide-mouthed jar out of the fridge, said something quick to his mom, and came back outside. “It’s mint syrup. Here.” He unscrewed the jar, shook the water off a piece of lettuce, and dipped it in the sauce.
If his face was a supernova before, it became an accretion disc—one of the brightest objects in the universe—as soon as he tasted his lettuce.
I loved that Sohrab could be transported like that.
I took a tiny leaf and tried the sauce. It was sweet and minty, but there was something sour too.
“Yes. Babou always adds a little.”
“Babou made this?”
“Yes. You never had it?”
“No. I never heard of it before.”
How did I not know my grandfather made sekanjabin?
How did I not know how delicious sekanjabin was?
“He is famous for it. My dad . . . He always grew extra mint, for Babou to use when he made it.” He gestured out to the garden. “You saw our mint?”
“Now it grows too much. Babou hasn’t made it for a while.”
Sohrab dipped another leaf and then passed me the jar.
It was perfect.
“Thank you for coming over, Darioush.”
“It’s tradition to visit your friends the day after Nowruz.” I took another leaf to dip. “Right?”
Sohrab squeezed my shoulder as he inhaled another piece of lettuce. He nodded and chewed and swallowed and then squinted right at me.
After I helped Sohrab polish off every piece of lettuce on the table—two whole heads—he ran to get dressed, while I watched Khanum Rezaei make her bread. She pounded out the dough with her floured palms, then sprinkled a mixture of dried herbs and spices on top.
“Do you like this bread, Darioush-jan? Noon-e barbari?”
“Um. Yeah. Mom gets it from the Persian bakery sometimes.”
“You don’t make it at home?”
“I’ll make some for you. You can put it in the freezer and take it home with you.”
“Maman!” Sohrab had reappeared in the doorway, dressed in real pants and a white polo shirt. He said something to his mom in Farsi, something about dinner, but it was too quick. “Come on, Darioush. Let’s go.”
“Um. Thank you,” I said to his mom. I followed Sohrab to the door and laced up my Vans.
There was something he wanted to show me.
Excerpted from Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, (c) Penguin Young Readers.
Buy Darius the Great Is Not Okay: Penguin Random House | Amazon | Bookshop
Pre-order Darius the Great Deserves Better: Penguin Random House | Amazon | Bookshop
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For our first Eater @ Home book club with @soniachopra, Khorram talks to Eater about writing food scenes, the concept of the "cultural iceberg," and tea — and reads an excerpt from his YA novel, 'Darius the Great Is Not Okay.' Click this link to read the excerpt: https://www.eater.com/2020/4/3/21201854/adib-khorram-darius-the-great-book-club