The morning after she landed in Tehran in 2015, cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij visited the graves of her parents. She needed their help.
Iran had practically become a foreign country to her.
That’s what living in exile does. It had been 36 years since she had been to the place she once called home. Batmanglij, 70, spent that time fastidiously documenting Iranian food for America. She has written eight cookbooks, many of them colossal, marked by an unflinching allergy to compromising Iran’s cooking traditions for intimidated American audiences.
“Darling, I didn’t have time,” Batmanglij explains when I ask her why it took her so long to return to Iran. “I had to raise kids, write cookbooks, take care of my family.”
She has been writing these tomes since 1983, before it was fashionable to suggest that Americans should even consider, let alone cook, the foods of Iran. Before then, there had been precious few cookbooks in America devoted to the subject beyond Maideh Mazda’s skinny “In a Persian Kitchen” (Tuttle, 1960) and Nesta Ramazani’s “Persian Cooking: A Table of Exotic Delights” (University of Virginia Press, 1982), which struck her as “inauthentic” because of the use of such ingredients as soy sauce.
Around the early aughts, she began to dream of returning to Iran. She missed drifting through its bazaars, sitting at dinner tables, visiting its restaurants.
“Cooking in Iran: Regional Recipes & Kitchen Secrets,” out now from Mage Publishers, is the culmination of tens of thousands of miles of travel through Iran she conducted in three stints each year since 2015. She gathered 250 recipes, mostly from women, along the way.
For 25 years, Batmanglij has lived in her tranquil home in Georgetown, lined with photographs of her sons, Zal, a filmmaker, and Rostam, a musician. On this brisk, yellow Thursday morning in October, Batmanglij stands in her kitchen with easy confidence, shoulders blanketed in a white shawl and a pair of Stan Smiths on her feet. She can’t cook without music, so the songs of such artists as Lana Del Rey and Leonard Cohen blare in the background.
It’s a few minutes past 11 a.m., and she sways back and forth as she washes barberries, red as garnets, in her sink. They’ll go inside a Kurdish chicken and barberry braise that she tasted in Kermanshah, a city in the country’s west, garnishing it with rose petals, almonds and pistachio kernels. It’s a soothing dish, but the barberries, tart and electric, give it a kick. She serves it next to a comforting, simple preparation of steamed rice with cumin and potatoes that Batmanglij (pronounced NAHJ-mee-yeh BAHT-mahn-gleej) got from a cook who worked in a friend’s house in Kerman, a city in the country’s southeast.
Persian cuisine, Batmanglij demonstrates in “Cooking in Iran,” is one of the world’s most dynamic and diverse. It’s derived from traditions that stretch back centuries, chiseled by the influences of different ethnic populations within the country. The diversity contained within Iranian cuisine is also a natural consequence of geography. It’s a country sandwiched between the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf to the south; and flanked by Afghanistan and Pakistan to its east, Iraq and Turkey to its west.
This variety is reflected in what she’s cooking today, too. Sitting alongside the braised chicken and the rice is a recipe for walnut-size chickpea-and-lamb meatballs she got from a friend in Isfahan, a city in the middle of the country. She plops them in a bath of tomato sauce and cooks them there for an hour. They emerge light and pillowy. The key, she cautions, is not to overmix them when you blend, and not to roll them too vigorously with your hands so that they become too dense.
To offset all these brown hues, she makes a pickle of cucumbers and raw onions she encountered along the Persian Gulf, dousing them in salt and apple cider vinegar and tossing them with toasted coriander seeds. And for dessert, an upside-down mango cake. She cooks the mangoes in butter and sugar before pouring the batter on top and baking; the mangoes take on the glassy appearance of amber jewels. The cake showcases the imprint of South Asian foodways on Iranian cuisine: Iranians have been happily eating Indian and Pakistani mangoes since the 10th century.
Born in 1947, Batmanglij grew up in a middle-class family of 11 siblings in downtown Tehran. Their household celebrated food. Her mother had a team of hired cooks who made tomato paste and fig jam from scratch. But Batmanglij’s mother, plucked from school as a young bride at 15, didn’t let her in the kitchen, insisting she get her education first.
So Batmanglij complied: She moved to Oklahoma in 1968 to join an older brother there. (“They were the kindest people,” she says of Oklahomans.) The next year, she went to New Haven, Conn., and enrolled at Southern Connecticut State University to study education. She returned to Tehran in 1975, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hand. Her mother let her in the kitchen.
In 1978, she met the man who would become her husband, Mohammad. They wed in the summer of the next year, just after the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution, which had taken what she describes as “a fundamentalist turn.”
“Before the Revolution, people prayed at home, danced outside,” she says. “After the Revolution, people dance in their house and pray outside.”
She fled to France with a baby in her belly at the end of 1979, because France didn’t require a visa for Iranians. Due to work restrictions, her husband couldn’t join her until the next year. Those first few months in the city of Nice were lonely. Every day, she sat by the sea and cried.
“A lot of my tears are in the Mediterranean,” she laughs.
Once her husband joined her, the two settled in the southeastern French village of Vence, though she was still terribly homesick. What steadied her was cooking: She had collected her mother’s recipes in a scrapbook before she left Iran.
“I started to relate to my past through food,” she says. “Food was my healer.”
Her French neighbors didn’t mind. They couldn’t resist her khoresh bademjan, a stew of eggplant and tomatoes with unripe grapes as a sour agent, which she describes as “very Provencale-looking.” At their behest, she took 50 of her mother’s recipes, translated them into French with the help of her husband, found a Paris-based publisher, and put them in a cookbook, “Ma Cuisine d’Iran,” published in 1983.
The couple moved to Washington that year, after the birth of Zal. She got to work on a second cookbook, one more definitive than the first. They had a problem, though: American hostility toward Iranians due to the hostage crisis made the book a hard sell.
“No one wanted to publish it,” she says, shaking her head. “A cookbook about Iran was no-no.”
Taking matters into their own hands, she and her husband took courses at Georgetown in publishing. Together, they began Mage and in 1986 published her opus, “Food of Life.”
Beyond securing a publisher, they faced another challenge: They didn’t know whether to use “Persian” or “Iranian” in the title.
“When we first came after the hostages, a lot of people didn’t talk about Iran,” her husband explains. “If you could say you were Persian, you would say you were Persian rather than Iranian.”
Following the Iranian Revolution, her husband says, word choice became more fraught: Using “Persian” felt safer. The word speaks to 4,000 years of history, a great civilization; it was also a form of distancing that abstracted ugly connotations that the word “Iran” had come to carry in the 1980s. But to say you were Iranian was to announce your difference, to risk ostracizing yourself.
As a way out of this predicament, the couple chose to use both words in the book’s subtitle, settling on “Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies.”
Mage, which they still run out of their home, now publishes translated poetry and children’s picture books, but Mohammad tells me that his wife’s cookbooks remain Mage’s bestsellers. But Mage is still a bootstrapped effort. In fact, “Cooking in Iran” is the first book for which she could afford to hire a publicist.
In the three decades since "Food of Life" came out, Batmanglij has been a quiet force. Her devotees include José Andrés, the Spanish American chef who told The Post in 2011 that she has "been a wonderful guide to the Persian kitchen and has helped so many to understand this rich culture through its cooking," and Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born British chef who called her "the goddess of Iranian cooking" in the Guardian in 2013.
But where her legacy lies more acutely is in a generation of Iranian cookbook authors in the diaspora who have followed her. America’s publishing landscape is more welcoming toward Persian cookbooks than when Batmanglij began. It’s no exaggeration to say Batmanglij has done for Iranian cooking what Marcella Hazan did for Italian and Madhur Jaffrey did for Indian: She has harnessed a country’s foodways for American audiences. She has tilled the ground where second-generation Iranian food writers now tread. This newer crop of writers is indebted to her.
“We speak of all these other grandes dames of various cuisines,” says Naz Deravian, the Iranian Canadian writer whose debut cookbook, “Bottom of the Pot” (Flatiron), came out in September. “Why has she never made the cut?”
“Food of Life” was Deravian’s gateway drug: It was the first cookbook Deravian ever bought for herself way back in 1996, when she was an aspiring actress who lived in Los Angeles. The book was invaluable because Batmanglij committed what is mostly an oral tradition to the page. Deravian referenced it often while writing “Bottom of the Pot.”
“It was a beautiful, encyclopedic book to have on hand as reference,” Deravian says. “There wasn’t anything else out there.”
“Food of Life” was always on the bookshelf in the house where Louisa Shafia, the Iranian-American author of “The New Persian Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, 2013), grew up in Philadelphia.
“For all of us who have written Persian cookbooks in the last decade, Najmieh laid the groundwork with her depth of research and documentation of Persian cooking,” says Shafia.
But it wasn’t until she was much older and moved to New York to attend cooking school that Shafia got her hands on “Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey” (Mage, 2002). When she opened the book, she was struck by Batmanglij’s reverence for the thousands of years of Persian history that shaped Iranian cuisine. Plus, Shafia valued Batmanglij’s unwillingness to take shortcuts.
“The book had this poetic, mythical quality, unlike American cookbooks,” Shafia says. “It was more like the recipes were received from the gods on high and channeled through the author, rather than written for convenience and speed. No way were they modernized for today’s working mom.”
Samin Nosrat, the Iranian American cook and author of “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” (Simon and Schuster, 2017) and host of the Netflix show of the same name, has been singing Batmanglij’s gospel since the late 1990s, when she wandered into a bookstore and came across a copy of “Food of Life” as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley.
But Nosrat worries that Batmanglij isn’t celebrated enough by America’s culinary establishment. “To begin with, a lot of women don’t get their credit,” Nosrat says. “So let’s start with that.”
To Nosrat, Batmanglij’s lack of recognition relates to a fundamental problem of what being Iranian in America entails. Nosrat still feels a stab in her heart when she sees people trying to identify something as Persian or Iranian.
“There’s so much entangled in one semantic choice,” she says. “That’s a perfect metaphor for the way Iranians have had to be chameleons and figure out who we are.”
Being Iranian in America, Nosrat explains, is a constant negotiation, a dilemma that forces you to erase parts of yourself simply to exist.
“There’s some parallel there for the lack of credit Najmieh gets,” Nosrat says. “Somehow, there’s some epic vilification of us that keeps coming around.” Nosrat says that this prejudice toward Iranians lingers, and it inevitably affects Batmanglij’s reputation.
Perhaps this book provides an opportunity to look at Batmanglij’s legacy with clearer eyes. With “Cooking in Iran,” Batmanglij travels through the land she once sought to conjure from a distance four decades ago. It’s as if her career has come full circle.
But she’s not done. It’s late in the afternoon now. She, her husband and I are sitting at their dining room table when I ask her when she’ll go back. Soon, she assures me.
“I’d like to go back to thank some people who helped me and give them a copy of the book,” she says. There are more stories to record, she reminds me, and more recipes to cook.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer based in New York.
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