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The (travelling) Culture of Food: Exploring Iranian Cuisine

The (travelling) Culture of Food: Exploring Iranian Cuisine

Traditional Persian cuisine is one of the most highly treasured exports of Iran. Ariana Bundy, an award winning Iranian-American TV chef and cookbook authorpresents a cooking demonstration in Tirgan 2015based on her celebrated recipes. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleuand the former Head Pastry Chef for the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles, she combines expert cooking techniques with exotic Middle Eastern flavors, using pomegranate seeds and juice, rose water and rose petals, and fragrant herbs and spices to create delightful dishes. In her television series, called Ariana’s Persian Kitchen on the Nat Geo People TV Network, Bundy unlocks the time-honored culinary secrets of Iran from farm to table.

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What motivated you to take up the culinary arts professionally? And how has your approach to this art been informed by the various cuisines you’ve experienced while living in the Iranian diaspora? 

My grandparents were a major source of inspiration for me.  They grew all kinds of fruits and vegetables, including grapes, on their land. My earliest memories of cooking were as a little girl, frying onions with my grandmother, perched on a stool. My father was also a restaurateur. He had a French fine dining restaurant in Tehran before the Revolution (1978-1979 ) and later opened a very successful place in Beverly Hills. But he never allowed me in the kitchen. He said it wasn’t a fit place for a lady! And my mom is an exceptional cook. I never really gave her credit but as I’m learning more about Iranian food I’m realizing what a phenomenal cook she really is. She also helped me with my cookbook by doing the styling and cooking. I’ve lived in so many places; Iran, US, UK, France, Italy, Switzerland, Dubai, Singapore, and I love all different types of cuisine. It’s impossible for me to say which one is my favorite. But I take a bit from each in the way I think about my food – the classic French techniques of preparation and sauces I learned at Cordon Bleu, the emphasis on fresh ingredients in Italy, the simplicity and stylish presentation of Japan, the organic and natural movements of California, and of course the ‘feel’, balance of taste, the ‘hot’ and the ‘cold’, and the general depth of Persian cooking.

There is much ethnic diversity in Iran, and the range of local traditions is hard to exaggerate. How is this diversity reflected in local cuisines? Are there certain dishes or ingredients that are associated with certain places?

Yes that’s what I really discovered when I was filming my TV series Ariana’s Persian Kitchen. I traveled all over the country: from gorgeous Yazd to the Caspian Sea, from the rose fields of Kashan to the saffron fields of Khorrasan.  Everywhere you go there are regional dishes based on the type of produce available and the climate. For example in the Caspian they pickle almost everything and they have unique ingredients like smoked rice.  Down on the Persian Gulf, the cuisine has been influenced by some neighboring countries and you find some dishes with chili (something you won’t find anywhere else). Every town seems to have its own type of sweets and pastries. And even national dishes can have regional variations such as the Gheymeh in the city of Yazd, which surprisingly contains chickpeas instead of the usual split peas and cumin.

We often ask artists to describe their experiences in introducing Iranian art to non-Iranian audiences. Tell us about yours. Do you find that people often have preconceived notions about Iranian food? Are some dishes an easier hit than others?

Unfortunately most non-Iranians still know little about Iranian food.  They assume it’s going to be spicy and are surprised that we barely use chili, and how complex and fresh it is. My husband always jokes that I always make the same dish for non-Iranian’s–Zereshk Polo–the Persian version of chicken rice. This mainly because it’s quite easy and quick to make, but it’s also a very good introduction to Iranian food with the use of saffron, tangy barberries and of course the fluffy Persian rice with tahdigh. I usually pair it with mast-o-khiar and, for the more adventurous, a fesenjoon stew or ghormeh sabzi.

Do you find that Iranian cuisine is often experimented with in the multicultural societies you’ve experienced? Does this often happen when it moves into the ‘mainstream’ (say an upscale restaurant catering to people who don’t share an Iranian heritage, or even the food court in a mall)? 

There is a bit of a trend in experimenting with Iranian cuisine, both in restaurants and even in cookbooks.  I’m not totally opposed to this, but I do feel that we need to be clear about what we are presenting because Iranian cuisine is not well known enough yet. To say that something is Persian or Iranian cuisine when it contains ingredients or combinations that would never be used in our cuisine is misleading. There are literally hundreds of classic Persian dishes so there’s no need to experiment yet! Or at least, if you do, be clear that this is “Iranian inspired” of “Iranian influenced” rather than a true reflection of Iranian food.

Iranian culture and society are increasingly the focus of Western media coverage. Your recent Nat Geo People series Ariana’s Persian Kitchen features you leading a culinary tour of Iran, and just a few months ago Anthony Bourdain did something similar. Do you sense a growing interest in Iranian cuisine and culture among Western audiences?  

Definitely. I think it’s seen as one of the last great culinary frontiers. Not long ago Jamie Oliver described it as the next big thing and Anthony Bourdain had been trying to visit for years to do his show. As we all know, Iran is nearly always in the news but people I speak to are really eager to see and understand a different side of the country.  What are the people really like? How do they live? Through the medium of food, that’s one thing I wanted to achieve with my show.  From a culinary point of view as well, I think Iranian food offers something really different from everything else–it’s heavily spiced but not spicy, it’s aromatic and complex yet it mainly uses regular ingredients you can find anywhere in the world.

It’s often said that most Iranian dishes can only be found in the home, rather than the restaurant, because their preparation is too complex or they don’t keep well. Is this just a cliché? Do you think that a new generation of Iranian culinary art is complicating this boundary? 

Iranian dishes do take a while to prepare.  It’s true that even in Iran itself the best food is found at home and not at restaurants. Traditionally, people rarely eat out and if they do it’s usually to have something they don’t often prepare at home such as grilled meats or kababs.  But there’s no reason why Iranian food cannot be served and presented extremely well in a restaurant.  In fact, so much of the preparation can be done in advance which is ideal for a food business.

Tell us about your book, Pomegranates and Roses. Who did you have in mind when you were selecting the recipes that it features? 

I had two different audiences in mind with this book. The first were Iranians like me who had grown up abroad. For us, eating Iranian food was one of the main ways we kept in touch with our culture while away from Iran. So I wanted to recreate the dishes I grew up with. That’s why it’s subtitled ‘My Persian Family Recipes”. I also wanted, through this book, to introduce Persian cuisine to a non-Iranian audience and show how rich, varied and interesting it is and for them to see how simple it is to make.

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