Photo: Najmieh Batmanglij (second from left) preparing
All-Green Shirazi Meatballs with Farangis Shahab and her family in Shiraz

Najmieh Batmanglij is a bona fide expert in Persian food. Raised in Tehran but exiled after the revolution, she started writing recipes to help herself remember the tastes of her homeland. In America, she's taught us about Persian cuisine for 35 years, but she'd never returned to Iran until recently. She wrote a book about that journey; it’s called Cooking in Iran. Francis Lam visited her in her Washington, DC, home, where she served gorgeous platters of meatballs with sweets and tea, and they talked about her journey out of and back into the kitchens of Iran. Batmanglij also shared her recipes for Carrot + Walnut Halva and Saffroned Almond Cake.

Francis Lam: You said that you’re happy to talk with me about the food Iran of and cooking in Iran, but that before we do anything we have to have sweets – these beautiful floral sweets – and tea. You said that nothing of consequence happens without tea.

Najmieh Batmanglij: Exactly.

FL: Tell me what that means.

NB: First of all, it’s very funny; Iranians don't care for coffee. The Russians brought tea from China to Iran and to Afghanistan and then to Khorasan in northeast Iran. They introduced first green tea, and the well-to-do families started having tea. But, Iranians never liked green tea. They love black tea; they love fermented tea.

FL: And that depth.

NB: Yes. By the twentieth century, tea becomes the most popular drink in Iran.

Najmieh Batmanglij Photo: Mage Publications

FL: Tell me about the cultural importance of tea.

NB: Ancient Iranians were wine drinkers. I don’t know if anyone will believe that. [laughs] When Islam come to Iran wine became forbidden, but wine never left the court. What has happened, to me - this is my interpretation perhaps - all the quality for wine drinking ceremony went to tea drinking ceremony. That’s why we serve tea in glass because the color of tea should not be very dark, not very light, it’s red ruby color. The temperature is very important. Iranians don’t like cold tea. And the aroma, do you feel the aroma of the tea?

FL: Yes. Is there a flower in this tea?

NB: Exactly. It is orange blossom flower. I marinate my tea in orange blossom flower, which I have a lot of in my garden. Tea is very important, and a lot of ceremony goes behind it. In one of the cities of Iran if you ask for a woman’s hand in marriage the groom’s family goes to the bride’s family. If they serve black tea, the answer is no. If they serve saffron tea, the answer is yes. Tea is very important. If they don’t serve you tea when you go into someone’s house that’s a sign language that you’re not welcome. Another thing that is interesting, when they serve you the third glass of tea it’s time to go. [both laugh] So, tea has a very important role in Iranian culture. Every meal finishes with tea.

FL: I want to talk about your origins. You were born and raised in Iran, steeped in the culinary culture, and then you were exiled 40 years ago.

NB: I was born and raised in Tehran. I came from Iran’s capital. It’s very cosmopolitan. Sixteen million population and very Westernized. Hamburger, pizza. In Tehran, they serve the best Chinese and Japanese food, all of these beautiful restaurants. It’s a melting pot – or a salad bowl – whatever it is that you say. 

I came to the United States when I was 18; I went to university here. I always loved to cook, but my mother wouldn’t allow me in the kitchen. Because she didn’t go to university, she wanted all of her girls to go to university. I came here, and then after seven years I returned to Iran. I had my Masters degree in education because I always wanted to teach. Then she allowed me in her kitchen, so I cooked with my mother and I cooked with my aunt. Actually, my aunt was an excellent pasty chef, and she never shared her secrets to my mother. But when I returned to Iran as a college graduate from America, I put my apron on and I was very humble to her, she decided to share. And, of course, I practice – a lot. I’ve been cooking in this kitchen in America for about 40 years now.

Two delicious Persian recipes from Najmieh Batmanglij: Saffroned Almond Cake (left) and Carrot + Walnut Halva  Photos: Mage Publishing

FL: But you recently back to Iran; you traveled and cooked with people. What was it like going back?

NB: I felt I knew the language, I knew the culture, but I felt like I was in exile, too. Because Iran has changed. The everyday language has changed.

FL: Like the slang?

NB: The whole culture changed. I had to decode what the people were talking about; everybody talks in metaphor. That was something I had to learn. It took me three or four weeks to get used to it. That was very new for me.

FL: As in what people were referring to?

NB: Because the system has changed, people have changed. They’re living in different layers of life. They have many different layers, politically, so the language is very important. And the way they talk to you – especially [since] I was a total stranger for them – it is very interesting.

And somehow all the doors were open for me. When I went to the bazaar in northern Tehran called Tajrish Bazaar and I check all of these foods and look at everything, all of these aromas, I was very much overwhelmed. They have their sour plum. Sour plum is the snacks for children in school and they sprinkle a little salt on it; you can buy it by the school. So, I went there immediately and bought some sour plums and sprinkled the salt. Another thing was sweet white mulberries. I was like a child in a candy store! There were all of these aromas.

I had my iPhone, a Nike hat and a scarf. One of the reasons I left Iran was they tried to get me to cover my head. I decided that I would never cover my head because to me Islam never said to cover your head. They talk about hijab; hijab means to be discrete, it doesn’t mean that you cover your head. It’s not Iranian tradition at all. The scarf is a political thing, it’s not a religious thing. I had a scarf and I had my Nike hat and I had my iPhone; I took a lot of pictures and interviewed a lot of people. Of course, I also had my photographer, too, and we went all over Iran.

Cooking in Iran Cooking in Iran by Najmieh Batmanglih

FL: Let’s talk about the cooking. Obviously, you’re talking about a huge country with tremendously different regional variations and different climates and diversity. There are many cuisines. When I think of Persian cooking or Iranian cooking, I think of herbs and floral flavors. I also think of a lot of acidic ingredients. Can you speak in general about some of the dishes that, in your mind, exhibit the most important traits of Iranian cooking and about some of those important flavors?

NB: You’re absolutely right. Iran is divided into several plateaus and separated by mountains, west to east and north to south. We have Persian Gulf in the south, we have Caspian Sea in the north. As a result, as you said, we have many regions that have their own climate, their own environment with their own ingredients, and most importantly, they have their own food culture. That was fascinating to me, to see the difference between the people near the Persian Gulf and around the Caspian.

There was garlic in every dish. Even the service was baby garlic, raw baby garlic, on the table. My host would just peel a baby garlic and offer [it to] me. It tastes like a piece of almond, like fresh almonds; it was so lovely. That was one of my discoveries, that you can eat very small baby garlic; in Iran, we call it garlic flower.

Or in Persian Gulf, their attitudes towards date palms – the respect. They think that the date palm is a person. They have funerals for the date palm. The locals believe the date palms fall in love because they have male and female. They use dates in every single thing. The sweet agent is, of course, date molasses. They cook the rice in date juice. And the tahdig, the golden crust of date rice, is so delicious.

FL: Is it sweet?

NB: It is sweet and smoky and crunchy. There were so many things I learned on this trip; I was so happy that I could go to every region and taste and smell and share the kitchen. My dream was that, and I fulfilled that dream. I’m so lucky.

FL: It’s like you get to start your life over again.

NB: You’re so right!

Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.