THE AUTHOR OF THE SAFFRON TALES WEIGHS IN ON FOOD CULTURE, HER FAVORITE SPICE, AND THE PROPER WAY TO BREW A CUP OF TEA.
asmin Khan winces apologetically at the pale brew she’s inadvertently poured out of the teapot the two of us are sharing. She hastily pours the hot amber liquid back into the pot to brew a little longer, explaining with a laugh that she’s cursed three times over to be a fussy tea drinker. “I can’t help it: I’m English, my mum’s Iranian, and my dad’s Pakistani. There’s just no room for weak tea!”
I met with Khan over lunch (and tea) at Red Rooster in Harlem, the same day as her book, The Saffron Tales (Bloomsbury), came out in the US. Khan is an animated speaker; she tosses her dark, wavy hair to one side, as if for emphasis, as she leans in to confide the end to an anecdote or leans back to dreamily recall the largesse of her grandparents’ garden in Gilan in the north of Iran. Her stories have the effect of making one see the country as if clearly for the first time. Instead of the ochre-colored wasteland pictured in too many Hollywood movies, or the parlous domain of religious zealots, Khan’s Iran is filled equally with verdant valleys, teeming port cities, artists, students, and home cooks eager to share their stories and recipes.
The book is a fascinating collection of recipes and travel narratives that Khan, who grew up in London with frequent visits throughout her youth to Iran, collected during the course of several extended sojourns through the country, from Tabriz to Bandar Abbas. Even the most weathered fans of Iranian food will find something new and instructive in the pages of The Saffron Tales, with its loving and carefully wrought portraits of a distinctive food culture and the ingredients and people that make it so unique. But it is for those poor souls who have never explored or wondered about Iranian food before that the book holds its most especial wonders. What a treat to first encounter Iranian food through Khan, who embraces the full variety and regionality of Iranian food, highlighting beautiful and distinctive local dishes, sharing the stories of local cooks, and curating a collection of new Iranian classics for avid cooks everywhere.
The Saffron Tales was published in April in the UK, where Khan lives, and when we met she was on the verge of leaving for a multi-city US tour. In the very brief reprieve between promoting the book in two countries, she gave me invaluable advice on the secret to making the perfect fesenjoon (“make sure your pomegranate molasses doesn’t have any sugar or fructose in it and only use the freshest walnuts!”), and was stocking up on NYC essentials (“It’s hard to get a good bagel in London, I just might have to freeze some to take back!”). Between it all, though, she shared her thoughts on Iranian food, the growing popularity of eggplants, and the dangers of seeing the world through a too-narrow window.
Rohan Kamicheril: So first things first: the book is gorgeous. In a weird way it was actually hard to get through because I kept wanting to start cooking from it!
Yasmin Khan: Thank you!
RK: The descriptions are so evocative—your love of food comes through so clearly. Can you tell me a little bit about how you first came up with the idea for the book?
YK: I had decided to spend some time at my grandparents’ farm. My grandfather had passed away and I was on sabbatical from my job as a human rights campaigner. In order to pass the time, I asked family members to cook me their favorite recipes—as a sort of family history. We’d cook in the kitchen and I’d record our conversations. Being in the kitchen with someone is incredibly intimate—it’s a great space for people to share recollections of the past or their hopes for the future. I collected all of these great recipes and recollections but I didn’t really think anything was going to come of it at the time. But when I came back to the UK it was 2012 and just about the time the really tough sanctions had just hit Iran. People kept asking me the same questions about Iran, and I was getting tired of answering them again and again—no, we don’t wear burqas, no I don’t speak Arabic, yes I can drive there.
"There’s something so nourishing and comforting about making the food from another culture."
And that’s when I realized that there was this huge gap between people’s perceptions of Iran and the Iran I knew. And I thought, well, maybe there’s something I can do to address this. And food seemed like a fun and creative way to explore the culture. It helped that Persian food deserves so much more attention in the West. It’s healthy, it’s full of citrus, fresh herbs, that unique combination of sweet and sour flavors. People always tell me that it’s unlike anything they’ve ever eaten. And there’s something so nourishing and comforting about making the food from another culture that helps spread goodwill. Even learning about the little customs helps. I was just talking today to someone about how Iranians share food. As a kid I used to think this was such a pain, but now I really appreciate it—if you’re sitting around with a group of people and you’re eating an apple, you don’t just eat the apple by yourself; you cut it into pieces and then it goes around, and in the end maybe you’ll get the one piece left. And so you cut another apple. There’s just this concept that food is something that you do socially.
RK: My dad actually does the same thing. He can’t cook, but he can cut fruit, so his (self-appointed) job at breakfast is to cut fruit and give everyone a piece. It’s such a sweet gesture, and it’s so lovely to see a culture in which it’s so enshrined.
RK: Did you grow up around food? How did you first come to love food?
YK: Well, I was born in the UK but when I was three months old I went to Iran with my mother because she was doing her fieldwork for her PhD in Nutrition and Dietetics.
RK: Oh, perfect!
YK: Yeah, I know, and my father’s a psychiatrist, so I should really be the perfect child [laughs].
RK: Well, demonstrably.
YK: So I was in Iran for the first few years of my life. The revolution was happening and it was a challenging time, politically, and my mum wanted to be with her family. My grandparents had just bought a small plot of land and had begun cultivating rice and all sorts of produce: eggplants, tomatoes, peppers. There were dairy cows, lots of fruit trees—everything from strawberries to blackberries, kiwis, figs, greengages, persimmons, and apple and walnut trees. My grandmother was always churning her own butter or making her own yogurt, and pickling everything. It was a really fun place to be as a kid. Especially growing up in the West. We’d go back for these six-week stretches during the summer holidays and just be let loose in this playground of produce. We’d go for picnics to a nearby stream and that would mean we’d grab a massive watermelon or pick figs right from the tree. And my grandfather in particular really instilled in all of us a reverence for fresh produce and ingredients.
RK: Who would cook when you visited your grandmother’s house?
YK: My aunts, mainly. In that classic Asian way there’d be the whole extended family, with my grandmother supervising.
RK: And when you were in the UK would your mother mostly cook Iranian food?
YK: Almost always Iranian food. My father’s a great cook, too, though he mostly cooks Punjabi food.
RK: Was it easy to find Iranian ingredients in 1980s London? Or would you have to bring them back from Iran?
YK: Yes! We’d have to bring things back all the time! Or we’d have to send it over in the post whenever we went to Iran.
YK: Oh no! My mum has a great story. Gilan, where we’re from, in the north, is a very fertile, verdant part of Iran. And they eat a lot of vegetables. I always say that eggplants to the Gilaki are what potatoes are to the Irish. They’re always on the table, and everyone’s just happier when they’re there. But in the UK in 1981 eggplants were, for one thing, hard to come by, but also really expensive. Do they grow in the US?
RK: They do, but I think it’s taken a lot of work by immigrant communities to really introduce them into the mainstream. By puritanical standards it’s a fairly obscene-looking vegetable, it’s going to take some effort to convince people to eat it!
YK: [laughing] Well, once, when my mum was pregnant with me, she was out shopping for vegetables. She and my dad were new immigrants, and they didn’t have a lot of money—my dad was doing his medical exams, and my mum was a young PhD student. She picked up two eggplants and they were something like £2 each, which in today’s prices would be something like $5 or $7 each. She couldn’t afford them, and so she went home and wrote a letter to her mum—in tears, about the fact that she’d come all this way to this foreign country where eggplants were so expensive. It’s heartbreaking! Things have changed a lot and eggplants are available everywhere now and everyone eats them, but that wasn’t the case thirty-five years ago.
RK: Do you think people are beginning to see the differences between the various cuisines of the Levant? I know that sometimes it’s hard to overcome popular notions that there’s just one pan-Levantine cuisine.
YK: You’re absolutely right. Just a few years ago, people thought all Middle Eastern food was the same—either they’d never heard of Iranian food or they thought everyone in Iran eats hummus. But it’s changed so much. Just as I was leaving London there was an Iraqi pop-up happening with Philip Juma of Juma Kitchen. How amazing to now be able to taste the flavors of the Iraqi kitchen. And then there’s me and Sabrina Ghayour doing the Persian thing. There’s a new book out called Palestine on a Plate…it’s finally beginning to feel like we’re seeing some more nuance in how people approach the food of the Middle East. It’s one of the reasons why food is so fascinating: you can just keep peeling back the layers.
RK: That comes through in the format of the book, too. I love the combination of recipes with travel narratives and short stories about each of the recipes.
"I wanted this book to be more than just a collection of recipes. My hope is that it provides a window into a country that we’re shown very little of in the West."
YK: The stories are really important to me because I wanted this book to be more than just a collection of recipes. My hope is that it provides a window into a country that we’re shown very little of in the West. Last night I was watching the debates and it struck me how both Trump and Hillary were trying to outdo each other on who was tougher on Iran. The assumption was that Iran is evil. And it made me think—what if the rest of the world only saw America as Donald Trump? Would that be a true reflection of the values and opinions of the people of the United States? Not really. But that’s what we do with Iran! We only depict it through a couple of people in its government. But yet you have this ancient culture, the incredibly rich, diverse, beautiful history, an incredible cuisine, and the human stories of all the wonderful people who live there. It was really important for me to share all of that.
RK: What was the most surprising thing you learned about regional Iranian cooking as you travelled around the country?
YK: I’ve been travelling to Iran all my life, but for the book I was going to places I’d never been before, with a mission to uncover the foodie essence of a particular place. I discovered loads of new flavors but Bandar Abbas, in the south of Iran was the biggest eye-opener because it’s such an incredible place. It’s not the most beautiful place. It is beautiful but it’s not like Shiraz or Isfahan. It’s a rough port town. You know how port towns are always a little bit seedy? Filled with the karma of all the sailors from years gone by [laughs]? It was on the old spice route, taking spices from India to Venice, so the recipes all have tamarind, ginger, chile, cilantro, which just aren’t used otherwise in Iranian cooking. And it also has a really big African–Iranian population because the Portuguese used to control it and they used to have a big slave population and when the Portuguese left you had this population of people of African descent who made the area their home and have lived there for hundreds of years now. It was a whole new section of Iran for me.
RK: Is there an Iranian ingredient that you wish people used more?
YK: My current favourite—hmm, I don’t know, I feel the need to be political about this [laughs]. If I had to choose just one, right now, I’d say sumac. Sourness is definitely the dominant flavor in Iranian cooking. I love using sumac because you can use it when you want that citrus flavor but don’t want to add any additional liquid to a dish. It’s great as a marinade for chicken and lamb and fish, it’s wonderful in salads. I always use it in dressings. I would say that sumac is one of those spices, if you just buy some, you’ll start using it in everything.
RK: Potato chips with sumac?
RK: I love how, in the book, the people you talk to come from such a wide variety of professions and walks of life. A student, an electrician, an elderly bon vivant who loves to throw parties. It really gives the impression of a culture in which food is utterly pervasive and everyone thinks about it.
YK: Everyone, absolutely! Iran is one of those places where the home kitchen is revered. People don’t really eat out. And if they do, it’s sort of a rushed thing, or just kebabs. There’s not a developed restaurant culture and there’s not really a street food culture. But it does mean that everyone is invested in cooking and everybody’s got an opinion on how you make something. And people are happy to spend hours in the kitchen—not that all Iranian food takes hours! In fact, I’ve specifically modernized a lot of the recipes in the book so that they’re faster and easier to make.
"Iran is one of those places where the home kitchen is revered."
RK: The book does a wonderful job of marrying modern techniques with traditional recipes. Though many of the recipes are actually very easy and quick to make, you do stress the importance of taking a little time to cook—of letting it be an activity unto itself, not something you cram in between other chores. Do you think there’s place for both—the more modern (and convenient) and more traditional (and time-consuming) ways of cooking?
YK: When I first started going to Iran for the book I’d come back and tell my mum about something I’d learned, and she’d say, “Oh, I never do it like that,” or “We never used that when I lived in Iran!” And I have to say, Mum, you left Iran 35 years ago. Times have changed! For me it was important to have a modern cookbook. Yes, it’s celebrating an ancient cuisine, but if we were still eating the food that they were eating in the UK or in the US thirty-five years ago, we wouldn’t be enjoying it. Food changes. And I think there’s an interesting debate about what exactly forms a country’s food culture. I believe that a country’s food culture is what people are eating at a particular given time. If you want to know what contemporary Iranian food is like, it’s what people are eating right now.
RK: There are so many delicious recipes in this book, what would you recommend someone start with?
YK: Hands down, I think the dish that everybody should start with is fesenjoon. It’s such an easy dish. It’s just ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses, chicken, a pinch of cinnamon, salt and pepper. You hardly need to do anything to it. You just let the sauce bubble away slowly on top of your hearth. I guarantee you’ll love it. It’s just such a unique flavor—sweet and sour, with the rich creaminess and earthiness of the walnuts, and the tenderness of the chicken. Fesenjoon is known as the Shah of Iranian food—it’s served at weddings and special occasions, but it’s actually the simplest dish in the book, so I really recommend that people start with that.