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Food culture of Iran explored in 'Taste of Persia'

TORONTO — Food ambassador Naomi Duguid explores the culinary region of Persia in her new cookbook, escorting readers through villages, markets and into people's homes.

"Taste of Persia" (Artisan Books) chronicles the rich heritage and culinary cross-influences found throughout the region that centres on Iran but includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kurdistan.

The book seduces with intensely coloured photos, recipes with flavourful ingredients like sumac, golden saffron, ripe red pomegranate and fresh nuts and herbs, and stories highlighting her adventures and the people she met.

The region is home to diverse cultures, religions, languages and politics, but you can understand things through the food, says the Ottawa native.

"Daily life in a place is so very much not what the headlines are. At a basic level I'm hoping people get a sort of domestic, intimate, empathic sense of connection.... It seems far away, but actually they're leading their lives. They're on Google," says Duguid.

"And they're using ingredients that aren't very foreign to us although they may be using them slightly differently, and that's what's interesting."

With her insatiable appetite to get behind culture and culinary traditions, she visited the region several times to compile the material for her book.

"I just think it's so important, you know, not glamorizing, not glorifying, but also not exoticizing. I just hate the exoticizing. We're all human beings.... These people are getting their kids to school and worrying about their aging parents, what are we going to have for supper tonight."

It had been 24 years since she'd been to Georgia to research "Flatbreads & Flavors" and she'd never been to Iran, says Duguid during an interview in Toronto's Kensington Market neighbourhood, near where she lives when she's not travelling.

"Flatbreads & Flavors" and "Seductions of Rice: Hot Sour Salty Sweet," among six books she co-authored with Jeffrey Alford, both won the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year. Duguid's previous book, "Burma: Rivers of Flavor," won a Taste Canada Food Writing Award and the Cookbook Award for Culinary Travel from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2013.

Duguid maintains a nomadic approach without a strict agenda or lineup of contacts.

"I don't go with a list of expectations that I want or a list of dishes or recipes that I want even. I go and hope to come across things I don't know. It's happened many times."

She takes buses and trains, does home stays, visits markets and restaurants.

"I get to see the similarities and differences firsthand, what the middle ground might be. I'm eating things. I'm in people's kitchens. I'm seeing how they make things. I'm checking."

Duguid describes the region's food as agricultural and having "very clean flavours" with herbs playing a big role.

The temperate climate produces luscious peaches and apricots, bitter oranges and pomegranates, and nuts like walnuts and pistachios, which add depth and intensity.

"The pistachios, there's a pinkiness to them. They're so beautiful. And I'd never had a fresh pistachio picked yesterday. So this treat of seeing things in the place they originated is really wonderful."

Duguid waxes poetic over a pilaf that is an Armenian staple featuring emmer, an early form of wheat, which cooks quickly.

"You sort of feel as if you're tasting the roots of human history because there you are, quite close to the Tigris and Euphrates and you're eating wheat in various forms."

Rice is also honoured in Persian cooking. Duguid's favourite version is Kurdish rice made with pomegranate molasses and walnuts.

"There's a lushness and it feels like it must have cheese in it, it feels like risotto, but it's just because it's got this extraordinary flavour."

Duguid now finds herself using pomegranate molasses more often for its tart sweetness — "almost in anything, even a dash in salad." She uses sumac for its sparkling lemony taste while purslane, an annual plant usually regarded as a weed in North America, is a valued green in Persian cuisine.

And she has a deeper appreciation for beans and grains. "That sounds so dreary and it's so not. It's not at all Birkenstock-ish."

Beyond the food, her fondest memories stem from the warmth and generosity of the people.

"That impulse to take care, whenever somebody arrives to offer them water. I was in a refugee camp in Kurdistan. So these people are Kurds who have run away from Syria two years ago. They're having to haul their water and they're in UN tents and stuff. Here's the tray with the glasses of water and you accept because it would be rude or disrespectful (not to). You don't say, 'Well, you're so poor I'm not going to take what you're offering me.' No, you take what's offered.

"I think that's the thing — to not be embarrassed, to instead move forward into it. You give them the respect of their intentions."

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

By Lois Abraham, The Canadian Press

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