Persian food guru updates master cookbook

How-to photos and directions for Najmieh Batmanglij's golden-crusted rice:
How-to photos and directions for Najmieh Batmanglij's golden-crusted rice: (Tracy A. Woodward)
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By Bonnie S. Benwick
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

It is the kind of late-February afternoon that hints at spring. Najmieh Batmanglij is in her element - cooking in the large room graced with tones of honeyed oak, smooth stone relics and the sunlight from a wall of windows at the back of her Georgetown home. She likes the CD of Iranian music turned way up; the aromatics are already at full volume. Wafts of burbling basmati rice and saffron-infused rosewater draw guests close to the long butcher-block counter, where bowls of bitter oranges and round trays of sprouted lentils herald the approach of Nowruz, the Persian new year.

The Iranian native says it's time for her to make some noise - two grown children, more than three decades and several cookbooks after she and her husband, Mohammad, came to America in exile. Naj, as she is affectionately known, wants more Persian food in more home kitchens.

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

Batmanglij powers through the prep of simultaneous dishes like a seasoned instructor, explaining the steps for terrific pistachio and pomegranate meatballs and an herby, frittata-like kuku. But when she describes the allure of fresh fenugreek or the symbolism of eggs and fish and sweets for the new year, the 62-year-old morphs into her younger self, filled with passion. Like the stunning images of the woman with flowing dark hair, in family photos hung around the room.

When she was a girl, her mother would not allow her in the kitchen: "She said, 'Go to university. You'll have plenty of time to cook.' So I came to the United States. Got a master's in education. Then she allowed me in the kitchen." The daughter, one of five girls, cooked with her for three years. (Her sisters eventually followed her to Washington and are all good cooks, she says.)

Batmanglij learned her mother's dishes well and took notes at the elbow of her aunt, a pastry chef. When the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, she and her husband fled to Vence, France. She took cooking classes there and began translating her mother's recipes into French. At her neighbors' urging and with their help, she put together a compilation of 50 recipes, her first, called "Ma Cuisine d'Iran" (1984).

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