Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: A Conversation About Iran Through Its Food 

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with Iranian-American cookbook author Naz Deravian.
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The past six weeks have seen historic demonstrations sweep across Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, with protesters—the majority of whom are women—taking to the streets to address the country's status quo. Lale chats with Iranian-American cookbook author Naz Deravian, whose book Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories, won a 2019 Julia Child Foundation award, to discuss the current uprising, how food both maintains and strengthens her bonds with the country, and the ways that food culture can help shape our understanding of a place.


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Lale Arikoglu: Hello. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and welcome to Women Who Travel, a podcast for anyone who's curious about the world and excited to explore places both near and far from home.

There are certain foods that are practically ubiquitous in every country. Bread, noodles, for example. Rice is one of them, a core component of meals that you cross paths with in so many different ways when you're traveling. In Japan, I would often end up having rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner across a glorious array of dishes. Summer dishes in my father's home country of Turkey inevitably involved rice with kabobs or some other delicious grilled meat. In fact, rice in the Middle East is not just limited to Turkey, of course, and there are commonalities across Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iranian food. There's something communal about eating rice and one of my favorite rice dishes is tahdig, a traditional Iranian dish that you flip out of the pot like a pancake so that the crispy side sits at the top and you all get to crack through it like an egg.

Naz Deravian: Rice and tahdig, tahdig is the crispy part of the rice at the bottom of the pot [laughs], which is a lot of fun. You can flip it like a cake and there's a big ta-da moment or as my friend says, "A big tahdig moment." [laughs] So, it- it, it's evolving and it's that becoming more and more popular. And that is a good thing.

LA: Naz Deravian, my LA-based guest this week, dedicates the title of her cookbook to it, Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories. It won a 2019 Julia Child Foundation Award. And with Iran's current uprising, her stories about her bonds with her country and her bonds with her country's food are even more poignant.

ND: I've never believed that, oh, we can solve all the world's problems by, you know, making rice and tahdig. No. However, it's always been my belief that you can start a dialogue. I didn't write a book about Iranian food to be political. I'm not an activist, I'm not a politician, I'm not a foreign affairs expert. However, I think you can bring people closer to this culture and have an un- better understanding of these people through cooking.

I left with my family when I was eight-years-old, in 1980, so it was just right after the Islamic Revolution. And we originally moved to Italy, and then from Italy it was on to Vancouver, Canada. And I grew up in Vancouver before moving to Los Angeles some 20 odd years ago. My family, for the most part like many immigrants, we've been dispersed throughout the world. We're all over the place. But I still do have some family and friends in Iran. The older generation, grandparents have all passed.

LA: What does Iranian food taste like to you? What are those flavors?

ND: Hmm. Huh, I'm sorry. Iranian food is home, it's family, it's love. But the flavors themselves, it's sour. Not the kind that makes you wince sour, but the kind that excites you and brightens up your palate. It's herb-filled [laughs]. We cook with mountains of herbs and I think that people are taken aback by that when they see how many bunches parsley and cilantro, and basil, and dill we buy. But herbs are used as a base, essentially as a vegetable, not as an afterthought or as- as garnish. So it's very bright, it's very fresh, it's very flavorful in that it's not overwhelming, but it really brightens everything up. It brightens up your palate and it makes you wanna come back and have more. The food is not particularly spicy, as in heat, although in the southern region of the country they do use heat and chilies, um, various chilies, but we use spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, and turmeric, of course. And spices like cinnamon and cardamom we don't use necessarily in baked goods, but in our savory dishes.

LA: Talking about parsley, I mean, there's definitely some overlaps between Turkish cooking and Iranian cooking. And I'm just thinking of going to relatives' houses and these piles of parsley, like just gargantuan piles of parsley chopped up.

ND: And may similarities between Iranian cuisine and Turkish food. Another thing about the herbs is that, yes, we do use them in the cooking itself, but we always also have a platter of fresh herbs like mint and basil, and then there could be green onion and radishes that we eat alongside the food. And you can think of that kind of as our salad portion or it's the dish that helps you digest the food.

So we have the family favorites and one of the most favorite is, you know, a very celebrated dish called [foreign language 00:06:00]. And [foreign language 00:06:02] is stew, and [foreign language 00:06:04] or [foreign language 00:06:04] colloquially is the pomegranate walnut stew, which can be made with chicken or other proteins. Now this is more of a celebratory dish, it's not something that you make every day. It's a little bit time consuming. It's not difficult to make at all, but it's time consuming.

LA: I've always found cookbooks to be super transportive. You experience and learn about the flavors of a place even when you can't actually get there. Not to mention that a joy of traveling and visiting a place is that you always come back feeling that your life is richer because you've made all these new culinary discoveries. One of my favorite things to do after a trip is buy a cookbook centered around a place's cuisine and then attempt to recreate the dishes that I had when I was there. It means I suddenly have new spices in my cupboard, new condiments that I never had before. And suddenly the recipes I'm making on a daily basis are totally different.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who relishes a trip to a foreign grocery store. And on that trip to Japan, it was impossible not to splurge on the lines of soy sauce in all sorts of packaging marked by labels in Japanese that I couldn't understand but just had to buy and have a sample of. Food is so much more than what we eat, it can be an encapsulation of a culture.

ND: Iranian cuisine is part of the culture, just as much as the music is and the art is, and the history is. It has its own place. So for me, speaking personally, Iranian cuisine is Iran. And it has changed over time, it has transformed with immigration in the past 43 years especially, and it will keep evolving, as it should, but it is rooted in that country. It is rooted in that soil, it is rooted in those trees, it is rooted in the spices and those rice fields, and the saffron fields. The cuisine is in our blood, the culture is in our blood, the history is in our blood and you can not say that it's not political, because it's all interconnected.

LA: Your book, Bottom of the Pot, has so much storytelling so that you know it's not just a book of recipes, you know, that it's sort of enveloped in so much more. How does food and cooking, for you, allow you to share personal stories?

ND: I started a blog many years ago just because I wanted a space to be creative and share my recipes. I'm a former actor and I love to tell stories. That's what I did and what I'd like to... what I'd like to keep doing. Like I said, I left when I was eight, but the memories inside Iran, the food that we shared, they're very common memories that I think everyone can relate to. So it's what my grandmother would make me, what we call [foreign language 00:09:15]. Something just really quick, it's like fast food. My maternal grandmother wasn't really into cooking at all.

So my mom had a full-time job, so in the mornings she would leave and leave out like a frozen stew and my grandmother would babysit me. And as soon as my mom stepped out my grandmother would put the stew back in the freezer, and she'd be like, "We're having something fun." And something fun could be just as simple as, she would boil a potato and smush it, and then either put some butter on it and salt or, you know, a little olive oil and then put it between a piece of bread like [foreign language 00:09:52] or something, and sprinkle some dried mint on it and maybe some cheese, and roll it up like a wrap. And to me, that, I can still taste that. I can still remember that moment of how fun it was.

She was also very good at reading Turkish coffee cups and she would have her weekly events where her friends would come and she would make Turkish coffee cups, and she would tell their future. And as a y- very young child, I would sit with them and she would make me a little cup, and she would tell my future. And as she would start every story or every cup reading for me, it always started with, "The future looks bright." And I hope that that's true for our country and for the people in Iran right now. I hope my grandmother's words will resinate, that the future is bright.

LA: That is so beautiful and I, I mean, I love that sentiment. And then also, I love reading those Turkish coffee grounds, I have to say, even though I have no idea what they mean.

Hope, that's the title of the featured song in today's show, by Iranian born musician and songwriter, Azam Ali.

Azam Ali: Now, it's cold here. Now, no bells toll. Now, we lay down our heroes. Go, the light is fading. Go, the night is taking all my hope. Now, truth sleeps. Now, no birds call. Now, false fear dawns on this dark shore. Go, my heart is breaking. Go, and time is taking all my hope. [singing]

Speaker 4: Mahsa Amini!

Crowd: Mahsa Amini!

Speaker 4: Now!

Crowd: [foreign language 00:12:33]!

Speaker 6: Say her name, Mahsa Amini! Say her name, Mahsa Amini! [foreign language 00:12:40]!

Crowd: [foreign language 00:12:42]!

Speaker 6: [foreign language 00:12:43]!

Crowd: [foreign language 00:12:46] [singing]

LA: Coming up after the break, how talking about food can be a way to draw attention to the ongoing Iranian protests. If you're enjoying this episode of Women Who Travel, one of the best ways you can support the podcast is by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. We'd love to hear from you.

Speaker 4: Say her name!

Crowd: Mahsa Amini!

Speaker 4: Say her name!

Crowd: Mahsa Amini!

Speaker 4: Say her name!

Crowd: Mahsa Amini!

Speaker 4: Say her name!

Crowd: Mahsa Amini!

Speaker 4: Say her name!

Crowd: Mahsa Amini!

Speaker 6: [foreign language 00:13:58]!

Crowd: [foreign language 00:14:01]!

Speaker 6: [foreign language 00:14:02]!

Crowd: [foreign language 00:14:04]!

AA: My name is, Azam Ali. I was born in Iran and I grew up in India from the age of four where I attended an English boarding school. And I came to the United States at the age of 15 under political asylum with my mother. This was after the Islamic Revolution where ethnic and religious minority groups in Iran were being persecuted, and we were among those religious minority groups.

Many of the Iranians in my generation have lost their parents, so this time is particularly difficult for us because our parents lived for so many decades with this hope in their heart that Iran would one day be free. This collective trauma that has awakened now is something in between fear, hopefulness, excitement, but to a certain degree, also survivor's guilt, because we are not in Iran and we are watching what is happening from a very safe distance. And we are paralyzed in terms of what we can actually do to help the Iranians there. The killing of Mahsa Amini was simply a spark. There have been so many Mahsa Aminis before here and there will be many Mahsa Aminis after her if change does not come about in Iran. So we are fighting with everything that we have, and right now all we have is our voice.

I have always felt a great responsibility to infuse my music with my story and my lived experience, because as artists, we are not just storytellers, but we are also social anthropologists. And if we are to examine the history of the world, throughout time art has played a central role in social and political movements. And often it has influenced the tectonic shifts in society.

LA: Protests in Iran have sprung up across the nation and demonstrators around the world have been rallying over the death of Mahsa Amini, and the subsequent deaths of other protestors. Some of them school girls that have followed.

ND: We are community that is in grief. We're also blown away by what these courageous and brave people in Iran are doing, especially the women, the young women, Gen Z. It's something unfathomable that we never thought we would see in our lifetime. The Iranians that you know, the Iranians that you don't know, the Iranians inside the country, the Iranians outside the country are hurting. In one way or another we are hurting.

LA: A lot of women, no matter their backgrounds and where they live right now, and as you know, at least I can speak from personal experience, watching on social media the footage of all these women of all ages, but predominately it seems young women protesting and being so brave. And I can't help but, you know, I see certain pictures and I see myself in those women. You must see that eight-year-old that you once were in Iran when you look at this footage.

ND: Absolutely. When we left it was chaotic, it was a revolution. And when I say that I mean, there, uh, there was chaos on the streets, it was unsafe. And that was the environment that I grew up in. So when we landed in Vancouver, I was 10-years-old and my classmates, in fourth grade at the time, were so carefree and just living life as 10-year-olds. And here- here I landed with all this, for lack of a better term, trauma, but also political awareness, social justice awareness. And these kids, nothing. Not only the kids, but their parents didn't even know what was going on [laughs]. Now, this was 1982, news traveled much slower. Skip to 2022, we have social media and we are getting our news, you know, every second we can get it. So when we see these images come out of Iran, I think every Iranian is stirred by these images. And like you said, even non-Iranians, because this is really a women led movement and that is amazing.

It's- it's mind-blowing that here we have women who have been incredibly oppressed in this tyrannical regime rising up and putting their bodys literally in harm's way, standing up for freedom, justice, equality, liberty. All those things that we talk about. All these words that we throw around here in the West. And here are these women who are really, truly fighting for all these values. And I have to say, those first few weeks of the protests, the media silence was astonishing. No one was covering this and it was hurtful. And it really stung because, if you can think of any movement, this would be one that I would think the world would embrace. It has the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster where you have women coming out and shouting these amazing slogans, woman, life, freedom. And yet, there was silence. And we have to ask ourselves why. Why are their voices ignored? What you can do, what people in the West can do in two minutes by sharing a post or a story, or a Tweet in solidarity, to just post one thing that says, "I stand with the brave people of Iran," with a hashtag Mahsa Amini. That's all it takes.

Speaker 4: [foreign language 00:20:41]!

Crowd: [foreign language 00:20:44]!

Speaker 7: Our pistol, incredible, revolutionary slogan is, woman, life, freedom. Show us support!

Crowd: Show us support! Show us support! [foreign language 00:21:00].

LA: Songwriter, Azam Ali.

AA: One of the biggest challenges that we are facing as Iranians outside of Iran is being able to generate mainstream media attention on the crimes against humanity that are taking place in Iran. From state killings to imprisonment and kidnappings, rapes of very young people who are simply just protesting. None of the protestors are armed and yet every day they courageously take to the streets to fight for their right to self-determination as a people. It has been 43 years now since the Islamic Revolution that ushered in the hard line Islamic state. We now have a generation of Iranians who are born and raised under this brutal regime. And it's really impossible to talk about what is happening in Iran without recognizing the unbelievable courage that the young people are demonstrating. Human beings should have access to the exact same rights and this is what we are fighting for whether it is on the streets of Iran or whether it is through our voices and our art. [singing]

LA: You know, I think sometimes people can feel social media is so loud and there's so much of it that I think sometimes people think all right or like, "What difference does it make if I post one thing, it's gonna get lost." Or, "Who's following me anyway?" Why do you think it's so valuable for people to share their solidarity on social media?

ND: I don't like social media [laughs]. I've never been very active on social media. I've avoided social media as long as possible. My kids have tried to get me on TikTok, I just can't [laughs]. It was like, too much. However, in this situation it has shown me the power of social media. So the first thing that the Islamic republic did in the early days of the protest, is that they blacked out the internet. So they basically cut off the people from the rest of the world and this works in different ways. So the people can't see anything from the outside, they don't know what's going on and they can't share videos. We have to share our voices. Sharing that hashtag, it spreads across the world and you have eyes on it. And what we want to do is keep the spotlight on what's going on, and we want to amplify these voices. And we want to keep this momentum going. And I know I have felt, like you said, in the past it's, what different will it make? Here is my plea. A free Iran will change the world. A free and independent and democratic Iran will change the world. It will have a domino effect.

So, you can go through the whole list. It's about basic human rights. It's about women's freedoms, women's self-determination, bodily autonomy. So the most important thing that anyone can do, whether you have one follower or, you know, millions of followers is just post something, just anything. Just say, "I'm with you people of Iran," and use that hashtag. Because what Iranians in the country are also doing is, they're going to that hashtag and that's how they're getting in, their information.

LA: I suppose it's, you know, be their microphone, so to speak.

ND: It's, be their loud speaker.

LA: [laughs]

ND: Yes.

LA: To tack on to that for listeners who want to learn more about what's happening now and also educate themselves about that 43 years of stories that you talked about earlier, what sort of resources do you recommend for people to turn to?

ND: Search the hashtag, Mahsa Amini, and you'll see all sorts of stuff come up. If you hate social media, don't hate it for just 20 minutes and just go on Twitter and see what you find. It's incumbent on all of us to go and educate ourselves. I think we also saw this in the Black Lives Matters movement, that it was incumbent on every one of us as citizens, as human beings to go educate ourselves.

LA: Food and food culture can shape our understanding of a place, often politically. I first came across Naz during the pandemic when she was on Padma Lakshmi's travel food show, Taste the Nation, on Hulu, which shines a light on immigrant cuisines in communities throughout the US. One of my favorite episodes was when Padma went to LA and Naz took her on a tour around Tehrangeles, an area which is home to the highest population of Iranians outside of Iran.

Back in the US you went shopping with Padma Lakshmi in Taste the Nation-

ND: [laughs]

LA: ... who was also a guest on this podcast actually, and went to LA's Tehrangeles, as it is [laughs] called, where the most Iranians outside of Iran live.

ND: Yeah.

LA: What does that sort of neighborhood and community mean to the diaspora living within the US? And what are some of the ways for, you know, people who are either living in LA or visiting LA, what are some of the best ways to discover it?

ND: Well, I always used to say, "Just pop in the," um, "one of the Iranian markets." Like you said, we have so many throughout LA. I took Padma to my market called Tehran Market in Santa Monica and it—it's closets to where I live. But there is Westwood, Westwood Boulevard, which is, you know, Tehrangeles. You step into one of these markets and you start looking through the aisles, and you'll see these 10 pound sacks of rice and all the different jams, and spices. And you can strike up a conversation, either with someone who works there or someone who knows [laughs] what they're doing, shopping there. Iranians love to share their culture. We love it, especially with non-Iranians. So I think you'll find that we are a very generous and open-hearted people and we love to tell you what brand of rice we think is the best one. And that is it. [laughing] And we'd love to tell you what to do with that rice.

LA: It's very gray and rainy in New York right now and all I want to do is-

ND: [laughs]

LA: ... dive into your cookbook and start making some delicious Iranian food for myself.

How do you think Iranian cuisine is evolving, both in Iran and where you are in the US, in California? And do you think it's moving towards a- a place of say like, a new Iranian cuisine? What's that evolution looking like?

ND: I can mostly speak to what I'm seeing outside of the country. And I do think it's evolving slowly but surely in that more non-Iranians are starting to either go to Iranian restaurants or primarily, making this food at home. I think that is starting to happen. We're having more and more food outlets featuring Iranian food, and we're seeing all over social media people making rice and tahdig.

If I can just take a moment, taking it all the way back to the start of our conversation, Lale. We are not removed from that pot of rice, it's all linked. So if we are flipping those pots of rice and enjoying the crunch of that tahdig, but the people from the land where that tahdig came from are being slaughtered, it is incumbent on us as human beings to speak up. It's not just a pot of rice. [singing]

LA: To read more about the current uprising in Iran, head to our recent coverage on cntraveler.com.

Thank you for listening. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me as always, on Instagram @lalehannah. And follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram, @womenwhotravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group.

Allison Layton-Brown is our composer. Jennifer Nulsen is our engineer. Jude Kampfner from Corporation For Independent Media is our producer.

Next week, traveling solo and how to overcome those inevitable bouts of loneliness and ennui. It's my thoughts that if you acknowledge that it's happening, it'll only get easier.