A DETAILED MAP unfolds when you open “Cooking In Iran” (Mage Publishers), the latest cookbook by Najmieh Batmanglij. It traces the contours and regions of the mountainous country as well as those that border it, bringing into vivid focus a part of the world unfamiliar to many Americans.
Born in Tehran and educated in the U.S. and France, Ms. Batmanglij has spent the last 35 years living in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., chronicling Iranian cooking and customs. After decades of guiding readers into the land of saffron, roses and pomegranates, this cookbook, her eighth, is the first she researched on the ground in Iran. The author, now 70, returned to the country she hadn’t seen since the 1979 revolution, journeying to its farthest corners, from cosmopolitan cities like Tehran and Tabriz to tiny mountain towns, to eat and cook local foods. “It was exhausting, emotionally, politically and logistically,” she said, “but every day I learned something new about Persian food.” At over 250 recipes, “Cooking In Iran” is her most ambitious book yet.
For now Ms. Batmanglij enjoys traveling to Los Angeles to visit her sons—Zal, a filmmaker, and Rostam, a musician (formerly of the band Vampire Weekend)—and to sample the city’s wealth of Persian food. But she hopes to visit Iran again soon. “My dream is to lead chefs on cooking tours there,” she said. Let’s hope she saves a few spots for home cooks.
The best feature of my kitchen is: the wonderful view. I have a pool, and a garden where almost six months of the year I grow all my herbes de Provence and Persian basil, which I love. I use it in sharbat sekanjabin, a vinegar and sugar-syrup drink, along with cilantro, mint, a slice of lime and a slice of cucumber. It’s very rafraîchissant.
The kitchen tool I can’t live without is: my Krups spice grinder. I love the mortar and pestle, but it’s heavy and hard and retains smells. I have a microplane zester for limes, oranges, tangerines and also garlic, which I grate because it’s easier than mincing and you get more flavor. Like for yogurt soup, where you use it as a raw ingredient. I use my Pars rice cooker all the time. It’s cheap. You don’t want to get a Chinese or Japanese rice cooker because they don’t make tahdig [the crispy rice at the bottom of the pot]—the temperature isn’t right. I only use the kind of rice cooker sold in Iranian stores.
My pantry is always stocked with: Olio Quattrociocchi Olivastro, an organic olive oil produced near Genoa, Italy. When you use it in salad its flavor is so wonderful. I actually use olive oil for most things now, even in baklava and other pastry; it’s vegan and it tastes so good. I buy only whole spices and keep them in glass jars. There are a few different brands of basmati I like for making classic Persian rice: Aahu Barah, Royal and Empire. I use Cortas brand rose water, and Sadaf pomegranate molasses—not the concentrate. It’s so tasty, sweet and sour.
My refrigerator is always stocked with: saffron water. I grind my saffron and dilute it in rose water, orange blossom water or plain water, and keep it chilled. I use it to flavor everything from potato croquettes to pickled mango. Always start with saffron threads, not ground saffron, and grind them yourself. You can get Saharkhiz brand Iranian saffron in the Iranian stores. The Farsi name means “rising sun at dawn,” because that’s the time of day when you harvest saffron. I always keep Sadaf brand lebni [drained yogurt] on hand. And I make dalar, a Caspian green salt blended with herbs—I also use a little olive oil and lime in mine—every three days. You can use it on everything: fish, chicken, avocados.
When I entertain, I like to: be prepared. I mise en place every dish the day before. I caramelize the onions and chop the herbs. On the day of, I only cook for 2 hours. Then I’lI shower and change and put on my make-up. When people come I’m not exhausted and overwhelmed. When I go to someone’s home I want to be greeted by someone who’s happy and relaxed. I usually ask people to do things, like toss the salad, or place a vase of flowers. I give people tasks so they become involved. It’s not a show. They should be part of things. Everyone is in the kitchen, so I have to be organized.
I love it when my dinner guests bring: something nice to plant. Twenty-five years ago a woman brought me a sapling of a fragrant wintersweet tree that is now in my garden. The yellow flowers bloom in winter and the aroma is wonderful. Another friend brought me a pussy willow tree. My recipe for saffroned almond paste, in the chapter of “Cooking In Iran” on Yazd Province, makes use of it. When I was researching the book there, a woman showed me how she blanched the almonds and then spread them on sheets and covered them with freshly picked pussy willow flowers. The next morning she would remove the flowers and grind the almonds into powder.
A drink I love is: icy vodka from the freezer. When guests come over I give them a warm, spicy lamb sambuseh pastry with a shot of Grey Goose vodka in a Persian tea glass. Life changes immediately when you serve someone this combination.
The music I listen to when I’m cooking is: my son Rostam’s. He is also a very good cook.
The most underrated ingredient is: crispy fried onions. It’s one of the secrets of Iranian cooking. People use fried onions all the time but they don’t talk about it. You can scatter them over every rice dish, every stew. I have a barberry braise recipe from Kurdistan that I like to garnish with fried onions so it’s all golden and crispy on top. It’s just—oh! On salads, too. They look beautiful, and they have so much flavor. Often I season my onions with a little saffron, which has a beautiful, potent taste. Or sometimes I use turmeric, the poor man’s saffron, which has the added benefit of being good for your health. You can even use a little of both.
My favorite place to shop for food is: the Dupont Circle Farmers Market [in D.C.]. The first thing I buy is a bouquet of white flowers, which I love, from a wonderful woman farmer. I’m having fantastic time now that my kids are adults. They come to Washington and we all go to the farmers’ market, and then we cook together. It’s such a joyful experience.
I started cooking because: of the next generation. I write for my sons and every other young Iranian so they will always have these recipes and know how to cook the food of their heritage.
—Edited from an interview by Louisa Shafia
Crispy Fried Onions
TOTAL TIME: 50 minutes MAKES: About 4 cups
4 medium yellow onions, sliced into thin half-moons
4 cups olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground saffron threads or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1. Line a sheet pan with paper towels. Fill a medium saucepan three quarters full with water and bring to a boil. Gently add onions, stir twice, and bring back to a boil. Drain and let sit in sieve 10 minutes. Wipe saucepan dry.
2. Heat oil in saucepan over high heat. Once oil is hot, carefully add onions. Fry stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until golden, 7-10 minutes. Stir in salt and saffron.
3. Wipe sieve dry. Use a heatproof slotted spoon or spider to transfer onions to sieve, and shake to drain. Spread onions over prepared sheet pan to cool. Use cooled onions immediately or transfer to a lidded container lined with paper towels. Crispy onions will keep in refrigerator up to 2 weeks. Before using, spread onions on a parchment-lined baking sheet and reheat in an oven at 375 degrees until crisp, 5-10 minutes.