By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • March 30, 2016
When Razi Jafri, an Indian-American from Detroit, saw a Facebook post about a cooking class with an Iranian chef, he knew he wanted in on it. “I love cooking for people and I love looking at different types of cuisine,” he said. Plus, said Jafri, a fellow with micro lender Kiva, he was fascinated by Persian food and diplomacy; he’d followed the Iran nuclear deal closely. This would be perfect.
The catch? It required an application, and if Jafri made the cut, there would be no trip to a formal kitchen. Instead, he’d share a lesson over a Google Hangout with eight or nine others.
The unusual set-up is not so unusual given the group behind the class: the Pittsburgh art-installation-turned-restaurant, Conflict Kitchen. Founded in 2010, the take-out-only restaurant focuses on cuisines of countries with which the U.S. is in conflict. It changes menus every three to seven months, says co-founder Dawn Weleski. The inaugural menu was Persian but other menus have focused on the cuisines of Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela, and Palestine. Later this year, organizers plan to switch to a pan-continental menu based on indigenous cuisines from around the world.
The idea, says Weleski, is to “start from the questions that average Americans have” about life and politics abroad, and use “food as a medium to bring people together to talk about difficult topics.” In virtual classes, said Weleski, the chef acts not only as a culinary instructor, but as a storyteller about their country, too.
So when Razi got into the class, and spent a snowy Detroit morning cooking at home, food was only the first part of the discussion.
The class began with introductions and a smattering of cooking advice. Bahar Sarhangi, dressed in her chef whites and streaming from her apartment kitchen in Tehran, introduced the dish to Jafri and nine other cooks from a laptop perched on an overturned stockpot. They would be cooking Khoresht-e Bademjan, a lamb and eggplant stew that Sarhangi says is one of her favorites. In Iran, it was nearly 9 p.m.
Everyone got to work, dicing lamb, brining eggplant and sautéing onions, peeling and chopping tomatoes, working from whatever they’d bought off the shopping list provided by Conflict Kitchen before the class. On the Google hangout screen, a mosaic of kitchens buzzed along, showing the progress of the cooks: three artists in Berlin (6:30 p.m.), another in Melbourne, Australia (5 a.m.), and one in Chicago (12 p.m.); an American living in Vienna (7 p.m.); an Indian food blogger in Queens, NY (1 p.m.); a Brooklyn “food enthusiast;” a documentary filmmaker in California (10 a.m.); and, finally, Jafri (1 p.m.). Spices and wine were added, although some—including Jafri, who is Muslim—traded water or lemon juice for the alcohol.
As meat and vegetables settled into pots to cook, the discussion turned from ingredients to Iran itself. Prior to the class, says Jafri, organizers had cautioned students from asking overtly political questions, out of concern for Sarhangi.
The American in Vienna wondered what kinds of outdoor exercise could women in Iran do, especially given dress codes? The answer: There are parks with hours set aside for women to go without covering themselves.
What about restaurants and fusion cooking, asked the food blogger from New York. Is Iranian cuisine changing, and how busy are restaurants? The answers: Yes, there is a burgeoning fusion scene, changing Iranian cuisine in the process, and restaurants are doing well.
And why go back to Iran, asked Jafri. How did Tehran feel now that the nuclear deal had been signed, and economic sanctions lifted? Was there a comparison to the energy and excitement he saw in Detroit?
Sarhangi paused. She’d returned to Iran to run a restaurant, she said and had met a few people who’d returned to run businesses, too; there were more and more of them. “Mostly they’re back because the economy is growing,” she said. “They are very cautious but optimistic.”
The class turned back to the dish at hand. Saffron infused rice steamed away on eight stovetops. The cooked eggplant was stirred into pots of lamb and tomatoes. Cinnamon perfumed the kitchens. Cooks took pictures of their progress with cell phones and sent them out over social media.
What was fast food like in Iran? (Answer: Burgers and pizza are common—as are “bootleg” versions of American chains—but Iranians still eat kuku andkebab on the go, and Sarhangi had heard a rumor than Fatburger is coming to Tehran now that sanctions are lifted.)
Who works in restaurants, is it a lot of undocumented migrants, as it is in the U.S.? (Mostly Iranians; borders have been tight.)
Do people shop at farmer’s markets? (Not really, mostly just supermarkets.)
Surely Iranians used fewer pesticides than American farmers, because life isless modern? (No, Iranian farmers use modern chemicals, too.)
Two hours after beginning, the stew was ready, a ruddy sauce puddled with drops of oil and smelling sweetly of spice. From Tehran, Sarhangi’s video feed showed her sitting down with friends around her apartment table, digging into a pile of rice and a pot of stew.
And in eight other cities around the world, the latest recruits for Conflict Kitchen did the same.