From baghali polo to lamb kabobs, the beauty and deliciousness of Persian food offers a depth, complexity, and long history that many modern and western cuisines lack. But where western and specifically American food may be missing flavor, Najmieh Batmanglij offers a wealth of tasty recipes picked from the Persian historical palate and placed center stage in her eight Persian cookbooks.
A Journey From War To Success
When Najmieh fled Iran’s revolution and settled in France, she studied cooking and began translating her mother’s recipes into French. The result was her first cookbook, “Ma Cuisine d’Iran,” a book that reached success beyond what Najmieh had imagined. As a matter of fact, Najmieh had not originally imagined it as a book at all.
“I started Ma Cuisine d’Iran as a scrapbook, a kind of love letter to my children,” Najmieh said. “I was afraid that they would never experience all the good food experiences I had during my childhood growing up in Iran. I wanted them to taste fresh barbary bread with butter and fig jam in the morning, I wanted them to taste creamy saffron ice cream sandwiches, I wanted to share with them the excitement and the aromas around the ceremonies of the Persian New Year/Nowruz.”
And it was out of that love that Najmieh’s first cookbook found an enthusiastic audience, and of course the subsequent books have helped inform the world about Iran’s glorious food culture. When asked about the success of her first cookbook and the books that followed, Najmieh noted gave her passion for what she does most of the credit.
We, in the Iranian-American community in exile have no umbrella of religion or government. The only umbrella we have is our rich and ancient culture
“We have a saying in Persian, ‘when it comes from the heart, it goes to the heart‘ (az del barayad, bar del beshinad),” Najmieh said. “My cookbooks are the results of nostalgia and yearning to connect to my past through cooking. I wanted to connect to the tastes and aromas of my childhood memories in Iran. I wanted to connect with my roots. And it all happened organically. I never had a plan to become successful.”
And it’s that desire to get and stay connected to her roots that continues to motivate Najmieh to share her passion and love for Iran’s food traditions with the next generation.
Feeding Persia’s Future Abroad
Over 1 million Iranians have made America their home with another estimated 4 to 5 million Iranians living outside of Iran but elsewhere in the world. The Iranian Diaspora is large enough to constitute its own nation. But with those numbers and distance from Iran, maintaining cultural connections and continuity can prove difficult. For Najmieh, it’s the rich Persian food traditions that have the potential to reconnect Iranians in the Diaspora to their Persian roots.
Najmieh Batmanglij and Martha Stewart. Photo: David E. Steele/The Martha Stewart Show
“We, in the Iranian-American community in exile have no umbrella of religion or government. The only umbrella we have is our rich and ancient culture,” Najmieh said. “For the past 38 years, I have been advocating the best of Iranian culture which is Persian food. The one thing that connects all Iranians from various backgrounds, religions and political beliefs is Persian food.”
It’s an advocacy for Persian cuisine that pays off every time Najmieh teaches a young Iranian living in the Diaspora about their history and rich culture.
“When a young, second generation Iranian comes to me at a book signing and tells me: Your book inspired me to reconnect to my heritage,” Najmieh said as she speaks of what inspires her most about this work. “When women tell me: Your cookbook, Food of Life, saved my marriage. Or, when they say: I can now make a better tah dig/golden crust rice than my Iranian mother-in-law.”
But Najmieh’s cookbooks aren’t just about reconnecting Iranians to their ancient Persian roots, it’s also about building bridges between cultures and helping people understand that human beings are more alike than different.
“The more I search, the more I discover what a vast and rich school of cooking we have,” Najmieh said. “Persian cooking has influenced and been influenced by the cooking of many cultures. I have discovered that we have more similarities than differences, and we are more connected than we know.”