By Mona Bushnell
Naomi Duguid, author of the recently published and critically acclaimed TASTE OF PERSIA: A Cook’s Travels in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan and coauthor of six other James Beard Foundation cookbooks of the year, shared her insights into Persian cuisine with the Culinary Historians of New York. Duguid’s lecture showcased the intersectionality of history, culture, and flavor in traditional Persian food.
Featuring original photographs shot by Duguid during her travels, the presentation began with a brief overview of the region’s geography, topography, and shifting borders, highlighting the various peoples that have inhabited Persia, illustrating the region’s rich history with images of remaining petroglyphs, the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Naqsh-e Rustam, and Persepolis. Duguid noted that anything we know now about ancient Persia is just a tiny sliver of what was once a great empire.
The most important food in the region is still wheat, and Duguid’s comprehensive visual tour of bread making began with photographs of unyeasted dough being expertly stretched by a woman in Kurdistan. Step-by-step images showed the woman delicately stretching the dough on a pillow and then cooking it on large dome above a fire. Next, Duguid showed photos depicting the amazing variety of Iranian, Georgian and classic Persian breads, all dietary staples. Bread is eaten for breakfast with clotted cream and honey, for lunch with a simple soup and salad, and for dinner with anything from a rich fragrant broth and pickles to a bit of goat, lamb, or walnut paste.
Next up were the bazaars that can be practically anywhere, from historical buildings reminiscent of cloisters or castles to open-air streets. Duguid’s photographs featured vibrant multicolored displays of pickles, legumes, rice, eggplants, local sunflower oils, fresh barberries, pomegranate molasses, bright green herbs, greens, mountains of grape leaves, piles of fava beans and pistachios, and thick bunches of brilliantly red radishes. Meat usually plays second fiddle to the cheaper and more available greens, grains, walnuts, and legumes, but no matter what is on the menu it’s herbs that tie the meal together, as shown in the featured recipe, Persian Greens Frittata. Traditional Persian meals rely heavily on unadorned herbs as a sort of side dish or condiment, which Duguid noted, was reflected in the food spread at the event.
Seasonality was another major theme, as the desire to enjoy seasonal flavors year-round was still satisfied using age-old methods of food preservation and cooking. Duguid described a woman canning tomatoes in the country, the common practice of preserving grapes by pressing them into fruit leather, and the popularity of the sweet treat churchkhela as a delicious and effective way to preserve nuts and fruits through winter months. She also touched on the seasonal consumption of dairy products like cheese, yogurt, and eggs, as well as the availability of meats like goat, young cow, and occasionally even pork.
Throughout the evening, Duguid shared personal stories that were evocative of her experiences studying, eating, and traveling throughout the region. She searched fields for saffron crocuses, was invited into people’s homes for fresh cooked meals, and even enjoyed some homemade wine in an orchard with a few new friends. Duguid’s lecture, while centered on food, had an underlying theme of community and hospitality. The photographs were rich with images of local cuisines as well as the people who make and eat them, and at the closing of her speech she urged everyone in the audience to rethink their idea of the region and see for themselves the beauty, diversity, and humanity of modern-day Persia.