Washington’s fooderati and its Iranian community recognize Batmanglij as a premier advocate of Persian food. There are perhaps a dozen other Iranian cookbook authors alive today whose recipes appear in English, she estimates, and hundreds of people in the States have taken her cooking classes. Yet Batmanglij remains a low-key sensation, making what she says is the world’s most influential, least understood cuisine. She wishes Iranian culture could be viewed apart from Iranian politics.
“I can tell you the things Westerners don’t know” about Persian food, she says. “We do not overpower our food with spices. Its flavors are subtle and delicate. It juxtaposes small, refined elements, like the designs in a Persian carpet or miniature painting. It uses a lot of fruits and flowers; more vegetables than meats. And it is delicious.”
Chefs are at the forefront of Batmanglij’s fan base. They know what’s good, and they are inspired by the ingredients and techniques she brings to the table. It is why she has been asked to teach for the past 10 years at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, Calif., during the weeklong World of Flavors Conference.
Chef-restaurateur Jose Andres first met Batmanglij more than a decade ago. They were introduced by Lidia Bastianich, a fellow member of Les Dames d’Escoffier (“she’s so warm; a soul mate,” Batmanglij says). When local cookbook author Joan Nathan threw a party for the celebrity chefs who volunteered to cook a series of inaugural dinner fundraisers in 2009, she enlisted Batmanglij to make Persian wedding rice studded with fruits, nuts and spices. It was the hit of the night.
Andres has invited Batmanglij to teach dishes to the kitchen staff at Zaytinya, his Mediterranean restaurant in Penn Quarter.
“Is paella not a cousin of pilau?” Andres asks. “Najmieh has been a wonderful guide to the Persian kitchen and has helped so many to understand this rich culture through its cooking. Persian culture has touched so many other peoples over the centuries - influencing, sharing, adopting, changing . . . those links are everywhere.”
Rice is the jewel of Persian cookery, Batmanglij says. It is grown in Iran’s northern Caspian provinces. She makes some every day, in ways that elevate it. They can be as simple as simmering it with a sachet of crushed cardamom pods and a splash of rose water, or as involved as steaming it with saffron and creating a golden crust (see step-by-step guide at washingtonpost.com/food).