Sanam Lamborn is trying to make My Persian Kitchen the foundation of a career. "It has given me so much happiness, and it has opened quite a few doors," she said.
The three Iranian-American women are at different stages of their lives, and they've never met or even spoken with one another, but they have taken on a joint mission. About two years ago, each of them began a separate blog on Persian cooking and started testing recipes, turning "a handful of this and a little of that" into proper measurements, perfecting their food photography and posting the results online.
"I had finished graduate school and I was not able to find a job in my field" as an English teacher, Lamborn said from her home in Los Angeles. "I've always loved to write, and I've always loved to cook, and I noticed a few months before I was done with graduate school that there were no blogs about Persian food, so once I found myself unemployed and bored out of my mind, I thought, 'Well, why shouldn't I be the one to have a blog about Persian food?'"
Tavakoli saw the same void. "I just noticed that the niche of Persian food and to a lesser extent Middle Eastern food wasn't being covered very much by the blogosphere ... and I just thought that I should add my voice to the conversation," she said from her New York City apartment.
Lamborn's fruitless job search came about the same time as the death of Mehran's mother in Iran.
"She was a great cook, and everything that I know I learned from her, and this was my tribute to her. And in a way, this helped me to cope with her loss," Mehran said from her home in suburban Nassau County, New York.
TURMERIC & SAFFRON
Mehran is the oldest of the three women. She came to the United States from Iran after secondary school in 1977 to spend a few months visiting her brothers and taking some classes.
"I fell in love with the country," she said. She stayed for college, for graduate school, for marriage and for a career as a teacher and counselor. She also raised two daughters, one now in college and the other in graduate school, and taught them to cook the dishes that her mother had insisted on teaching her beginning when she was 8 or 9.
Mehran said she wasn't always enthusiastic about being in the kitchen. "When I came here, I had to cook and didn't enjoy it that much at first, but when I had my first child, then being a family, sitting around the table, these became very important," she said. "I started to cook and ask my mother for recipes, and she would write them and send them to me."
Her blog, Turmeric & Saffron (visit the blog), was an effort to document those recipes for her daughters and others like them, she said. "Some of them send me e-mails, and they say that they miss home and they're far away and they needed to cook something Iranian, that they Googled it and found my blog, and now they don't need to call home every time they need to cook. That makes me happy."
Mehran hasn't run out of her mother's recipes, but her readers have prompted her to go beyond them. She is from southern Iran, and if a reader asks about a dish from another part of the country, or from an ethnic cuisine she doesn't know well, she'll call friends who might know or research the food herself. In a country where recipes will vary from village to village, the possibilities are endless.
MY PERSIAN KITCHEN
Lamborn said that in her case, too, the interaction with readers helps bring recipes from throughout Iran to the blog.
Bria Tavakoli wanted to get people into the kitchen. "I felt like for my generation, our culinary heritage could possibly be skewed or lost," she said.
Lamborn's starting point was recipes from her mother and especially her grandmother, with whom she lived as a child. "Everything she made was absolutely delicious," Lamborn said.
But unlike Mehran, Lamborn didn't learn to cook until long after she arrived in the United States from Iran 20 years ago, at age 16. "I did not know how to make Persian rice," let alone anything more complicated, she said.
"To be honest with you, I never really tried to cook Persian food because it can be extremely time-consuming" and even intimidating, she said.
It wasn't until about 10 years ago, when she received a Persian cookbook for her birthday, that Lamborn began trying to make the food of her childhood. About four years ago, she began to date the man who is now her husband, and he encountered Persian food for the first time - at a restaurant - and liked it. "So eventually I started making it more and more often, and then once I started the blog, it's been basically nonstop," she said.
Lamborn said her blog, My Persian Kitchen (visit the blog), is more than an effort to share recipes. "For me, it was very important, first and foremost, to showcase our cuisine, which is really rich and really delicious, but also to showcase a part of our culture that gets lost in the media," she said. "Nobody talks about Persian food; nobody talks about the Persian culture. What everybody talks about is politics and everything that is going on in the Middle East and all the negative things. Yet everything that is positive about our culture and everything that is beautiful, it's just completely overshadowed by the negative.
Lamborn is the most ambitious for her blog, trying to turn it into the basis for a full-time career. She has about 80,000 readers a month now and has started to teach cooking classes and give demonstrations on a line of cookware; she gets some revenue from advertising on her website. And she has finished a novel - "a fun read" - involving Persian food and hopes to find a publisher.
WEST OF PERSIA
Tavakoli, in her early 30s and the youngest of the three bloggers, has few memories of Iran, where she lived briefly as a child: She was born and learned to cook in Houston, Texas. The blog, though, has been "a fantastic way for me to reconnect with my roots," she said.
"I always kind of gravitated towards the kitchen, and my mother was really cool about it. She always encouraged me," Tavakoli said. "And she actually was a great inspiration, too, because she was able to take Persian food and find shortcuts to make it for us."
That approach is important for new cooks who feel they had to do everything from scratch. "I think that it's OK to take shortcuts sometimes, and you can still have something that tastes really fantastic and is true to the [original] taste, but it doesn't have to be a huge production," Tavakoli said. "For example, I have no problem having chickpeas from a can - I have no problem with that."
Tavakoli started putting her cooking lessons to use when she moved to New York for graduate school in journalism. "It was wanting to reconnect with my family or my roots with my mom, and it was practicality too: I mean, good food is expensive," she said.
Tavakoli's blog, West of Persia (visit the blog), is the most wide-ranging of the three, with recipes from Afghanistan and the Arab world as well as Iran, plus her musings on other aspects of her life, including her work as a yoga and fitness teacher. A friend sometimes produces lively videos of Tavakoli preparing a dish, but she said they are not shot in her tiny Manhattan galley kitchen. "We borrowed the kitchen from another friend of mine who's in another income bracket," she said.
The three bloggers said their readers are all over the world: some residents of Iran, more in the Iranian diaspora, some non-Iranians who want to make their Iranian spouses happy, and others - as widely scattered as Japan, Australia and South Africa - who have eaten Persian food and want to make it themselves.
Many rely on the Internet for access to ingredients as well as recipes, though Tavakoli and Mehran said they still depend on travelers to Iran to supply them with the best saffron from Khorasan province. The bloggers are happy to alter recipes to fit readers' preferences and available ingredients: They sometimes suggest vegetarian and vegan variations on what started as meat dishes, or dishes that fuse Persian and American influences.
All three women said they are optimistic about Persian food's inroads into American culture. "More and more publications are talking about Persian food," Lamborn said, and more people are blogging about it. "It's really wonderful to see what they bring to the table and their version of the same recipe."
Tavakoli said Persian food can give Americans another way to learn about Persian culture.
"What people don't realize is that Persian culture and Persian food have influenced so many cultures worldwide," she said. "People think everything came from the Greeks. I think the Greeks just have better [public relations]."
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