A few years ago, whilst in the early stages of the research for my book The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen, I wrote a Facebook post asking friends to name the first three 3 things that came to mind when they thought of Iran. The results were illuminating:
"Ahmadinejad, ayatollahs, nuclear bomb"
"Magnificent palaces, vengeful crowds, Khomeini's unsmiling face"
"Arthouse cinema; dates; patriarchy"
"Bombs, great-grandpa, Iraq"
"The t-shirt Homer Simpson wore with a picture of Ayatolla Kohmeini under the words "Ayatolla Assahollla!"
"Music, ladies' sculpted eyebrows and repression"
"Sumac, rose petals and bombs"
Looking at these answers you don't need to be a CIA operative to work out that to most people Iran is primarily seen through a narrow political prism which focuses on its government and its perceived global military threat. But is there more to the country than this?
I was born in London in the early 80s to an Iranian mum and a Pakistani dad. I've travelled back and forth to Iran all my life, spending my early childhood scampering around my grandparent's small rice farm in the north of the country near the Caspian Sea. For me, Iran has always been a beautiful, green idyll; a place where we'd go hiking up mountains and swimming in waterfalls on family holidays. Summers were spent with my cousins running around the enchanted playground of our family farm, scampering in and out of rice paddies and pausing only to rest under the shade of figs, pomegranates and greengage trees when we got hungry.
Growing up in the UK I've always been acutely aware of the massive gulf that exists between the Iran I know and love and the hostile news reports seen in the media. Whereas to me Iran represents beauty, culture, history and generosity of spirit, to the rest of the world it simply seems to represent terror. Of course I understand that Iran is a powerful country in an unstable region whose government's policies have a direct impact on many global issues but I also know that is not the sum of the country and it is certainly not the story of all of its people. Yes, its people. When was the last time you heard any voices from inside Iran? Voices that have more in common with us in the West then either of our governments would like us to believe. Voices that talk about ordinary things like football and hip hop and climate change and Game of Thrones? Voices that like to sit with family and friends and share good food.
At a time of increased global tensions, I believe that connecting with ordinary people, listening to their stories and celebrating our commonality could not be more important. And for me, the most powerful way to do this is through food. So I set off on a 3000km adventure through Iran, armed with just a notepad and a bottle of pomegranate molasses on a mission to interview Iranians from all walks of life about their favorite meals and through this find out about their lives today. My quest took me the snowy mountains of Tabriz, the cosmopolitan cafés of Tehran, the pomegranate orchards of Isfahan and the fishing ports of Bandar Abbas, where I was welcomed into the homes of of teachers and tradesmen, farmers and fishermen, artists and architects.
By sharing a favorite recipe, the people I met shared a little bit of themselves. In the intimate spaces of a home kitchen, boundaries come down and differences are set aside. We find commonality through something we can all relate too - a really good meal. Through my travels I unearthed not only the rich tapestry of Persian cuisine with its heady, aromatic spices, its abundance uses of fresh herbs and its reverence of the mighty pomegranate but I also unearthed stories of the lives of ordinary people living in Iran today. Through looking at a country through the prism of food you can understand so much about a place -certainly more than by simply looking at political representatives. Imagine if people outside the UK only saw the country by looking at members of Teresa May's cabinet - would that be an accurate depiction of all that our culture is about? I think not. But through sharing recipes and the stories behind them we can delve deeper into a place, learning about such things as history, economy, trade, nature, family life and gender relations.
So next time you see Iran in the media, I encourage you to look beyond the usual headlines and stereotypes. If genuinely we want to make the world a safer place for all that inhabit it then it is only through better understanding its people that we can begin to improve international relations and food is a magnificent place to start.
Yasmin Khan is a writer, cook and campaigner from London. Her debut book The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen (Bloomsbury) is out now.Suggest a correction