By Bonnie S. Benwick
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 2:32 PM
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 washingtonpost.com/food).
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).
During that time she began researching and saving string for what would become "Food of Life" and "New Food of Life," the latter of which was featured in a 1993 Post Food section article.
"In exile," in America, she was quoted, "you become so much more conscious of your culture, and ours is so beautiful." She saw the book as a love letter to her sons, who she figured might never see the Iran she knew.
Last year, Zal the filmmaker, 30, and Rostam the indie rocker, 26, encouraged her to update the book for their generation. So their mother added recipes and series of instructional photos, lots of tips and an expanded glossary of ingredients. She camed up with vegetarian alternatives and substitutions, testing the 330 recipes at least three times each.
The result: a handsome 25th anniversary edition supplemented with more stories of tradition, more poetry and Persian illustrations. Batmanglij was able to translate many 16th-century Persian recipes and bring them to life.
"My other books have had my mother's recipes. These are my recipes," she says. "And now I want people to know about it. I am calling in favors I have done for others, something that does not come easily to me."
So in the weeks before this year's Nowruz, her favorite time of year, Batmanglij has even more reason to be happy. The lentils she sprouted will grow by inches; they are ornamental signs of rebirth for the holiday that officially begins with the vernal equinox. She will help plan celebrations for Iranian students at George Washington University and prepare to lead a culinary tour of Rockville's Yekta market and restaurant in April.
Late last week, her plan to get wider notice got a big boost. Folks from "The Martha Stewart Show" called to book her for an appearance on March 16.
"I'm excited and honored," she says. "To be recognized by Martha! I identify with her. She worked hard for a long time, and it really paid off."
Batmanglij will sign copies of her updated "Food of Life" at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries on March 13; call 202-342-1642. Join her on Free Range chat on March 2 at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline .Recipes