Iran Bans 'Foreign' Cooking on TV--But What Does 'Foreign' Mean?

The Islamic Republic of Iran has decreed that cooking shows on state television may not promote foreign cuisine and must showcase traditional Iranian food. The ruling, issued by the state broadcasting service, seeks to reduce Western influence in Iran and, according to the government, promote healthier eating.

What, then, is traditional Iranian food? The land currently occupied by the Islamic Republic has sat at a culinary crossroads for thousands of years and has absorbed the ingredients and techniques of several millennia of peregrinating outsiders. Where is the line delimiting foods that have been part of the Iranian diet for long enough to become traditional?
Hossein Hosseini, of the National Iranian-American Council and the Network of Iranian-American Professionals of Orange County, said there ought to not be any intervention. "Food is an individual choice, and I do not think, other than for health reasons, governments should have any say in it," he said. "[The] fact is, most modern-day Iranians are very open to the cuisines of other cultures. Traditionally, they have liked American, French and Italian cuisines."

Just where to draw the line between the loaned and the borrowed can be hard to figure out. Is kashk-e bademjan, a dish of roasted eggplants with whey, Persian? Or did they borrow it from the Arabic babaghannouj?

"I find this culinary nationalism stuff a bit tiresome," said Charles Perry, a noted Middle Eastern culinary historian, translator of the 1226 cooking compendium The Book of Dishes and the former food editor of the Los Angeles Times. "The fact is, Middle Eastern people have always followed the wise policy of stealing good culinary ideas wherever they find them. This entire ban flies in the face of immemorial tradition."

According to Perry, several dishes near to the hearts of Iranians have linguistic roots in other languages. Ghormeh sabzi, for example, a traditional herb topping for rice dishes, contains a Turkish word meaning "fried"; the split-pea stew known as khoresh gheimeh contains a Turkish word meaning "chopped." The saffron-tinged rice pudding served at dessert, shol-e zard, is an attempt to render the Mongolian word sholeh into Farsi, and the popular chicken salad known as olovieh is a corruption of salade Olivier, invented in Moscow, Perry said.

Perry points out that in order to wipe all traces of Western influence from the Iranian diet, the tea-loving people would have to give up their beloved samovars. "I don't think that would fly," he said.

It seems the Iranian government could garner more goodwill by actively promoting its excellent cuisine abroad, rather than trying to practice culinary security via obscurity.

For a primer on the Persian food available in Orange County, see our Ethnic Eating 101 series on Persian food, parts 1, 2 and 3.


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