By Nader Mehravari, Center Foodways Research Fellow
Scholars around the world have been discussing food for a long time. However, “food studies” as a formal, ‘serious,’ academic field of study in global institutions of higher education was recognized only 30 years ago or so. Since then, the field has evolved and been influenced by an array of influences and disciplinary foci that are the result of cultural, political, intellectual, and environmental movements. Food Studies is today a highly interdisciplinary field (arguably even a discipline) with a wide reach beyond academia. Despite this, studies of food within Iranian and Persianate communities (whether domestic or diasporic) have only been minimally explored. Dr. Amir Sayadabdi, a faculty member at the Anthropology Department at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, is on a mission to remedy this.
Sayadabdi was born on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the city of Bandar-Anzali in the northern Iranian province of Gilān and was raised in Tehran. He first became interested in food studies as an undergraduate, but even more so while studying for his master’s degree at the University of Stavanger in Norway. In his thesis, which won the Norwegian Cookbook Museum Scholarship, he explored the ways in which cookbooks can reflect the social, cultural, and historical aspects of the society in which they were written. Sayadabdi recalls that “while studying Norwegian cookbooks published between 1920 and 1960, I noticed that although over the years the cookbooks did not explicitly talk about major world events and/or social movements such as WWI and WWII, the great depression, feminist and gay rights movements, etc. recipes were implicitly evolved to account for their impact on the society.” He adds that they often “offered ingredient substitution to account for food shortages, or shifting their discourse around gender relations, national ideologies, consumption patterns, and so on…” These observations became the genesis of his interest in the field of Food Studies.
Sayadabdi’s PhD research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch focused on the relationship between food, foodways, and identity within the Iranian diaspora of Aotearoa, New Zealand, in which, he says he “undertook an examination of how food and food practices can be deployed by migrants as a means to effectively and innovatively operate in migratory sociocultural conditions.” For those migrants, he says, “food is also a means to both consciously and unconsciously negotiate multiple, and at times contradictory, aspects of their gender and/or national identity in diasporic contexts.”
Sayadabdi’s overarching academic interest is in Anthropology of Food and its intersection with gender studies, migration studies, and studies of race, ethnicity, and nationalism. But he is also interested in the cultural history of food and the ways food and foodways of the past have influenced, changed, and/or been informed by political and economic structures, institutions, and social pressures. One of his major contributions to this subject is a translation of the oldest surviving cookbook in Persian language (co-translated with Dr. Saman Hassibi of University of Canterbury) compiled in 1520 by a Mohammad Ali Bāvrachi Baghdādi who was the royal cook at the court of Shah Esmaeil of the Safavid Dynasty. “Every time we translated one more recipe, we learned more and more about Bāvrachi’s habits, his kitchen, his cooking utensils, and the available ingredients of the time…. it was like we were viewing 1520 Iran through his kitchen window,” Sayadabdi says. Although he is fluent in Persian, Sayadabdi says the translation of the Bāvrachi’s historic cookbook was a time-consuming challenge as it is written in the common prose of the time, using not-so-familiar and linguistically lost or obscure terminology for weights, measures, tools, and ingredients. Sayadabdi and his co-translator often had to revisit earlier translated recipes to correct and expand the translated text as they increased their insight into the book’s original language and vocabulary.
One of the key challenges of studying food within non-Western canon, is the lack of translated works – which is also true within the Iranian/Persianate contexts. With that in mind, Sayadabdi is also working slowly towards translating another historical cookery manuscript, by Jamāl-al-din Yahyā, known as Mofti Halvāyi, whose profession, as mentioned in the preface of the book and as apparent in his nickname, was confectionary (Halvā-pazi). The manuscript was completed during the early years of Qajar rule in 1798 and is consisted of 11 chapters, some of which give prescriptions for making traditional medicinal remedies and stimulants while others provide recipes for making various kinds of foods, drinks, soups, sweets and confectionaries, making the manuscript a significant reference to academic and individuals interested in the social and cultural history of food and medicine in Iran, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th century. Sayadabdi, along with his colleague Dr. Hassibi, are currently working on another project, for which they have been awarded a grant by the Culinary Historians of New York/Julia Child Foundation. The project concerns the fourteenth century satirical poet Sheikh Aboo Eshāqh Hallāhj Shiāazi – often referred to simply as “Boshaqh”—who used Persian kitchen terminology and culinary language of the period to create a unique style of poetry.
Coming from a long line of teachers and educators, Sayadabdi’s lifelong dream had been to have an academic position where he combines his love for teaching and research. “I consider myself very lucky to have my current position at the Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) where I have the chance not only to satisfy my love for teaching to some amazing students, but also to further expand my research,” he says. His peers and his academic department at VUW have been very supportive of his work. “I’m living the post-PhD dream,” he adds.
Sayadabdi teaches a wide range of courses such as “Ritual and Collective Life,” “Migration, Culture, Identity,” “Gender, Sexuality, and Kinship,” “Capitalism, Culture, and Inequality,” and “Anthropology for Liberation.” Recently, Sayadabdi has been teaching an honors program, titled “Current Directions in Anthropological Thought” which focuses on Anthropology of Food. In addition to expanding his teaching portfolio, Sayadabdi’s academic research portfolio is increasingly attending to issues such as food security, food justice, food poverty, and food sovereignty in New Zealand. He is also a board member of the Association for the Studies of Food and Society (ASFS).
While expanding the scope of his teaching and research, Sayadabdi remains focused and dedicated to supporting a more formal expansion of Food Studies that includes food and culinary cultures of Iran, surrounding Persianate societies, as well as Iranian diaspora communities around the world. In parallel, through publications and collaborative work with Iranologists and Iranian Studies centers around the world, Sayadabdi seeks to expand Food Studies (and Anthropology of Food) that address the cultures and people of the Persianate and Iranian world.