Yasmine Khan presented her book The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen at Archestratus, in conversation with Lisa Gross, the founder of League of Kitchens.
Khan was born in London, but her mother’s family is from the Gilan region of northern Iran. Near the Caspian Sea, Gilan is known for its lush landscapes, farms, lots of fish and herbs and “healthy eaters” (they use a term for this that doesn’t translate perfectly into English but reminds me of the Italian “gavone,” at least how my family would use it). Although she had a career in political organizing, she decided to spend some time on her family’s rice farm after her grandfather died, and while there her grandmother and aunts started teaching her some of their stories and recipes.
The book was born when she got home and people started to ask her questions about Iran – “do you speak Arabic there? Do you have to wear a burka?” Khan realized there was a huge gulf between what Westerners think they know about Iran, and the country that she knew it to be. And that food, and the stories behind it, are great commonalities that can bridge this divide.
She decided to focus on home cooks from across some of Iran’s many regions – “I think home cooks write some of the best recipes, and in Iran, the home cook is revered. It’s not really an eating-out culture, but people cook elaborately at home.”
“I think in a lot of cases the fullest expression of a cuisine is what’s cooked and served at home,” Gross added.
Khan cooked with people from across different regions, finding them by word of mouth and personal connections. “I started with a list of professions that I wanted to cover – nurses, teachers, urban rural, working class and rich – and so on. I followed my nose and recommendations to find the people who were good cooks. It was very organic. Sometimes we would get on a long bus ride, seven hours, not knowing who we would meet on the other side, but it just flowed. Everybody likes to talk about food, and everyone has an opinion on what a good recipe is.”
Khan and her travel photographer (Shahrzad Darafsheh) would meet people first for a cup of tea and explain the project, then, if invited, go to their home and watch them cook, taking photos and recording the process. Back in London, Khan turned those sessions into recipes that are tweaked for a Western audience. She focused on keeping the Iranian flavors alive, but maybe using a healthier fat, less meat, or shortcuts that could circumvent notoriously long prep and cooking times. She also built out a number of sweet recipes, as dessert in Iran is usually limited to fruit and tea.
While Iranian food has many regional variations and specialties, the uniting factor is that it focuses on subtle flavors, aromatic but gentle herbs and spices. They love using fruit and nuts, especially walnuts and pomegranates, in savory cooking. And the dominant flavor is sour – raw lemons with salt are a common snack. As for the pomegranate, it has a very special place. It’s symbolic (for Zoroastrians, it can both immortality and fertility), it’s for style (“It’s special because you can have this beautiful, jewel-toned feast in the middle of winter”), but also something more – “The beauty of the pomegranate is that it involves labor, it’s a meditative practice. Or if you have friends and family around, you can go through a whole pile of them while telling stories and catching up.”
One fascinating thing that came up in the conversation was the difference between how immigrant generations remember and hold on to certain parts of their culture, including food rules, while back at home people are evolving, contemporizing, adding. You can have an effect where the diaspora generation becomes more conservative and traditional because they are holding onto customs that they may have relaxed in their home countries. “At some point I had to say, Mom, you left 35 years ago! They don’t do things in Iran anymore like they did when you were growing up.” Gross, who is Korean-American and works with immigrant cooks from many countries, agreed that this is something she’s seen from many different cultures, and can be tied up with nostalgia.
In the end, the book is really a testimony to how people today are cooking in Iran, and recreating the flavors after they’ve left. “We just want people to know what we’re really like. When you show a country only through their political leadership, you don’t see the full story.”
Cucumber Salad with Sekanjibeen Dressing
courtesy of Yasmine Khan and Bloomsbury Publishing
Sekanjibeen is an ancient Persian syrup, concocted from vinegar, sugar and mint, which can be drizzled over salad leaves, or mixed with ice and water for a refreshing summer drink. My mum used to buy readymade mint sauce and make little bowls of sekanjibeen for us to snack on when the weather turned warm, accompanied by cold, crunchy wedges of lettuce, which we would take it in turns to dip. Here, the classic sekanjibeen flavours brighten up a quick and easy cucumber salad that can be served alongside a barbecue or stew, or eaten as part of a mezze. Keep the cucumber in the fridge until just before assembling the salad so it stays crisp and cool.
For a traditional, lighter snack, simply mix the vinegar, honey and mint together in a dipping bowl and add some Romaine lettuce leaves on the side, for dipping.
3 tbsp cider vinegar
2 tbsp honey
3 tbsp mint leaves, very finely chopped
2 tsp light olive oil
2 regular cucumbers (around 1¼ lb)
A handful of pomegranate seeds
¼ tsp sea salt
In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, honey, mint and olive oil.
Cut the cucumbers in half and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon, then thinly slice on a diagonal into ¼-inch slices and place in a serving bowl.
Drizzle over the salad dressing. Sprinkle with a handful of pomegranate seeds and season with the salt. Mix well and serve immediately.
Serves 4–6 as a side