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The Saffron Tales: a Journey To Discover Iran’s Contemporary Cuisine

Leeron Hoory By Leeron Hoory Published on December 28, 2016
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In her new cookbook, The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen, writer and cook Yasmin Khan travels through 2,000 miles of Iran, where she spent much of her childhood, in search of recipes and stories that capture contemporary Iran. The cookbook is filled with mouthwatering recipes and photographs of some of the most celebrated Persian dishes like ghormeh sabzi, a lamb and mixed herb stew, fesenjoon, chicken with walnuts and pomegranates, and rice with the celebrated tadig, the crispy crust at the bottom of the pot, photographed by Shahrzad Darafsheh and Matt Russell. As the title suggests, The Saffron Tales is not only a collection of recipes but a story of nostalgia, culture, personal and collective narrative.

Khan was born in Croydon, South London, and grew up in the UK. Her mother’s family comes from northern Iran, and as a child, Khan would travel often to visit family. With the perspective of both an insider and an outsider, she chronicles her travels through recipes, fusing her childhood memories with new discoveries of Iran's most beloved cuisine.

Before embarking on this journey, Khan worked as a human rights campaigner for NGOs focusing on human rights and social justice issues in the Middle East.

The book also celebrates an aspect of the country that is often overlooked by the media, “but that is central to its story,” thus challenging the dominant way Iran is portrayed to the rest of the world.

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In each section of the book, Khan delves into a different region of the country and the foods and traditions that make it unique: from the mountains of Tabriz to the rice paddies in the Caspian sea, from the deserts of central Iran to the fishing ports of the Persian Gulf, each region’s cuisine is shaped by its specific geographic location. In Tehran, Khan tells readers about the city’s café culture and art scene. In Isfahan and Shiraz she visits saffron fields, and in Bandar Abbas, the capital of Iran’s southernmost province, the famous fish market.

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chicken with walnuts and pomegranates

Khan’s journey mirrors a theme she expresses throughout the book: Persian cooking is “informal, unpretentious and relaxed.” She encourages readers to use the recipes as a guide as opposed to a set of instructions. Likewise, her narrative follows this form of exploration and inquiry. Informally interviewing farmers, artists, electricians, and schoolteachers, she shares her discoveries with readers as they unfold. In this spirit, even the most traditional recipes are malleable, and Khan has also adopted some of them to healthier or vegetarian versions, such as a herb baked falafel, inspired by the street-food staple.

Often, in telling these stories, politics and food converge in unexpected yet illuminating ways. In Tehran, Khan meets Mervha Arvin who returned to Iran from the U.S. to open Cafe 78. The coffee shop fuses contemporary and traditional Persian food and is connected to an upstairs art gallery, a combination that became quite common in the city after alcohol was banned following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and young Tehranis turned to cafés as places to gather. Tehran’s food mirrors the complexity and contradictions that exist in the city, “a place where hard-line clerics gather for Friday morning prayers to denounce the West, just as Tehrani youth wake up with hangovers and head to a yoga class.”

Khan also linguistically explores the history and meaning of dishes and expressions, an interesting and important part of the story. The language of Persian food, Farsi, adds a poetic and essential layer of meaning and it’s helpful to learn its origins. Sabazi Khordan, a platter of herbs, for instance, literally means “eating greens” and Anaristan, the name of a restaurant she visits with a family friend while traveling in Shiraz, means “pomegranate country.”

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Persian love cake

Many of the recipes contain Khan’s beloved staples such as pomegranates, saffron, and cardamom, and often these foods take on a larger cultural meaning. Khan was obsessed with pomegranates growing up, and they are important in Persian mythology. The hero warrior, Isfandiar, is said to have eaten pomegranates to become invincible, Khan writes. 

“‘We learn about the beauty of pomegranates from an early age in Iran,’” Faranak Evaghi a design teacher in Isfahan tells Khan when she visits her home.

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This year has seen the publication of several cookbooks on Persian cooking specifically and on Middle Eastern cuisine as a whole. “I’m not sure why 2016 has emerged as the Year of the Persian Cookbook,” Laura Shapiro wrote in an article for The New York Times. Others include Sallie Butcher’s Persepolis: Vegetarian Recipes From Persia and Beyond and Naomi Duguid’s Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan. In The Saffron Tales, Khan adds to the emerging collection by weaving together seamlessly Persian food, tradition, culture and the modern landscape to tell the story of Iran’s most celebrated foods today. 


    Leeron Hoory is a writer based in New York City with a focus in arts and culture.