Taste Makers profiles immigrant female chefs in American culinary culture
Is there a particular dish that you cook when you feel most connected to Iran?
NB: Fesenjun. It is native to northern Iran, where there are a lot of birds, although it is by the Caspian. So they cook the duck with pomegranates and walnut sauce. But I’m from Tehran and I remember my mom cooking turkey and sautéing it with salt, pepper, turmeric and saffron, of course. Each dish has saffron. Back then the sauce was made with a mortar and pestle, but now I make it in a food processor. And my mom used fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, which gives such a great flavor. You slowly cook the turkey all day, let the meat come off the bones. I keep the integrity and shape of the turkey, but the sauce infuses it. It is adorable.
How do you think people can relate to a culture through food?
MRS: So Najmieh is only one of the two surviving subjects in my book, the other being Julie Sahni. Even though I spent time with lots of memoirs, cookbooks, and interviews from these deceased personalities, one guideline I detected is that the taste would reveal so many memories of a house they left behind. them. Food is one of the first ways so many immigrants to America first establish a sense of belonging in a new country.
This was certainly true when my mother arrived here from a village in West Bengal after having an arranged marriage with my late father. Just being an Indian in New Jersey in the early 1980s must have been unbelievably difficult. She worked so that I could live a comfortable life. Cooking was one of the ways she was able to establish a sense of coziness in an otherwise very disorienting time. This is true of all the women in this book and I hope the readers will see it.
NB: Identity is linked to culture rather than geographic location for immigrant communities. And they can define themselves through their food, their music and their culture. This reduces the pain of being away. Now people start to speak Persian from their childhood and it was not like that 40 years ago. So when you identify yourself through your culture or heritage, it can really help you as an immigrant family. And I think that by eating Indian food, your mother’s food, you are embracing your roots.
Were you able to cook and eat together during this process?
MRS: I came back to visit him in April 2019 and observed his cook. I don’t know what you know about it, but I’m not a skilled cook at all. One of the things I love about having Najmieh in the kitchen is that she made me feel very comfortable. I remember maybe it was onions on the stove or something but I was just tumbling them on the heat so quickly. And she just told me to take my time and, you know, be patient. And even that kind of little lesson taught me so much about how to be a cook.
NB: I know my job, I like to give people the means to cook. Being a cook as a woman was not very popular, don’t forget that. About 30 years ago I wrote my first cookbook Food of life. And people would meet us and say, “Najmieh, what are you doing? I would say, “I’m a cook. My mom was so upset. She said, “Don’t say you’re a cook, that’s insulting. And she said I should tell them I’m a writer. [Laughs] So even my mom didn’t like what I was doing because it was kind of scolded. Bless his heart. She’s not alive, but I think she’s over now. She would really appreciate Mayukh’s book.
I’m sure she would love this book and, Mayukh, your dad would love it too. It is very special. What do you hope readers take away from it?
MRS: I really appreciate that. I’m sure a lot of people would see the list in this book and say, “Oh wow. I’m so curious about how America has become this “melting pot” of different cuisines around the world. How come we can get saag paneer on one block, then enchiladas on the next, then double down on the next one? It’s very romantic to see America in these terms, as a wonderfully diverse culinary melting pot.
But I hope readers understand that there are so many struggles embedded in this reality that consumers are now taking advantage. Najmieh’s story is a powerful example of how much people had to struggle to make this reality possible. He is someone who had to fight very, very hard in a difficult time in America for the Iranians. She, despite her credentials, was unable to sell her own cookbook to a major publisher. And so she had to become very self-sufficient with the help of her husband, Mohammad. Together, they pursued this path so independent of these powerful institutions. Najmieh became a trailblazer and she ultimately triumphed. But it was not easy.
NB: My point of view is to follow your passion and not worry about what other people think. People will notice what you have done eventually. English is not my language, I have dyslexia, I’m a Muslim, I’m a woman, all of those things, but I got it right. So I think it can be a good example for other women. They can do it too.
I taught homeless women in Washington how to cook for a few years and wanted to teach them sweet carrot rice flavored with orange blossom. But the program director said they wouldn’t know what orange blossom is and wouldn’t include it. But I did it anyway. A woman approached me afterwards, kissed my hand, and told me that she wanted to cook and write books someday. This experience touched me with love. You can make an impact if you stay true to yourself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.