Immigrant Women Take Center Stage in New Book on American Food Culture
Chef Najmieh Batmanglij and writer Mayukh Sen discuss real stories behind the “melting pot.”
In his new book, Taste Makers, writer Mayukh Sen gives credit where credit is due. By profiling seven immigrant women chefs, he depicts their genuine struggles and contributions to what we know today as the American “melting pot.” One of these women is Chef Najmieh Batmanglij, who has been cooking and writing Iranian recipes for 40 years, through exile in France during the Iranian Revolution and eventual emigration to America. We talked to Batmanglij and Sen about the book and the importance of food as a cultural connector.
Thrillist: Can you talk about the process of reaching out to Najmieh? Was she someone you wanted to include right from the beginning?
Mayukh Sen: When I first got into food media, I quickly became aware of the legendary nature of Najmieh’s work and how much she meant to so many people across America, especially children of the Iranian diaspora. As I started writing this book proposal, I noticed that Najmieh had a masterful book out in 2018 called Cooking in Iran. So I pitched a story on her to The Washington Post and they took it.
So I literally met Najmieh in the middle of being on the road with the proposal for this book. That week began with a bunch of meetings with publishers and then I got on a train to DC, I spent a day or two with her and then got back to New York, and then hit the road again with the proposal. It’s funny how the timing worked out.
Najmieh, I know you have a complicated past with publishers. What did you think about the opportunity to be in this book?
Najmieh Batmanglij: I’m very honored to be one of the seven women in this book. And he put everything together in such a great way. I asked my children to read it and both of them love his writing and the way he described me. My son said, “Mom, he knows you.”
Was it surreal to read about your life like that?
NB: I said, “Oh God, I worked so hard. I’m so tired.” [Laughs] I’d been going through all these things, leaving Iran, being pregnant, my husband wasn’t there. Then my husband met me and we moved from one country to another country. Each country I had to start from zero in the sense of understanding the culture and speaking the language. It was an ordeal, but I’m glad I did it.
If the [Iranian] Revolution didn’t happen and I was still in Iran, perhaps I would write about French food. But since I was away from my culture, cooking and writing about Persian food allowed me to embrace my roots. I self-published for many years. I was very sad to see other friends get book deals and royalties. But now I’m happy. Most of the cooks now are self-publishing because they realize they can own the rights to their recipes and photos.
“Since I was away from my culture, cooking and writing about Persian food allowed me to embrace my roots.”
You had to acclimate and write and cook for all these different cultures: French, American, and Iranian, of course. Who do you prefer writing for?
NB: Initially, I just wanted to share my childhood experiences with my children because they’re second-generation Iranian. They’re far away from their country and far away from their heritage because of political events. I wanted to share these recipes for breakfast, for Friday lunchtime. Now, 40 years later, there are a lot of second-generation Iranian kids that are able to enjoy this book and are learning from it.
What was something that you learned in your research that impressed you the most?
MS: Najmieh’s intention was not to appease the white gaze in any way. It was to write for her own community and to write for her children specifically, but by extension the children of Iran. It’s so easy as someone who is in present day food media as a queer person of color, to work according to the impulse of wanting to get validation from white institutions, yet I have found a lot more fulfillment in working and writing for my own community. And that is so much more gratifying than getting certain awards.
Writing about Najmieh for my book really clarified a lot of my own intentions and aspirations. When I look back at my early career, I really chased all that validation, but once I got some of it, I realized that that didn’t necessarily make me happy. When I look at Najmieh, I see someone who strikes me as incredibly fulfilled in her work and the lives that she has touched through it.
NB: You just made me cry!
I love this idea of you learning to cook through observation and recipes being currency. Do those memories still stick with you when you’re cooking today?
NB: I learned cooking through observation because my mother wouldn’t allow me to work in the kitchen. Because she got married when she was 14, she really wanted me to go to university and get my education. As a result, she said, “Don’t come to the kitchen now. Later, you’ll have plenty of time to cook.” So when I handed my master’s degree to my mother, she allowed me in the kitchen. I worked with her for a couple of years, learning the basics, and wrote it all down. And then my aunt was a very talented pastry cook, so I learned a lot from her. You know, the whole household was a big kitchen. The watermelon, the cherries, everything was washed in the big pond in the middle of the garden. And then we’d make tomato paste and the whole garden was taken over. We made everything from scratch.
Is there one particular dish you make when you feel most connected to Iran?
NB: Fesenjun. It originally comes from Northern Iran, where there are a lot of birds, even though it’s by the Caspian. So they cook duck in pomegranates and walnut sauce. But I’m from Tehran and I remember my mother cooked turkey and would sauté it with salt, pepper, turmeric, and saffron in, of course. Every dish has saffron. At that time, the sauce was made with a mortar and pestle, but now I do it in a food processor. And my mother used fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, which gives such a good flavor. You slow-cook the turkey all day, let the meat fall off the bones. I keep the integrity and shape of the turkey, but the sauce infuses it. It is lovely.
How do you think people can feel closer to a culture through food?
MS: So, Najmieh is only one of two surviving subjects in my book, the other being Julie Sahni. Even as I was spending time with a lot of these deceased figures’ memoirs and cookbooks and interviews, a through line I detected is that taste would unlock so many memories of a home that they left behind. Food is one of the initial ways that so many immigrants to America first establish a sense of belonging in a new country.
That was certainly true when my mother came here from a village in Western Bengal after having an arranged marriage to my late father. Just being Indian in New Jersey back in the early ’80s must have been so unimaginably difficult. She labored so I could live a comfortable life. Cooking was one of the ways in which she was able to establish a sense of comfort in an otherwise very disorienting time. That holds true for all the women in this book and I hope that readers see that.
NB: Identity is tied to culture rather than geographic location for immigrant communities. And they can define themselves through their food, music, and culture. That reduces the pain of being away. Now people start speaking Persian from their childhood and it wasn’t like that 40 years ago. So when you identify yourself through your culture or your heritage, that can really help you as an immigrant family. And I think by eating Indian food, your mom’s food, you embrace your roots.
Have you guys been able to cook and eat together during this process?
MS: I came back to visit her in April 2019 and I observed her cook. I don’t know how much you know about this, but I am not a skilled cook at all. One of the things that I love about Najmieh’s presence in the kitchen is that she made me feel very at ease. I remember, maybe it was onions on the stove or something, but I was just tumbling them over heat so quickly. And she just told me to take my sweet time and, you know, be patient. And even that kind of small lesson taught me so much about how to be a cook.
NB: I know my job, I like to empower people to cook. Being a cook as a woman didn’t used to be appreciated much, don’t forget that. About 30 years ago, I wrote my first cookbook Food of Life. And people would meet us and say, “Najmieh, what do you do?” I would say, “I’m a cook.” My mother got so upset. She would say, “Don’t say you’re a cook, that’s insulting.” And she said I should tell them I’m a writer. [Laughs] So even my mother didn’t appreciate what I did because it was sort of put down. Bless her heart. She’s not alive, but I think now she’s above. She would really appreciate Mayukh’s book.
I’m sure she would love this book and, Mayukh, your dad would love it, too. It’s very special. What are you hoping that readers take away from it?
MS: I really appreciate that. I’m sure that many people would see the listing for this book and say, “Oh wow. I’m so curious to know how America became this ‘melting pot’ of different cuisines around the world. How is it that we can get saag paneer on one block and then enchiladas on the next and then doubles on the one right after?” It’s very romantic to view America in those terms—as a wonderfully diverse culinary melting pot.
But I hope that readers understand that there is so much struggle embedded in that reality, that consumers benefit from now. Najmieh’s story is a potent example of just how much individuals have had to struggle to make that reality possible. She is someone who had to fight very, very hard in a challenging time in America for Iranians. She, in spite of her credentials, was unable to sell a cookbook of her own to a major publisher. And so she had to become very self-sufficient along with the help of her husband, Mohammad. Together, they pursued this path that is so independent of these powerful institutions. Najmieh became a trailblazer and she eventually triumphed. But it was not easy.
NB: My take is follow your passion and don’t care what other people think. Eventually people will notice what you have done. English is not my language, I have dyslexia, I’m a Muslim, I’m a woman—all these things, but I made it. So I think that can be a good example to other women. They can do it, too.
I used to teach homeless women in DC to cook for a couple of years and I wanted to teach them sweet carrot rice flavored with orange blossom. But the program director said they won’t know what orange blossom is and not to include it. But I did anyway. One woman came up to me after, kissed my hand, and said she wants to cook and write books some day. That experience touched me with love. You can have an impact if you stay true to yourself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.