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A culinary tradition for the Persian new year
Judy Woodruff: Today is not only the first day of spring, in astronomical terms, the vernal equinox. It is also the Persian New Year, or Nowruz. Celebrations are taking place all over the world.
Now Jeffrey Brown samples the festive menu of Nowruz with recipes from a new cookbook by a leading Persian chef.
It's part of Canvas, our regular arts and culture series.
Jeffrey Brown: Tell me what you're doing here. What's going on?
Najmieh Batmanglij: I'm making noodle soup.
Jeffrey Brown: Noodles.
Najmieh Batmanglij: You should have noodle soup for the Persian New Year.
Noodles represent a part of life.
Jeffrey Brown: Oh, so there's a lot of meaning to those noodles?
Najmieh Batmanglij: Yes. Actually every dish I'm making, there are some -- represents something. It means something.
Jeffrey Brown: The Washington, D.C., home and kitchen of celebrated cook Najmieh Batmanglij, as she prepares a special meal.
Najmieh Batmanglij: I'm making traditional Persian New Year meal, and I'm making fish and spring lamb, because some parts, we don't eat spring lamb for the Nowruz.
I love what I'm doing. And I'm so lucky. And I cook with all my being, and I cook with love, and I love to have people that I care for.
Jeffrey Brown: Najmieh is the author of eight cookbooks, including "Food of Life," a bible of sorts for Persians living abroad.
Najmieh Batmanglij: This is about three pound of spinach. If you hold this for me.
Najmieh Batmanglij: I usually make it because one of my sons is vegan. This is a trend these days. Kids, they don't want to eat meat. So we're going to put about three pounds of spinach.
Jeffrey Brown: She's also a personal friend. I have been lucky to dine at her table a number of times over the years, and hear stories of her growing up in Tehran.
Najmieh Batmanglij: I'm just making it the way my mother made it. She use always fresh noodles.
Jeffrey Brown: I remember you telling me that you didn't cook as a girl, right?
Najmieh Batmanglij: No.
Jeffrey Brown: Your mother wouldn't let you in the kitchen?
Najmieh Batmanglij: Yes. I always love to cook, but my mother wouldn't allow me in the kitchen. She would say, go to university, get your education. You will have plenty of time to cook.
And she was right.
Jeffrey Brown: Najmieh studied in the United States, and on graduation...
Najmieh Batmanglij: I returned to Iran, and she allowed me into her kitchen.
Jeffrey Brown: Finally.
Najmieh Batmanglij: She said -- finally. She said, come and learn from me.
Jeffrey Brown: After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, she and her husband, Mohammad, fled, first to France, one of the few countries that didn't require a visa.
Najmieh Batmanglij: I was very homesick and nostalgic. I was pregnant when we left Iran, and I was alone. I didn't speak French. So I need to connect with my roots. I need to heal myself.
Jeffrey Brown: Healing that came through cooking.
Najmieh Batmanglij: I think, when you're away from home, that aroma of your childhood kitchen is very important. You want to connect with that aroma.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Najmieh Batmanglij: There are fresh noodles too in there.
Jeffrey Brown: OK.
Najmieh Batmanglij: This is the noodle soup. This is fried onion. You see how lovely it is. It's garlic. And going to put some kashk. This is kashk.
Jeffrey Brown: Wonderful.
Mohammad Batmanglij, a helpmate and taster in the kitchen, also fosters Persian culture through his work as a publisher of ancient and contemporary Persian literature, in addition to Najmieh's cookbooks.
Their new one, "Cooking in Iran," is the most ambitious, based on her visits to the country starting in 2015, after more than three decades of exile.
You have done many books over the years, but, for this one, you really wanted to return to Iran.
Najmieh Batmanglij: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Why?
Najmieh Batmanglij: For the last 35 years, I cooked outside of Iran. But I had this fantastic dream to go back to Iran, to travel throughout Iran.
I wanted to go from one region to another region. I want to cook with the cooks. I want to share tables.
Jeffrey Brown: Hailed by The New York Times as an engrossing visual feast, and one of the best cookbooks of 2018, the book captures the sheer diversity of the country, its population, geography, and cuisine that Americans rarely have a chance to see or taste.
Najmieh Batmanglij: One little flavor for fish.
Jeffrey Brown: How do you decide what to include in a book? You have to narrow it down, I assume, huh?
Najmieh Batmanglij: Yes.
What I wanted to present in this book, not repeat the same thing, unless the recipe was a little bit different from my original one. That was important. And I wanted to show that Persian food is not just kabob.
Jeffrey Brown: Americans have one idea of Iran, which is mostly based on the politics between the two countries.
Najmieh Batmanglij: That's right.
Jeffrey Brown: How important was it to you to show a different side?
Najmieh Batmanglij: People of the country are not representing the government.
Iranian people are very hospitable, very kind, very educated. And I wanted to share that side of Iran. What touched my heart the most were the women of Iran. Nothing would happen without Iranian women as the backbone of the country, I think.
Jeffrey Brown: Insight into the country, and a great meal.
Najmieh Batmanglij: OK, perfect.
My name is Najmieh Batmanglij. Happy Nowruz, or happy new year, to everyone.
Judy Woodruff: What a treat.
And on Instagram, we have a Persian New Year recipe for you to try at home, a yogurt and Persian shallot dip.
You can find us on Instagram @NewsHour.
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