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03-21-2017

Naomi Duguid Visits the Test Kitchen to Discuss the Wonders of Persian Cuisine

Her latest travels brought her through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan in search of a taste of Persian food and culture.

Terrence Doyle

When Naomi Duguid writes about food, the culinary world pays attention. The James Beard Foundation has twice awarded her Cookbook of the Year, and Duguid’s latest work, Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan, just won an IACP award for the best culinary travel book. During a recent visit to the test kitchen to discuss the impetus for the book, Duguid told a group gathered around a table that she’d always wanted to go to Iran and the Caucasus.

“I’m a geography and flatbread and rice geek,” she said, admiring the region’s rich culinary traditions and complex physical and political landscapes before comparing the Caspian Sea with the shape of a flatbread. (Ms. Duguid really loves flatbreads.)

Below are some highlights from her talk.

On Pitching the Book to Her Editor . . .

“When I proposed this book to my editor, she said, ‘It’s a little complicated.’ (Ed's note: complicated because of the politics of the region, complicated because of the geography of the region, and complicated because of the cuisine's tradition dates back thousands of years and is therefore vast and difficult to discuss exhaustively.) And I said, ‘Yes, but it seems so necessary.’ And then when the manuscript came in, she said, ‘It seems a little complicated.’ This is two or three years later. And I said, ‘Yes, well that’s why we need two maps.’” (Ed's note: the book features two maps at the beginning to root readers in place.)

naomi duguid

On Whether Or Not She’d Be Able to Travel to Iran to Conduct Research . . .

“I was worried about whether I’d get a visa for Iran, and I did. But in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t then I can go to the countries round about, and use Iran and things we already know about Iran, notionally from other books, and still talk about the region.’ But luckily I was able to go. And I think it was really important because I really wanted to give a picture of daily life [in Iran]. Because to me, that’s what these books are really about, is daily life and home cooks . . . If you think about home cooks—I’m going to gender it—they’re the heroines out in the world.”

On Drinking Alcohol in Iran . . .

“In Iran you drink alcohol only in someone’s house and if they invite you to. But there isn’t—formally speaking—there isn’t alcohol available . . . So that’s going to be the interesting thing, if I take a tour group to Iran, how many people are going to be willing to swear off [drinking]. You could get lucky, but you have to think you’re not going to have any alcohol for ten days. And that’s a thing, especially if you’re going on a trip and you’re food-focused people. It’s an interesting problem.”

Oasis Baqlava, an almond-rich cake drizzled with a rose water-infused syrup, is a favorite in the oasis city of Yazd. Yazd is well-known in Iran for cookies and sweet treats.

On the Lack of Shiraz in Shiraz . . .

“I wrote a note to a friend when I was in Shiraz. I said, ‘There’s no Shiraz in Shiraz.’”

On Secret-Weapon Ingredients . . .

Pomegranate molasses is one of the great secret ingredients—much as soy sauce was for French chefs starting in the 1960s, and fish sauce . . . Used with a light hand, it’s that thing that makes people ask, ‘Why is this so delicious?’”

On Rethinking How You Season Foods . . .

“The other things I’m hoping people get into is the notion of using meat as a flavoring and not as a food, if you know what I’m saying, and using fresh herbs all the time. Having them available—it’s such an extraordinary thing. If you think about when you go for pho, and you get your mound of good basil . . . There’s something like that on the table in the region (Iran and the Caucasus) if there’s anything fresh available. And it might just be two things—it might just be some green onion and something else—and you take a mouthful of something and then you might just take a bite of fresh parsley. It’s not a garnish. There’s all kinds of fresh herbs used, and they’re used as ingredients . . . and they’re also used raw on the table, so that you’re in charge.”

On the Abundance of Choice in Persian Cuisine . . .

“There’s choices, there’s a lot of food on the table at once, and you eat in the order you want to. You condiment yourself. You give yourself little flavors of this and that. It’s not just salt and pepper and maybe mustard or hot sauce, it’s a whole lot of possibilities. Which makes eating even more of a pleasure.”

More Test Kitchen Visitors

Want to read more about other food friends who have visited us in the test kitchen? Check out our visits from bread guru Peter Reinhart, cookie legend Dorie Greenspan, and Momofuku's sweet genius Christina Tosi.

What’s your favorite Persian dish? Let us know in the comments.

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