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At U.N., Serving Iran's Food To Eager if Ignorant Diners

By David Kirby
The New York Times
June 18, 2000

THE SETTING -- The bustling, steamy kitchen of the United Nations Delegates Dining Room, where a dozen people were taking a behind-the-scenes cooking class, part of a series sponsored by the New School University that brings students to top eating spots. This month, the United Nations is celebrating the food of Iran, so chickpea fritters, savory shish kebabs and Persian baklava swimming in rosewater were all on the menu. It was the first time, according to the United Nations, that the Islamic government of Iran has sponsored any official event outside the country.

THE BUZZ -- "I know Iran has been out of favor for some time, but taste buds are taste buds, and this food is fabulous," said Dick Scanlan, a writer who took the $80 class as a gift "from a friend who's a real foodie." Mr. Scanlan wondered if perhaps Iran, currently liberalizing, had embarked on some "kinder, gentler P.R. campaign" in which fine Persian cuisine is just the opening salvo.

"What's next?" he asked. "Commercials with young honeymooners in bikinis running through the streets of Tehran?"

"Yeah, right," said Alan Effron, a lawyer eating flatbread with spinach-yogurt dip. "Iran is for lovers."

The class began with Iranian cocktails, from which alcohol is banned by Islamic law. Juices of pomegranates, oranges and limes were offered, along with a sour yogurt-milk concoction that Lou Piuggi, the United Nations executive chef and teacher for a day, called "an acquired taste." Nobody acquired it.

Then Mr. Piuggi began cooking, with the able assistance of Ata Samii, an Iranian caterer who has lived in New York for more than 30 years.

Iranian cuisine, it turns out, is not so different from other Middle Eastern food, but it has a subtlety derived from ingredients like saffron, walnuts and rosewater. The chicken and beef shish kebabs were infused with herbs and cooked on swordlike skewers. Tarragon and mint were served to cleanse the palate.

"It's wonderful," said Rhonda Fingerman at the sit-down lunch after class, which she took as part of a season of self-imposed unemployment. "This is my summer of food and wine," Ms. Fingerman said. "This is my summer of Rhonda."

Nearby, Rhona Newman ate baklava with her friend Elaine Katz. "To understand food is to understand culture," Ms. Newman said. "We're expanding our horizons."

Ms. Katz said she wanted to have an Iranian dinner party "with belly dancers and everything."

Would that include wearing the traditional chador? "You mean those big black things?" she asked. "Sure. Then I wouldn't even need makeup."



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