Contesting Food: A Taste of Persia and the issue of Food Ownership

Former lawyer and cookbook author Naomi Duguid writes in the prologue of her book about a map in her office showing the Persian Empire under emperors Cyrus and Darius, which at the time encompassed not only the Iranian plateau but a great deal of the Caucasian regions. Though at first glance the title of her work leads the average reader to think her cookbook is a guide on how to prepare some of Iran’s most famous dishes, a further read reveals that Duguid considers not only Iran, but modern-day Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and even Iraqi Kurdistan to be part of a  “Persian culinary region”. Duguid treads lightly throughout the book, almost as if to acknowledge the precarious nature of placing these states, whose peoples have been and still are at odds with each other, as part of one cohesive culinary movement.

Though her book is beautifully photographed, the recipes comprehensive and vibrant, and the concept itself is incredibly unique, Duguid’s fusion of different ethnic foods into a single “Persian” basket shows a clear issue of interpretation. In a time where “world cuisines” and globalization are frequently placing ethnic food at the culinary forefront in the West, there has to be some responsibility in choosing the right vocabulary to talk about food. Without choosing the right words, we present a different, much larger picture of what cuisine is. And the wider this stretches, the more difficult becomes to define, and the greater the destruction this brings to local food cultures.

It is important to put the issue of the term “Persian” into perspective. Persian is a term used to refer to both a linguistic group and ethnicity, but this group is not exclusive to Iran. Within Iran, even from the beginning of the 20th century, Persian speakers only made up roughly half of the population. A census taken in Iran in 1900 showed that there were over 29 different tribes that practiced Islam, five different ethnic groups that were non-Muslims, and over five different major language groups. This occurred due to the Safavid empire (and many empires before that) constantly expanding the borders of what was called the “Persian” empire. The borders used to encompass much of present-day Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kurdish Iraq, and the subsequent wars of expansion saw many forced migrations of communities to present-day Iran, mainly Armenians, Azeris, Assyrians, and Georgians. Though now independent states (Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and Kurdistan establishing it’s first regional government in 1995) the realities of political domination are undoubtedly incredibly fresh for most of the people living in this region. However, even scholars of the food of region find these similarities almost impossible to ignore.

Duguid is not alone in her perceptions of a Persian culinary region that ties together regions beyond the confines of Iran. Author Bert Fregner argues for the existence of this Persian culinary region, consisting of the Caucasian region and the Iranian plateau to be exact. For Fregner, it was the flow of trade along the silk road that created these initial connections and similarities. Goods tended to flow largely east-west and not vice versa, which meant that whilst spices and plants from India would make it to the Mediterranean region, many of the plants discovered through the colonization of present-day South America would not reach Iran and the Caucasian region until much later in history.

Most of the cuisines in these regions don’t make heavy use of ingredients like tomato and paprika originating in South and Central America; their dishes clearly reflecting the plants and commodities available. Fruit preserves, rice, wheat, saffron and fresh herbs like cilantro and mint were all readily available ingredients, and are still key ingredients in dishes like “fesanjan” (an Iranian chicken stew with pomegranate molasses) or “dvoga” (an Azeri soup of yoghurt and wheat). For Fregner it was simply the availability and flow of trade that created these similarities, which makes it a much easier pill to swallow than the idea of shared history through occupation and forced migration. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that term “Persian” to classify the food of an Azeri or Armenian is a fairly blatant liberty taken by Duguid, because even if those similarities exist it is the specificities that create a more meaningful picture of what “local” cuisine is to those living in the country, and it is this meaningful representation that should be shared with the world.

The School of Tourism Management at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, conducted field studies dealing with the preservation of authentic food culture with anthropologists Guojun Zeng, Yongqiu Zhao, and Shuzhi Sun studying two restaurants in China’s Guangzhou region, both claiming to serve “northeastern” Chinese food. What they found is that one restaurant went to great lengths to achieve what they call “authentic food culture production”; a means of bringing elements of “locality” to the restaurant not only in the dishes served but in the selection of decor, etc. However, the other restaurant performed what they refer to as “differentiated food culture”; the dishes and other elements are selected to “meet the demand of the mass market” and thus make it very difficult to achieve any type of meaningful “locality” of the culture or region they claim to represent. For Zeng, Zhao, and Sun, establishments that practice “differentiated food culture”makes it very hard for authentic food cultures to survive both locally and on a translocal level, and because of mass consumerism and urbanization, these establishments are becoming more and more prominent .

This study clearly shows a symptom of what could turn into – and may already be turning into – a major issue in the sustainable development of food cultures. Food and recipes are, as anthropologist Gilian Crowther puts it, living “cultural artifacts”, or tangible forms of cultural representation in their ability to bring together many accepted “aesthetics and symbols”. Food intimately linked to memory, “capable of transporting [people]… back in time and place to moments with loved ones, which makes “disputes over ownership” particularly heated in most cases. Food is an incredibly important form of cultural representation because of it is so meaningful and accessible, and as such to have sustainable development of a culture the food and food cultures need to be preserved. Though Zeng, Zhao, and Sun’s study is done on a very small scale, it makes evident that this question of preservation is eminent and one to be taken seriously. The choices made by Duguid to categorize the recipes in her book as “Persian” may hold some degree of scholarly truth, but inevitably pose a great challenge to the need to make sure food cultures are understood and preserved in their specificity; to ensure that meaningful and specific representations remain at the forefront of this discussion of “international cuisine”.

The New York Times’ most recent list of best cookbooks includes nineteen books, twelve of which are guides to “international” cuisines ranging from the Basque country to the Philippines. Duguid’s book is part of a larger phenomenon, but a phenomenon that can prove very problematic when authority is placed in the wrong hands. An article published in the Guardian by Vanessa Thorpe exposed the controversy around the widely read British Sainsbury magazine’s October issue. The cover of the issue showed what Thorpe described as a “clear attempt to broaden readers’ horizons” with a dish named “Golden Persian Curry”, a dish that was supposedly inspired by Persian cuisine. This dish was met with considerable and somewhat merited backlash as the UK’s Persian community rightly pointing out the issue of calling a “curry” dish Persian. Not only does the concept of a curry not exist in Persian cuisine, but the author’s “inspiration” was clearly poorly researched. What was perhaps an attempt to be more inclusive was taken by many to be an example of “lazy, casual racism”

Though the intention is hard to interpret, the example of Sainsbury’s recipe very much brings Crowther’s assertions about the importance of food to light.

The author claimed that her dish was inspired by“ ‘two traditional [Persian] stews – khoresh and fesenjan’” (khoresh simply being the name for stew in Persian), and a Persian reader remarked the recipe’s total mistreatment of saffron within the dish (the recipe had the saffron stew for 90 minutes, instead of adding the spice at the end as is customary in Persian cuisine). This issue of interpretation, or even ownership, that presents itself in not only Duguid’s book but the Sainsbury article as well is just one of many symptoms of the blurred culinary lines that are developing in our increasingly globalized world. Food is to be seen as an important and meaningful part of a culture’s patrimony, and as such labels, names, and techniques are not to be thrown around without consideration of history and specificity. Though it is normal and in fact good to learn and write about the cuisines of others, it is equally important to include in that conversation the voices and opinions of those being written about. Authors like Duguid need to realize the place they have in this issue of food conservation and should begin to take more care in how they are representing those they write about.


Duguid, Naomi. Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan. New York: Artisan, 2016.

Zeng, Guojun, Yongqiu Zhao, and Shuzhi Sun. “Sustainable Development Mechanism of Food Culture’s Translocal Production Based on Authenticity.” Sustainability 6, (2014): 7030-7047. doi: 10.3390/su6107030.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Catalyst editorial board, the IDSSA, or McGill University.

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