I come from what you might call a colorful background. My mom is an American Jew with Ashkenazi heritage, and my dad is an Iranian immigrant who grew up in a Muslim family. My childhood caretaker and de facto grandmother was a practicing Catholic who made me Easter baskets—and I went to a Quaker school, where we practiced silent meditation on a weekly basis.
I wish I could say that all the disparate aspects of my formative years melded together into one rich and cohesive whole, but the truth is that the Christmas cookies and the borscht and the pomegranates generally have stuck together disjointedly, like some macabre one-pot meal. Add to that a physical appearance which strangers feel compelled to inform me is neither Iranian nor Jewish (and certainly not Christian), and at times I've been a mystery even to myself.
Strangely, I didn't realize how unusual my situation was until the last few years, when I began trying to articulate the different food influences that had given me my particular cooking style. As I documented them in my cookbooks, and saw people's wide-eyed stares when I told them about my mixed bag of a family, I started to become conscious of just how polyglot my background really was.
Fortunately, food is a magical substance that binds us all, and through the process of writing two books that feature the food of my heritage, the disparate parts of my cultural inheritance have, to a large degree, begun to synthesize. Researching my second book The New Persian Kitchen was especially eye-opening, not just because I discovered an incredible cuisine that is mostly unknown in the West, but because it helped to put my own disjointed background into perspective.
Take for example the fact that the world's oldest Jewish population outside of Israel is in Iran. As it's written in the Old Testament, the Jewish slaves of Babylon were freed by King Cyrus, the conquering leader of the Persian Empire, around 539 B.C.E. Cyrus said the Jews could return to Israel, and even paid for the rebuilding of the Second Temple. But many Jews chose to stay in the land of such a benevolent leader, and did so for centuries, until the Islamic Revolution of 1979 when most felt it was safer to leave. Learning the history helped me to understand that being both Iranian and Jewish actually makes perfect sense, and isn't the meeting of polar opposites that I'd always imagined it to be.
I also found that the food of Iran has a lot in common with the food of Russia, Poland, Austria, and Germany, where my mother's family hails from. On a map, you can see why. Iran borders on the former Soviet countries of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, and Iran has always had a robust cultural exchange with Russia. Also, if you look at the path of the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, it crossed through Iran and went as far west as Poland, mixing the tastes and traits of the countries it passed through, much as the Arabs had done when they marched from the Middle East up through southern Europe 700 years earlier. Just a few of the culinary connections that I found between my mother's and father's ancestors were a love of foods cooked to a crisp (these include Iranian bottom-of-the-pot rice known as tahdig and Eastern European potato latkes), pickles, pickled fish, dill, raw onions, sour flavors like sour cherries and rhubarb, and a love of mayonnaise.
What's more, it turns out that Iran and Europe had been in contact for literally thousands of years. Through the prehistoric trade routes generally referred to as the Silk Road—travelled by merchants since prehistory—to the ancient wars between the kingdoms of Greece and Persia, you'd have to go very far back to find a time when there was no cultural exchange between Europe and Iran. I started to seriously wonder if my parents maybe shared the same DNA. It occurred to me that my particular biological make-up, that of an unlikely mutt emerging from the American melting pot, could just as easily have occurred a thousand years ago.
In the process of gathering material for the book, I researched recipes, tracked down the origins of foods like persimmons and garlic, and interviewed family members. Lacking the documentation to visit Iran, I traveled instead to Los Angeles, aka Tehrangeles, home to the largest Iranian population outside of Iran. There I feasted with my extended Iranian family, ate in Iranian restaurants, and purchased ingredients like saffron, sumac, rose petals, dried limes, and pomegranate syrup. I experimented with traditional recipes, but I didn't want to simply recreate the same dishes that had been in existence since the ancient days of Persepolis. Maybe it was due to my mixed heritage, but I wanted to come up with a new version of Persian cooking that put the focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, while still highlighting the exotic seasonings of the Silk Road.
I created a slew of dishes that reflect my own influences and inspirations. The result is not traditionally Persian, and not Eastern European, but it's clearly influenced by both. The tastes, the smells, the colors of the food are all the strands of history and character that have shaped me. I can't imagine a more malleable or seductive medium for transformation. Like paint and clay, or music and poetry, food holds the essence of a time and place, and a dish can be the final manifestation of complex ideas and feelings, however unconscious. I'm at the end of the journey of this book, but at the beginning of my own route to discovery, as I continue to explore my family's unique history through food.