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What Iran Taught Yasmin Khan About "Authenticity" in Food

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Yasmin Khan spent most of her twenties outside the kitchen. Living in the United Kingdom, she was working as a human rights campaigner for non-profits, on such issues as the arms trade and corporate complicity in war crimes, specifically focused on Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine. The work was taxing. Hearing stories of violence and injustice, day in and day out, drained her.

She sought solace in her kitchen. It was a sanctuary, where she put love into the dishes that soothed and replenished her. While working her hands through each dish, she thought often of a Farsi phrase, noosh-e-jan, taught to her by her Persian mother. It’s an adage that translates, roughly, to “let your soul be nourished by what you are eating,” uttered at the dinner table as a form of expressing delight and gratitude.

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Photo by Sharhzad Darafsheh

Khan’s journey into the kitchen, she tells me, was a form of self-care. By the time she turned 30, five years ago, she suffered from an intense bout of burnout from her job. It manifested in a physical ailment: She learned she had chronic fatigue syndrome. Khan was devastated that she had to leave her job in order to recover, yet she had no choice but to rest, so she decided to go to Iran and spend time with her mother’s family.

Khan had been traveling back and forth between the United Kingdom and Iran for her whole life, but the situation in the Iran of 2012 was unlike any she’d ever seen there. Its sanctions were hitting ordinary, helpless people, making her fear that military escalation was a possibility. She was wary that what she saw in her day-to-day work would happen to her own country.

Photo by Yasmin Khan

This trip laid the groundwork for The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen, Khan’s diffuse, sprawling cookbook that came out last year. She sought, in the face of what she feared was impending destruction, to create: to make a book that may help bridge a connection with ordinary people in Iran just trying to live and Western readers. It would be her way of foiling any narratives of demonization of the "other" that swell in a time of war. She understood that food had a special capability to accomplish this. “Breaking bread with others is one of the oldest forms of human connection,” Khan tells me one day in March. “All art is emotional and experiential, but because of how food utilizes taste, smell, sight, sound, touch, and because we literally digest it, it has a physical immediacy which I think gives it a particular power.”

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The book landed on my desk in January, and I found it enchanting: it’s a sturdy book with a gold and cerulean cover that looks like a mosaic. Khan, now in her mid-30s and based in London, is a gifted interlocutor. In her book, she writes in a hushed and poetic register about the memories of her childhood and her travels throughout Iran. The book's recipes are split into breakfast, mezze and sides, salads, soups, mains, and desserts; these are dishes of pistachio soup, date and cinnamon omelettes, apricot and prune chicken stew, rhubarb and cardamom cheesecake, orange blossom and date pudding.

Running alongside these recipes are arresting narrative interstitials. Khan writes vividly about her longtime obsession with scarlet-hued pomegranates, which she developed as a child roaming her grandparents' farm in Iran. She charts the people she meets all over Iran through photographs and recipes. Khan grew up reading Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food, and she draws from that very book’s anthropological underpinnings, using the personal as a launchpad to explore how a people—her people—eat.

Photo by Sharhzad Darafsheh

“I wanted to use Iran’s magnificent cuisine to share human stories that celebrate our commonality,” Khan tells me. “Because honestly, at this point in history, what could be more important?” As we talk, she points out the biases that lead Westerners to view cuisines from the Global South, cuisines that span whole continents and are miles apart culinary and culturally, in homogeneous terms. She argues that this rarely happens with European cuisines. Her book is a rejoinder to this.

“There is a tendency to exoticize the Global South’s cuisines and cultures through an orientalist lens, like Iran is all magic carpets and men with twirly mustaches eating kebabs from elaborate metal skewers,” she laughs. “I'm not interested in perpetuating stereotypes from the past or the present. I'm into sharing the ordinary, the mundane, the human, the real.”

For Khan, this exoticization has reared its head in coded, covert ways. A few months ago, while walking in Waitrose, a major supermarket in the United Kingdom, Khan came across some "Persian-inspired sauce with harissa and sour cherries." She cringed. The harissa she knew was native to North Africa, a whole continent away from Iran. She found it clumsy to lump disparate countries' foods together in this way, and to think that no one would notice. When discussing food styling for the book’s photoshoots, she’d often been asked what Persian plates or cutlery look like. “I’m like, um, it’s the same as we use in the West in response to that,” she tells me. She understands this question comes from an earnest, sincere place of curiosity, but she still thinks it’s ludicrous and vaguely patronizing. “And if I had a pound for every time someone asked me if we eat hummus in Iran, I'd be a millionaire,” she jokes. “Fact check—we don’t.”

Still, Khan resists the temptation to seek out authenticity in food. She has always found the very term "authenticity" to be nearly meaningless, and she bypasses mention of it in her book. Khan sympathizes with the recent aspiration towards authenticity, particularly as it’s raised by minority voices from historically-underrepresented ethnic communities like her own. It’s a desire born out of frustration of their lack of representation in media, a feeling she knows all too well.

But she finds that this historical dearth of representation has resulted in an overcorrection, and, in its wake, the gesture to label a dish as authentic can be more suffocating than liberating. “Recipes are always evolving and changing through time, regions, seasons, as a result of social or economic factors, and according to the cook,” Khan argues. “I'm sure if someone else embarked on exactly the same trip as me they would come up with different recipes and their experience and food would be just as ‘authentic’.”

Photos by Sharhzad Darafsheh

During the development of her book proposal, Khan would often be asked by prospective publishers whether she was writing a cookbook or travelogue. When she’d answer both, they expressed their confusion, warning her that this hybridization felt too unusual, too much of a gamble for a novice author to take. She came to understand that food writing was a business like any other, so competitive that it almost encouraged people to be risk-averse, to be afraid of breaking the mold.

But Khan insists there’s a certain impossibility of separating place from produce when sharing cuisines from the global South. To tell the story of the food from Iran, she had to walk through its history, too, and meet the country’s inhabitants to convey a sense of its cuisine's breadth. So she stuck with her instincts, and she was lucky enough to have a bidding war between three of the largest publishing houses in the UK for the book. In the end, she decided to go ahead with the smallest of the three, the one with the tiniest financial advance; she felt they’d let her write the book she envisioned.

“Your work is much more likely to be successful if it is coming from your heart and not a diluted version of what you think will sell or be popular," she says. "Great art is made by taking risks and doing something different that hasn't been done before.”

Kick-Start Spring Cleaning the Iranian Way, With Khane-Tekani
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Kick-Start Spring Cleaning the Iranian Way, With Khane-Tekani

Nearing her publication date, Khan wrestled internally with what word to use in the book: Should she say Iranian or Persian? She went back and forth, unsure of what’d be truest to the book's soul. She knew that the word “Iranian” had accrued a rather noxious baggage in her years of growing up, conjuring images of chador-clad women and angry, aggressive crowds. In her experience, though, saying the word Persia was more innocuous and fantasy-laden, so as to make one think of 1001 Nights. She saw the quietly subversive potential of using a word like Iranian and essentially reclaiming it through asserting that these stereotypes were at odds with the reality of the country. Still, she hesitated to use the word Iranian, indecisive of whether it was true to her own diasporic experience and the way she conceived of her own heritage.

Eventually, this wrestling gave way to freedom. She settled on using Persian in the book’s subtitle, but she used both words interchangeably throughout the text. When she hears the word Iran, after all, Khan sees the pomegranates and roses of her childhood; she just wants everyone else to see them, too.

The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen is now available for purchase.

Tags: yasmin khan, the saffron tales