An Interview With Author Najmieh Batmanglij
I am so excited to publish this post.Â Here is My Persian Kitchen’s interview with the one and only author Najmieh Batmanglij. I hope you will enjoy reading her answers as much as I did!
I offered a chance for the winner of the book to submit two question for this interview.Â The last two questions are his and I think that they were an excellent addition!
MPK: What is your earliest memory of being in a kitchen and cooking?
Fresh tart cherries (albalu) bring back one of my earlyÂ childhoodÂ memories ofÂ summertime in Iran — wooden crates of glowing, red sour cherries were placed in the garden by the stone fountain and gently sprinkled with water to wash off the dust. Then they were transferred to brown wicker baskets, ready for jam making But my three sisters and i saw to it that only half became jam, we soaked all our senses in sour cherries: we hung double stemmed ones over our ears for earrings, we pinned clusters to our clothes for brooches, we squeezed the juice onto our lips to make them red, and, of course, we ate them, masses of them. We feasted on cherries. At lunch, we had them as sweet and sour candied cherries mixed with rice andÂ tiny deliciousÂ lamb meat ballsÂ (albalou polow ba koofteh ghelghely).Â In the afternoon we dropped spoonfuls of the freshly made jam into our tea, and in the evening we mixed the jam with rice noodles sorbet (faludeh)to make a wonderful dessert.
MPK: Who is your cooking inspiration and why?
My mother was my cooking inspiration, she was disciplined, organized (she was hygiene conscious and had separate stations for the various kitchen functions in the family kitchen), and most important of all, she was a wonderful cook.
MPK: Your first cookbook Ma Cuisine d’Iran was published in France in the mid 1980s. How difficult was it for you to publish your first cookbook and introduce it to a French audience?
My husband and i were refugees in 1980 in France, we were young, with no job, and no proper documents; we did not speak French well, and above all i was pregnant with my first son Zal — i took some cooking classes and learned basic French cooking techniques but soon realized that French cooks wanted to learn more about Persian food as much as i want to learn about French food. Â Everyday,Â i translated one of my mom’s recipes for them, and soon i had 50 recipes. After my son was born,Â with the help of neighbors, friends, the local photographer in our small French village, I was able to find a French publisher (they had a series of books about the cuisine of various countries).
And so my first little, French cookbook was born.
MPK: New Food of Life was your first publication in English, how easy or difficult was it to introduce it to the American market?
My first cookbook in English was quite challenging, but it wasn’t as difficult as writing the French book. But there were other challenges in the US since politics has made Iran and things Persian quite unpopular — i could not find a publisher, that is why my husband and i start our own publishing house, so my cookbook was our pilot project and it became our bestseller.
MPK: When you first wrote New Food of Life, who was your target audience?
I initially wrote my book for our children — i wanted to share with them the memories and the good aspects of my childhood — it was a purely emotional action and as we say in Persian,Â “As del barayad, bar del neshinad”
But to my surprise,Â my initial readers were educated Iranian grandfathers sitting at home and helping to take care of their family and raise their grandchildren while their daughters or sons were working outside the home. In those days, the older Iranian women were not too interested because they thought they knew all there was to know about cooking. The men, however,Â who could read English, and who had never really cooked before, followed my instruction thoroughly, which resulted in their making an excellent meal for the family. I was quite surprised to receive many interesting letters from them.
My other readers have beenÂ American women who were married Iranian men. i have received many e-mails and letters from them telling me that because of New Food of Life, they could make Â tah dig and halva better then their mother-in-laws, who were hesitant to reveal their secrets about Iranian cooking.
MPK: Could you share with us your recipe research process?
First was my mother, and my family, and older friends of the family, then I used old Persian literature and poetry, (for example in The Book of Kings – Shahnameh – i found a recipe for veal fillet kebab marinated in saffron, old wine and rose water. I have also found descriptions by travelers to Iran useful, and finally Persian cookbooks from the 9th, 16th, 19th, and early 20th century.
MPK: Do the recipes find their way to you though family and friends only?
Recently, after 30 years of cooking and writing cookbooks in exile, Iranians from various walks of life get in touch with me and share their family’s cooking secrets.
MPK: Could you please share with us your inspiration for Silk Road Cooking and From Persia to Napa?
First of all, I was tired and annoyed with the concept of Mediterranean cooking being considered the center and source for all good cuisine. What was Mediterranean cooking? I was particularly upset that Persian cooking was not included in the great schools of cooking. When you talk about Silk Road cooking, the commercial road that connected China to Italy with Iran at the center, looking both East and West, then everything suddenly looks different. For me, Persian food is the mother of Mediterranean cuisine. You cannot talk about Mediterranean food and ignore the influence of Persian food on Moroccan and Tunisian (North African), Turkish, Greek and Italian cuisine.
So i decided to do my research. I travelled from China to Italy and cooked with regional cooks to find out what was common and what was different among between countries. The result wasÂ Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey.
My inspiration for From Persia to Napa came when a foodie colleague of mine asked me at a culinary conference, Najmieh, do you have wine in Iran? After a few years of research into the history of wine from an Iranian perspective, I realized how much we Iranians didn’t know, let alone Westerners. As you saw in the book, much of the traditions of wine making, drinking and toasting etc, go back to far before California, or France and seem to have begun and been developed in or around Iran in very ancient times.
MPK: New Food of Life, Silk Road Cooking, and From Persia to Napa are three comprehensive, informative, and clearly labor intensive cookbooks. How long did it take you to research and publish each book?
I dont have just a passion, i have a mission — i want people to know about our ancient heritage, so each book is written not only with passion and a vision but also with a great deal of hard work.
When I look at ancient cultures, I see almost everything documented and attributed to the Greeks — i always tell my husband that the ancient Greeks had really good PR.
As a mom, i see a lot of insecurity and identity issues in our children in exile –education is the key.
MPK: How have you dealt with people who are not willing to share their recipes, or simply give directions to recipes without including how much of each ingredient is used, when compiling recipes for your cookbooks?
At the beginning, most middle-aged Iranian women outside of the country were competing with me, or only knew their recipe when making it, not in quantities etc. I didn’t really need their quantities, because all I needed were hints and elements, the rest I could do. I experimented a great deal with my recipes to perfect them from what they had been initially.
MPK: Do you have a favorite Iranian regional cuisine that you favor?
My favorite Iranian food region is the Caspian in general and because I am a fishatarian in particular.
MPK: What is your favorite dish?
A Persian Â Gulf dish from Bandar Abbas, which mixes cilantro, garlic, and tamarind for a delicate sauce cooked with white fish called Â “Ghaliyeh Â Mahi”
MPK: What advice do you have for aspiring home cooks who are passionate about learning and cooking Persian cuisine?
First of all use local farm ingredients whenever possible. Avoid, canned, dried and frozen ingredients whenever possible. Use a cookbook with a photo of the finished dish to help you, finally, practice, practice, practice. The initial recipe is a guide, what you do with it to make it yours is what cooking is all about.
MPK: How do you deal with local, regional or even family-to-family variations of a particular recipe?
Of course each family and region have their special tastes and traditions, for example some families use lots of tomatoes for their Rice with Green Beans (lubia polow), some families use more saffron, but what is important is for you to know the techniques and steps for making lubia polow, you have to have a good cookbook to give you the measurements and to guide you, what you do then, whether it’s your own taste or your family’s preference is up to you.
Another example, is that we have various souring agents in various parts of Iran: bitter-orange (Seville orange or narenj) and lime, pomegranate and vinegar, ver juice (ghureh), sour plum (gojeh), liquid sundried yogurt (kashk), solid curd (gharagurrut) and tamarind. For an eggplant khoresh from my cookbook — in my family we use ver juice (ghureh) as the souring agent, but you can replace it with any of the sour agents above from the various regions of Iran. Each will produce a quite different taste, yet each can be delicious.
MPK: When putting together a recipe for one of the books, do you try to stay with the “authentic” recipe as much as possible, or do you try it and adjust ingredients and spices to your liking or to what you think the dish should look or taste like?
In New Food Of Life i tried to remain true to the authentic because I see myself as a messenger responsible for presenting in the best possible way the traditions of an ancient culture.
I am fascinated with old Persian cookbooks of the 9th and 16th centuries. Though I have been cooking every day for the past 30 years, and learning something new about Persian cooking, there is still a lot to learn.
We have been fortunate that during the past thirty years, America has also become a kind of Silk Road where all sorts of ingredients are available, as well as the cooks from the countries where those ingredients were commonly used. We are no longer dependent on one person who has spent a few weeks in another country to tell us about the cuisine of that country. Many of the ingredients that were hard to find in America when I first started are now common place: pomegranates, Basmati rice, saffron, rose petals, fresh herbs, Persian cucumbers, etc.
Keep in mind that ancient cultures such as those of Persia, China and India have used the power of food as a healer and cooked with the philosophy of balancing the humors such as sardy and garmy or yin and yang. I have, always considered that philosophy when i cook or develop recipes. i try to stay away from any fusion that becomes confusion.