17 October 2003
Iranian American Promotes Persian Cuisine in U.S.
Profile of Najmieh Batmanglij, author and teacher of Persian cooking
By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington -- "My purpose is to promote good aspects of Persian culture," says Najmieh Batmanglij. "I want Iran to be associated with roses and pomegranates and good things." And, she might add, especially with good food.
Batmanglij is a leading authority on Persian cuisine and author of five cookbooks designed to introduce the food and traditions of her native land to a wide audience. She has taught and lectured at cooking schools throughout the United States and from the kitchen of her home in Washington, D.C., teaches master classes for chefs who want to add Persian cuisine to their repertoire. She has also produced Persian recipe greeting cards and wedding cards that she markets through her website, http://www.najmieh.com/. Not surprisingly, she hopes one day to open a Persian restaurant.
In 1979, following the revolution in Iran, Batmanglij and her husband fled to France, where she soon combined her love of cooking with a desire to counter negative impressions of her homeland. "Since I was pregnant and in awe of how through food and herbal remedies my mother had raised a large family in a very healthy way," she says, "I decided to start a scrapbook for my child that would tell him about all the good things in Persian culture, such as family gatherings, new year celebrations, weddings, the warmth and hospitality of Iranians, and last but not least the good food around which all these events take place."
After studying French, she decided to translate her favorite Persian recipes for the people of France in her first cookbook, Ma Cuisine d'Iran. When the couple moved to the United States and founded Mage Publishers in Washington, D.C., Batmanglij produced four more cookbooks to acquaint Americans and second-generation Iranians with traditional Persian cooking. Her goal has been to showcase an ancient culture through recipes that busy, health-conscious Americans can easily prepare in their own homes.
"New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies," which the Los Angeles Times has called "the definitive book on Persian cooking," features 240 classical and regional recipes, along with descriptions of Iranian ceremonies, poetry, travelogues, and folk tales. In "Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen," Batmanglij modifies 95 traditional recipes to accommodate the American demand for low-fat dishes, with olive oil and low-fat dairy products, for example, substituting for the butter used so liberally in Persian food. In "A Taste of Persia," she streamlines recipes for dishes such as the khoresh and polows so they can be made in less than an hour instead of the two or three hours required by traditional methods.
Her latest book, "Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey," acknowledges a growing trend in the United States through 150 vegetarian recipes interwoven with stories, pictures, and information she has acquired during 25 years of travel and research along the route of the ancient Silk Road trade route. She also shares with readers pleasurable memories from her childhood, such as coming home from school and finding her mother and "four or five old ladies, all distant relatives" sitting on the carpet. "From the crisply ironed white cotton cloths being spread over the carpet and the captivating aroma of fresh dough, I knew it was noodle-making day. . . . I found myself as delighted by the cheerful ceremony of preparation as by the reward for the work. The next day, convivial crowds of relatives would come to our house for a glorious lunch of noodle soup garnished with fried garlic, onion, mint, and sun-dried yogurt."
Batmanglij is gratified by the growing interest in her native cuisine. "Today, perhaps because of the desire in the U.S. for new ingredients and cooking techniques and possibly due to the increased number of Iranians living here and the specialized grocery stores that have cropped up in major urban areas, we see more and more chefs using pomegranates, quince, saffron, rose water, and many other ingredients which are common in Persian cooking," she says.
She wants Americans to know that some of the ethnic cuisine popular in the United States today -- especially Mediterranean food -- can trace its origins back to ancient Persia. "Iran was at the center of the Silk Road connecting China and the Mediterranean," she says. "Iran was either the originator or the center of trade for many ingredients and spices such as peaches, almonds, pistachios, saffron, cucumbers, broad beans, peas, spinach, and caraway seeds."
Batmanglij says she is looking forward to giving a presentation about Persian influence on Mediterranean food at a "World of Flavors" international conference at the Culinary Institute of America in California. "I will tell them how noodles were not taken from China to Italy by Marco Polo but rather originated in Persia and traveled both East and West long before Marco Polo," she says. "I will tell them how the names of many ingredients and dishes in Greek, Turkish, and Indian are Persian [in origin] and how the Ottoman Turks brought Persian cooks to their courts and modeled their cuisine on that of the Persian Safavid court. I will show slides of Persian miniatures which show how kababs were cooked more than 500 years ago, much as they are cooked today. I will cook Persian food for the 500 international chefs who will be participating and will make sure they leave with Persian food in their hearts."
Batmanglij thinks that Persian cuisine will continue to gain in popularity among Americans. "Persian food is the food of the future," she states. "It consists mostly of grain and vegetables with a little fowl, fish, or meat, with a delicate mixture of herbs and spices. We seem to recognize these days that this is the healthiest diet. I believe that once the political problems are resolved, Persian food will take off in this country and surpass Chinese and Indian food in popularity."
"Persian food," she adds, "is one of the oldest schools of cooking and yet it is the least known. I want to make sure it does not remain that way."
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)