Flavours without borders
For her latest cookbook, author Naomi Duguid travelled from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to the southern tip of Iran. The result, writes Shayma Saadat, is a celebration of home cooks and all of Persia’s culinary heritage
Naomi Duguid is standing barefoot in her Toronto kitchen. The celebrated cookbook author is lithe, with blonde hair further lightened by the sun. “Let’s gather herbs for the hovivi,” she says, leading me into her garden.
We’re putting together an “eggless omelette” of yogurt, fresh cheese and vegetables that was historically eaten by Armenian shepherds during their nomadic excursions. It’s one of the recipes in Taste of Persia, Duguid’s new book. She plucks sorrel, coriander and spearmint from her garden, then extends her palms towards my face, asking “Doesn’t that smell so fresh?” The fragrance is sweet and sharp.
Revered as culinary anthropologists, Duguid and her ex-husband, Jeffrey Alford, have won international acclaim for six cookbooks filled with recipes, photographic essays and stories from their travels. In 2012, Duguid wrote her first solo book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor. Up until now, her oeuvre has focused on Southeast Asia and hot, sour, salty and spicy flavours are now a part of her regular repertoire.
But today, the pantry has shifted westward. The dishes we are preparing draw from the Persian culinary region and are enriched with nuts, yogurt, cheese and fresh herbs and vegetables. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan – the countries Taste of Persia focuses on – are relatively new culinary territory for Duguid, who first visited Georgia in 1989 with Alford before writing Flatbreads & Flavors.
While researching Taste of Persia (which comes out on Sept. 20), Duguid made several visits to the region over the course of three years. At times, as in Kurdistan, she was invited to stay with the family of close friends from Toronto. And as always, she made many new acquaintances.
One tale of happenstance in the book is of meeting a group of Azeri men in an orchard in Lahich, Azerbaijan. As a gesture of their hospitality, the men offered Duguid a glass of tutovka, mulberry vodka. She politely declined, but decided to join them upon hearing the word shashlik (a skewer of grilled lamb). They dined on the grass, savouring shashlik hot off the grill, with bread, pickled tomatoes and thick yogurt. This is but one of many endearing stories she shares about the generosity of people in a region torn apart by centuries of war.
Throughout her journey, Duguid picked up new recipes and techniques from locals. “I don’t have expertise,” she says, while chopping Crayola-red capsicum for the hovivi. “The home cooks have it, and that’s why I go in and become their student.” Hovivi is traditionally eaten by shepherds in biblical Mount Ararat Valley. “I learned the recipe from Sonya, in Yerevan,” she says.
Duguid proposed the idea for the new book over three years ago, telling her publisher that she wanted to write about Persia, but not on its own. “I wanted to loop in the Caucasus,” she says, “which has always been connected to the Soviet Union, in people’s minds.” Taste of Persia brings this part of the world– from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to the southern tip of Iran to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea – into where it belongs, as part of the wider Persian culinary region.
Duguid emphasizes that her recipes are not the geographic preserve of any one country, notwithstanding residents’ fierce sense of what she calls “gastronationalism.” The term reminded me of a trip I made to Yerevan, Armenia in 2001 to visit my father, who was working there. One evening, his friend Aida prepared stuffed peppers – a dish that I, with my Persian heritage, immediately recognized.
“Mader, my paternal grandmother made this; it’s dolmeh in Farsi,” I said.
“Dolma, in Armenian,” Aida corrected me, laughing. “Wars have broken out over where dolma originated – but it definitely originated in my mother’s kitchen.” One knows not to take such things lightly in an area of the world with intertwined cultural histories and shifting borders.
(Duguid’s recipe for stuffed vegetables is reprinted here. It’s a dish made all over the region and the rice and meat stuffing means you can go without a side dish.)
A caramel-like aroma rises in Duguid’s kitchen, as she starts sautéing slender slices of onions and capsicum in a cast iron skillet while I invert a small bowl onto a turquoise ceramic platter. In it is pkhali, a Georgian pâté of walnuts paired with leeks and garlic. “Make this several hours or up to a day ahead to give the flavours a chance to blend,” Duguid writes in her book. I adorn the dome-shaped pâté with fresh coriander leaves as she ladles thick, creamy hovivi into bowls. “Use any herb you have on hand,” she says. We each add spearmint and sorrel. The hovivi is stained gold from turmeric.
At the coffee table in the sunroom, we position ourselves near the French doors leading to the garden. There is fresh arugula in a wooden bowl from Chiang Mai, Thailand, on the table. Beside it, Duguid has chopped up Ontario peaches, “to pick at, while we talk.” It is clear that it is her gracious character which charms people during her travels.
I smear some rich pkhali on a sliver of heritage-grain cracker, washing it down with cups of moka pot espresso, and imagine inviting over friends to enjoy it with Chablis. “We should have some ajika with this, too,” Duguid says, spooning a spicy red pepper and walnut salsa into a dipping bowl. I add a dollop to my hovivi. The flavour of ajika is sharp, intense; the colour is a deep brick red.
“Food, to me, is a lens for looking at a place,” Duguid says. “I want people to feel excited about Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan.” Through her beautiful, raw photographic portrayals of daily life in these countries, Duguid invites readers to feel a connection with the people and the place – rather than exoticizing it in their minds. “Sure, this region could be perceived as ‘other,’ ” she explains, “but it’s not foreign in a weird way.”
I initially wondered what to expect from the book, given that it is written by a non-Persian. But this book is not singularly about “Persian food”: It is about a culinary region and culture, about transcending borders, about contextualizing a rich, edible heritage. “All I really want to do is transmit a sense of appreciation for what people do every day in their kitchen,” she tells me. Though Duguid tested recipes over and over again in her kitchen in Toronto, the recipes rightfully belong to the women she met during her travels.
The book celebrates unsung food artists who have shared their cooking practices and recipes through centuries of oral tradition and culture.
As the daughter of a mother who doesn’t approve of me adding paprika to her own mother’s beloved kofta (meatball) stew, I know that people can be partisan about their food. Sometimes it takes an outsider who has a different perspective, to look at a region with appreciation and talk about the historical ties and culinary links.
As Duguid would say, “It enlarges one’s world.”