Beautiful and useful – The Saffron Tales

11 May

unspecifiedIn the 1930s, a country made a PR faux pas – it asked the rest of the world to call it Iran, the name used by its people, and not what the Western World named it, Persia.

In English, Persia is the sound of exotic mystery, the Arabian nights. It sounds luxurious. Perrrsia, the noise a cat makes when it’s happy; Iran sounds like someone fleeing. The relationship the West – and certainly Britain – currently has with the country is undoubtedly problematic and unhelpful as to our associations with the newish name, especially after the revolution of 1978 and the rise of Islamic militancy. And the capital city of Tehran is not one that evokes history or millennia of culture, as this afternoon’s author Yasmin herself describes it, ‘one of those Middle Eastern cities thrown up without thought or design.’

So former Middle Eastern human rights campaigner, now cooker writer, Yasmin Khan, wanted to reclaim the Persian magic of her mother’s homeland. It happened by accident; in 2012, when the Western-imposed sanctions on Iran hit hard, her grandfather died and she went to stay with her grandmother in the lush lands of the Caspian Sea where she spent some of her childhood and holidays, away from her home in Birmingham. For something to do she asked to be shown some recipes, and while she cooked she heard the family memories that went with them.

Yasmin realised the potential of this as a book – Westerners could learn about wonderful Iranian cuisine and its culture along the way. The Saffron Tales became one of the first projects on KickStarter, the creative crowd-sourcing platform, and raised thousands of pounds in a matter of days, paying for Yasmin and an Iranian professional photographer to tour the length and breadth of the country to provide authentic content. This in itself is secret snapshot of the country; professional photographers and journalists are required to have permits, but Yasmin didn’t chance being turned down or be lumbered with a sanctioned guide, so, ‘as an old campaigner, I thought, don’t ask, they can’t say no’. Afterward, the book was picked up by publisher Bloomsbury.

The book itself, as Yasmin’s interviewer Josie Cowgill described it, fulfills the William Morris criteria of being useful and beautiful. It’s part recipe book, part travel essay. Festival director Matt Holland says it looks colourful on the dashboard of his car. Josie says she’s cooked four of the recipes and they are delicious. Most of the ingredients are familiar to us, but they are used in different, sweet and sour, ways. Iranians use green herbs by the handful and pomegranates are the most popular fruit. Persian rice is the hallmark of the cuisine, though the style of the food changes depending on the region of Iran. Home cooking is revered.

Iran is a matriarchal society, Yasmin says, addressing the elephant in the room. Yes, since the revolution, women are expected to dress modestly and find it difficult to hold public office, but they are educated and have jobs. They are determined to improve equality. Iranians are very hospitable and were excited that Yasmin was celebrating their culture and cooking – a positive project for Western consumption for a change. BBC Persia is popular as an alternative to their state-controlled TV and consequently chef Nigel Slater has a big Iranian fan-base.

It’s a great time to visit Iran. Start with Isfahan, Yasmin tells us, a most breathtakingly beautiful place to visit, and the Caspian Sea of course. Go skiing in the mountains. But skip Tehran.

Matt is so delighted that – by chance – the Festival has explored different countries this year (also Spain and Nicaragua) that he’s programming a different country to visit through books each year from now on.

Yasmin Khan appeared at Swindon Arts Centre as part of Swindon Festival of Literature, 11 May 2016.

Chronicle written by Louisa Davison.

Louisa Davison is the founder of Festival Chronicle and is also known as Agent Louisa of Secret Agent Marketing.

3 Responses to “Beautiful and useful – The Saffron Tales”

  1. mukul chand 12th May 2016 at 3:40 am #

    great post

    • Festival Chronicler 12th May 2016 at 5:59 am #


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