It’s a little strange to ponder how closely Naomi Duguid’s cookbooks track with President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives; those aren’t typically two topics one discusses in the same breath. In 2012, when she released Burma: Rivers of Flavor, her intention was to familiarize the West with not just recipes, but also the people and culinary traditions of the isolated nation, which had just begun to re-establish relations with the West after decades of brutal military rule. Less than a year earlier, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made a controversial and historic visit to the country (the same week that Duguid filmed our how-to-lunch-in-Burma video with Roads & Kingdoms co-founder Matt Goulding).
Even as she was finishing her work in Burma, Duguid had begun contemplating where to go next. “What I like to do with a book,” she says, “is to try and make the ‘other’ less other, although it sounds pretentious when you say it like that.” Given her obsession with global crossroads and her talent for explaining humanity through the movement of ingredients and techniques and cultures, Iran seemed like a perfect choice. Back then, in 2012, Iran was facing renewed sanctions from the Obama administration and there were even calls for an all-out military strike on the country’s nuclear facilities. Today, as her new book Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan is released, the U.S. and Iran have signed a comprehensive nuclear deal and newly relaxed sanctions have sent waves of Western tourists to Tehran and beyond.
“Food is a nice tangible way to give people a sense of intimacy with a culture they’re not familiar with,” says Duguid. She spoke with me about the benefit of being a culinary outsider, why she travels alone, and how to eat a pomegranate without looking like a blood-spattered lunatic.
Cara Parks: Do you feel that being an outsider to this region and culinary heritage gave you some advantages in making this book?
Naomi Duguid: People with Persian ancestry or [who are] from Iran have written Persian cookbooks, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m trying to make cross connections so that people appreciate the context. In the book, I talk about gastro-nationalism: I never say a dish is Armenian or Georgian, I’ll say, “I came across this in Georgia.” For example, the Armenians call it Armenian coffee, while in the West people say Turkish coffee. That stuff is very contested, and I think it’s another way in which possibly, it was—easier is not exactly right, but it’s lighter if I do it as an outsider than somebody who’s identified with one particular part of the region. [There are] a lot of intense feelings around identity and ownership.
Dairy shop at bazaar: milk, yogurt, cheese, stripes. Excerpted from Taste of Persia by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2016. Photograph by Naomi Duguid.
Parks: Although you write cookbooks, people often speak about your work more as journalism or anthropology. How do you see your role when researching these projects?
Duguid: I’m not a journalist. I’m an appreciative outsider. I want people to have an appreciation, a respect for the creativity of home cooks wherever they’re from, whether they’re from Bangladesh or from Georgia or from Iran, if they’re urban or rural. It’s amazing that people, mostly women, are turning out food for their families and figuring out all that stuff, often in situations that are complicated. It’s one of the still unsung heroics. What I’m doing is trying to find out about that well enough to tell the story and transmit it in a way that does it honor.
Parks: How did you start traveling to Iran in the first place? Were there restrictions on Canadian citizens at the time?
Duguid: I just thought to myself, ‘I will try not to be anxious about whether or not I can get a visa to Iran.’ I went looking online for Iranian travel agencies, and I found one. I didn’t know if it was a government one or a private person. I wrote and said, “Blah, blah, blah visa, Canadian passport, blah blah blah,” and they wrote back.
I did end up being able to go that fall. I was free to hang out on my own and not have a guide and do what I wanted. But because the Canadian government at the time was extremely right-wing, by January, right after I was there in my lovely freedom, I found that the rules for Canadians changed into the rules for Americans; you have to have a guide with you at all times.