Cookbook review: 'Food of Life'
'Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies' by Najmieh Batmanglij is a treasured collection of classic Iranian recipes.
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Armed with Najmieh Batmanglij’s gorgeous cookbook, “Food of Life,” I marched into the supermarket to find pomegranate molasses, saffron, and barberries.
Alas, I was in Vermont. In the winter. Nary a pomegranate seed to be found. I did find saffron – in the Mexican aisle. The featherweight package cost almost as much as an upscale lunch in Boston.
Barberries? I didn’t even know what those were. (It wasn’t until later that I discovered the helpful appendices Batmanglij provides, which include a glossary and a list of Persian grocery suppliers around the US and Canada. There you can read that barberries are a small, tart red fruit.)
With some creativity, and the lenience of my family and our guests – “It’s not like you’re cooking for the shah,” my husband reminded me – we pulled off a respectable version of Jeweled Rice and Pomegranate Khoresh with Chicken, a braised meat dish (see photo).
At a time when the US media seem to have forgotten that there are actual people living in Iran – people throwing snowballs, falling in love, nourishing their friends and families – it could be worthwhile for Americans to get a taste of daily life there.
That has been a key objective for Ms. Batmanglij. The author of five Persian cookbooks, she is from Tehran but has lived in exile since the 1979 Iranian revolution ushered in a theocratic regime. She retains a clear affection for her country, however.
As she says in her preface, her objective with “Food of Life” was “not just to compile a collection of recipes, however delicious they might be, but to share my view of the best of Persian culture. I believe that the same qualities that govern the Persian arts – a particular feeling for the ‘delicate touch,’ letafat – govern the art of Persian cuisine.”
She elaborated on that in a recent phone conversation with me from her kitchen in America’s capital, where many congressmen and think tank analysts are pushing for increasingly harsh measures against the Iranian regime.
“Above all, I wanted Iran associated with good things – pomegranates, saffron, pistachios,” she said. “I wanted to show the best of Iran.”
She does that through gorgeous full-page photographs that include not only beautiful meals but everything from Persian pottery to Persian poetry, revered for centuries – not least of all as a way to express one’s feelings at times of political repression.