Najmieh Batmanglij is the grand dame of Iranian cooking. It's time you knew her name.

Najmieh Batmanglij is the grand dame of Iranian cooking. It's time you knew her name.

Najmieh Batmanglij, author of Cooking in Iran, in her Georgetown kitchen. (Matt McClain / The Washington Post)

She is told she is terrified about navigating this country where she was born. She's forgotten how to use her currency. She could not make phone calls properly. And though Farsi was her mother tongue, she could not pick up on the subtle cues people conveyed in conversation.

Iran has become a foreign country to come.

That's what living in exile does. It had been 36 years since she was called home. Batmanglij, 70, Iranian food for America. Iran's cooking traditions for intimidated American audiences. She has written eight cookbooks, many of them colossal, marked by an unflinging allergy to compromising.

"Darling, I did not have time," Batmanglij explains when I ask her why it took so long to return to Iran. "I had to raise kids, write cookbooks, take care of my family."

She has been writing on these tomes since 1983, before it was even considered, let alone cook, the foods of Iran. Maideh Mazda's skinny "In a Persian Kitchen" (Tuttle, 1960) and Nesta Ramazani's "Persian Cooking: A Table of Exotic Delights" (University of Virginia Press, 1982 ), which struck her as "inauthentic" because of the use of such ingredients as soy sauce.

Around the early aughts, she started to dream of returning to Iran. She gets drifting through her bazaars, sitting at dinner tables, visiting her restaurants.

She received 250 recipes, mostly from women, "Cooking in Iran: Regional Recipes & Kitchen Secrets," is now the culmination of thousands of miles of Iran. along the way.


Batmanglij puts the finishing touches on steamed rice with cumin and potatoes. (Matt McClain / The Washington Post)

It's a few minutes past 11 a.m., and she sways back and forth as she washes barberries, red as garnets, in her sink. They'll go inside a Kurdish chicken and barberry that they're tasting in Kermanshah, a city in the country's west, garnishing it with rose petals, almonds and pistachio kernels. It's a soothing dish, but the barberries, tart and electric, give it a kick. Batmanglij got out of a cook who worked in a friend's house in Kerman, a city in the country's southeast.

Persian cuisine, Batmanglij demonstrates in "Cooking in Iran," is one of the world's most dynamic and diverse. It's derived from traditions that stretch back centuries, chiseled by the influence of different ethnic populations within the country. Iranian cuisine is therefore a natural consequence of geography. It's a country sandwiched between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf to the south; and flanked by Afghanistan and Pakistan to its east, Iraq and Turkey to its west.

This variety is reflected in what she's cooking today, too. She is from a friend in Isfahan, a city in the middle of the country. She plops them in a bath of tomato sauce and cook them there for an hour. They emerge light and pillowy. The key, she cautions, is not to overmix them when they blend, and not to roll them too vigorously with their hands so that they become too dense.

To make them a pickle of cucumbers and raw onions they are taken along the Persian Gulf, dousing them in salt and apple cider vinegar and tossing them with toasted coriander seeds. And for dessert, at upside-down mango cake. She cooks the mangoes in butter and sugar before pouring the batter on top and baking; the mangoes take on the glassy appearance of amber jewels. Iranian cuisine: Iranians have been happily eating Indian and Pakistani mangoes since the 10th century.

Born in 1947, Batmanglij grew up in a middle-class family of 11 siblings in downtown Tehran. Their household celebrated food. Her mother has a team of hired cooks. But Batmanglij's mother, plucked from school as a young bride at 15, did not let her in the kitchen, she got her education first.

So Batmanglij complied: She moved to Oklahoma in 1968 to join an older brother there. The next year, she went to New Haven, Conn., And enrolled at Southern Connecticut State University to study education. She returned to Tehran in 1975, bachelor's and master's degrees in hand. Her mother let her in the kitchen.

In 1978, she met the man who became her husband, Mohammad. They wed in the summer of the next year, just after the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution, which had been taken as "a fundamentalist turn."

"Before the Revolution, people prayed at home, outside," she says. "After the revolution, people dance in their house and pray outside."

She fled to France with a baby in her belly at the end of 1979 because France did not require a visa for Iranians. Due to work restrictions, her husband could not join her until the next year. Those first few months in the city of Nice were lonely. Every day, she sat by the sea and cried.

"A lot of my tears are in the Mediterranean," she laughs.

After her husband joined her, the two settled in the southeastern French village of Vence, though she was silent terribly homesick. What steadied her was cooking: She had collected her mother's recipes in a scrapbook before she left Iran.

"I'm starting to relate to my past through food," she says. "Food was my healer."

Her French neighbors did not mind. She could not resist her khoresh bademjan, a stew of eggplant and tomatoes with unripe grapes as a sourcing agent, which she describes as "very Provencale-looking." At her behest, she took 50 of Her mother's recipes, published in 1983 with the help of her husband, found a Paris-based publisher, and put them in a cookbook, "Ma Cuisine d'Iran."

The couple moved to Washington this year, after the birth of Zal. She got to work on a second cookbook, one more definite than the first. They had a problem, though: American hostility toward Iranians due to the hostage crisis.


Najmieh and Mohammad Batmanglij in 1985. (Serge Ephraim / Mage Publishing)

"No one wanted to publish it," she says, shaking her head. "A cookbook about Iran was no-no."

Taking matters into their own hands, she and her husband took courses at Georgetown in publishing. Together, they started Mage and published in her opus, "Food of Life."

Beyond securing a publisher, they faced another challenge: "Persian" or "Iranian" in the title.

"When we first came to the hostages, a lot of people did not talk about Iran," her husband explains. Iranian. "If you could say you were Persian, you would say you were Persian rather than Iranian."

Following the Iranian Revolution, her husband says, word choice became more fraught: Using "Persian" felt safer. The word speaks to 4,000 years of history, a great civilization; so what a form of distancing that abstracted ugly connotations that the word "Iran" had come to carry in the 1980s. But to say you were Iranian what to announce your difference, to risk ostracizing yourself.

As a way out of this predicament, the couple chose to use both words in the book's subtitle, settling on "Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies."

Mage's bestsellers. Mage's bestsellers. Mage's bestsellers. But Mage is still a bootstrapped effort. In fact, "Cooking in Iran" is the first book for which she could afford to hire a publicist.


Batmanglij "laid the groundwork," says author Louisa Shafia. (Matt McClain / The Washington Post)

In the three decades since "Food of Life" came out, Batmanglij has been a quiet force. Her devotees include José Andrés, the Spanish American chef who told The Post in 2011 that she has "been a wonderful guide to the Persian Kitchen and has learned so much to understand this rich culture through its cooking," and Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli born British chef who is called "the goddess of Iranian cooking" in the Guardian in 2013.

But where her legacy is read more in a generation of Iranian cookbook authors in the diaspora who have followed her. America's publishing landscape is more welcoming than Persian cookbooks when Batmanglij started. It's not Exaggeration to say Batmanglij has done Iranian cooking what Marcella Hazan did for Italian and Madhur Jaffrey did for Indian: She has harnessed a country's foodways for American audiences. She has tilled the ground where second-generation Iranian food writers now tread. This newer crop of writers is indebted to her.

Citation needed Naz Deravian, the Iranian Canadian writer whose debut cookbook, "Bottom of the Pot" (Flatiron), came out in September. "Why has she never made the cut?"


Batmanglij's "Food of Life" (Mage Publishing), originally published in 1986.

"Food of Life" What Deravian's gateway drug: It was the first cookbook Deravian ever bought for her own way back in 1996, when she was on aspiring actress who lived in Los Angeles. The book was invaluable because Batmanglij committed mostly to oral tradition to the page. Deravian referenced it often while writing "Bottom of the Pot."

"It was a beautiful, encyclopedic book to have on hand as reference," Deravian says. "There's nothing else out there."

Louisa Shafia, the Iranian-American author of The New Persian Cooking (Ten Speed ​​Press, 2013), grew up in Philadelphia.

"For all of us who have written Persian cookbooks in the last decade, Najmieh laid the groundwork with depth of research and documentation of Persian cooking," says Shafia.

Shafia got her hands on "Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey" (Mage, 2002). Iranian cuisine. When they opened the book, they struck by Batmanglij's reverence for the thousands of years of Iranian Persian history. Plus, Shafia valued Batmanglij's unwillingness to take shortcuts.

"The book had this poetic, mythical quality, unlike American cookbooks," Shafia says. "It was more like the recipes were received from the gods on high and channeled through the author, rather than written for convenience and speed. No way were they modernized for today's working mom. "

Batmani's gospel since the 1990s, when she wandered. Samin Nosrat, the Iranian American cook and author of Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat into a bookstore and came across a "Food of Life" as undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley.

But Nosrat worries that Batmanglij is not celebrated enough by America's culinary establishment. "To begin with, a lot of women do not get their credit," Nosrat says. "So let's start with that."


Chickpea Meatballs in Aromatic Tomato Sauce; see recipe link, below.

To Nosrat, Batmanglij's lack of recognition relates to a fundamental problem of being Iranian in America. Nosrat still feels a stab in her heart when she sees people trying to identify something as Persian or Iranian.

"There's so much entangled in a semantic choice," she says. "That's a perfect metaphor for the way Iranians have had to chameleons and figure out who we are."

Being Iranian in America, Nosrat explains, is a constant negotiation, a dilemma that forces you to erase parts of yourself simply to exist.

"There's some najmieh gets there," Nosrat says. Nosrat says Iranians lingers, and it inevitably affects Batmanglij's reputation.

Perhaps this book provides an opportunity to look at Batmanglij's legacy with clearer eyes. With "Cooking in Iran," Batmanglij travels through the country to once again. It's as her career has come full circle.

But she's not done. It's late in the afternoon now. She, her husband and I are sitting at her dinning room table when I ask her when she'll go back. Soon, she assures me.

"I'd like to say thank you some people who helped me and give you a copy of the book," she says. There are more stories to record, she reminds me, and more recipes to cook.

Mayukh Sen is a James Beard award-winning food and culture writer based in New York.

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