Cooking in Iran: Evan Kleiman’s cookbook of the year

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Sometimes the best book of the year is the last one we receive. In 2018, that book for me was Najmieh Batmanlij‘s Cooking in Iran: Regional Recipes & Kitchen Secrets.” It’s a stunning regional tour of the country that is at once a celebration of the return of an exile and an investigation of dishes previously unknown to the author.

If you already own “Food of Life,” the book Batmanglij published in 1986, then you have what is considered to be the bible of Persian classics: written by a cook of discerning palate, determined to communicate the traditional way of doing things in a gorgeously presented way. The cookbook allowed me to be fluent in communicating with my Persian boyfriend’s family in the ’80s. At least at the table. All of us thought this was extraordinary—magical, even.

But the 726 pages in “Cooking in Iran” contain dishes that Batmanglij, who now lives in Washington, D.C., found in her visits to Iran after decades of exile—spanning three trips over the past five years. She saw regions she had never visited before, ate food she’d never tasted and encountered variations of the familiar she never considered. She traveled with Persian news photographer Afshin Bakhtiar. His stunning tableaux of people, places and landscape are the perfect counterpoint to the gorgeous visuals of recipes tested in the Batmanglij home kitchen.

“Cooking in Iran” was Evan’s favorite cookbook in 2018. Photo by Andrew Weilert (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This book must be Batmanglij’s coming out party, the work that introduces her to a large non-Persian audience. When I started devouring her books in the mid-1980s, she quickly became another culinary “aunt”— a mentor, who like Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, and Madhur Jaffrey opened the door to a cuisine I knew nothing about. These women were adventurous, independent, ambitious advocates for the cuisines of their hearts. And they could write in personal ways that drew you into their meticulously researched culinary worlds.

Batmanglij took a cuisine from a country I had never visited—and for political reasons would be unlikely to ever visit—and made me love it, crave it, enjoy cooking it. But why hasn’t she received the same level of attention of these other giants of culinary mentorship? Clearly it’s the problematic political nature of Iran itself, especially during the 1980s, the years when she first started publishing. Images beamed into American living rooms of the American Embassy hostage crisis raised the specter of an oppressive place that many Iranian-Americans, especially here in Los Angeles, had fled.

Baked Onions Filled with Rice and Herbs, from Kurdistan (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Over the past three years I’ve received at least ten books that explore Iranian cooking: sometimes as the sole focus, often as part of a look at Central Asia. But this deep volume deserves a special place for those of us who relish learning through eating and cooking. And for Angelenos who have been eating stews, kebabs, and tahdig in restaurants for the past thirty years, this is an opportunity to taste what you can’t order off a menu.

There are some cuisines that translate quite well to the restaurant kitchen. Italian food is one. There are others where the difference between home cooked food and what is presented in the majority of restaurants is more than a gulf. It’s a ravine. I learned this by eating my boyfriend’s mother’s cooking, surrounded by cousins and aunts at the table. The variety of skills and flavors on offer in “Cooking in Iran” is comparable to looking through a kaleidoscope, where before you just saw primary colors. And it’s all filtered through Batmanglij, whose palate is extraordinary. She’s the aunt you want cooking for you. “Cooking in Iran” is the next best thing.

Pumpkin preserves, Hamadan (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

So on to the food. It was in Persian courts that the combination of sweet and sour in a savory context was fully explored and exported to the rest of the world. I often tell those who have never encountered Persian food to imagine the spice of Indian food, while substituting a lavish use of herbs, plus the addition of a sour element. Tartness comes in the form of unripe grapes, barberries, tamarind, vinegar—or the famous dried limes. There are enough pickles and preserves in this book to make up a sub-volume.

From the town of Hamadan are pumpkin preserves, cut into flowers, soaked in pickling lime to keep the flesh crisp—then candied in a rose water scented syrup with pistachios. There is a lavish dried apricot-nut pickle with almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios and walnuts. There are braises like baked onions stuffed with rice and herbs—comforting, but always with a brightening twist like the tarragon garnish here. I love porridges from many countries, but halim is next level. I can’t wait to try the green-flecked version of halim in this book finished with saffron, made with mung beans and kohlrabi from Isfahan. They are depicted as a smear on a puffy flatbread or the enticing sweet and sour glazed chickpea and carrot patties, for which there is also a recipe.

In short, this is a book that will keep you happily busy for years, while introducing you to a giant of culinary prowess.

Be sure and listen to Evan Kleiman’s extended conversation with Najmieh Batmanglij.