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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: The Push and Pull of Iranianness in and out of the Kitchen

By Ariana Damavandi, Center Communications and Social Media Manager

For many of us in the diaspora, being Iranian brings about a tension; a tension between bickering nation-states to which we pledge some sort of allegiance, a tension between cultures and codes-of-conduct, a tension between what to bring for lunch—kalbas with lavash or peanut butter and jelly. And while it’s not an inherently negative phenomenon in and of itself, it’s something diasporic Iranians often grapple with in some form or function. The same is true for food writer, cook, and recipe developer Andy Baraghani. He says this tension—a “push and pull relationship” to his Iranianness—has followed him throughout his life.

Andisheh, “Andy,” Baraghani was born and raised in Berkeley, CA. His mother and father came to the United States in 1977 for his father’s graduate studies, never planning to stay permanently. But as the story went for them—and of course for so many other Iranian Americans—the revolution erupted, dashing their plans of returning to Iran. But Baraghani believes that his parents “[ultimately] fell in love with the Bay Area. There was clearly a strong Iranian community here, and then eventually my sister was born, and so they had a lot more reason to stay,” he says. And twelve years after his parents arrived in the U.S., Baraghani was born.

Growing up and as a young boy, Baraghani was surrounded by Iranian culture, particularly Iranian food culture. Though his fascination with cooking seems almost innate (he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t fixated on the ritual of preparing and eating food), watching his family practice the diligent art of Persian cookery solidified the culinary foundation on which he would later build his career. “Both sides of the family cook, [but] in very different ways. I think my mom’s side knows a great deal about the backbone of Iranian cuisine. To me, that is the rice and the polos and all that, and I think my dad’s side—they’re very good at the preserves, the pickles, and the jams. I kind of had those two different things happening in my youth,” he says. In this way, his culture was an unquestioned and integral aspect of who he was.

However, as he continued to grow and mature, certain aspects of himself started to rise to the surface, pushing him down a different path. Relatively early on in his childhood, he began to realize that he was different from other boys his age. He didn’t have the same interests, or the same types of friends, and other boys took notice. In a 2018 piece he wrote for Bon Appétit, Baraghani recalled being teased and ostracized by classmates, causing him to recoil, to hide parts of himself. And around the same time, the events of September 11th, 2001 forced Baraghani to become, for the first time, acutely aware of his ethnic and racial identity, as well. He now had yet another part of himself under scrutiny. These tensions around his queerness and his Iranianness grew more intensely during that period.

Even while his relationship to his sexuality and ethnicity became distant and muffled, his relationship to food and cooking blossomed. In many ways, cooking for Baraghani had come to embody a certain kind of desire, refuge, peace, in a world that felt otherwise quite hostile to him. Through his teen years, he worked his way up in the highly influential Bay Area food scene, most notably at the renowned Berkeley flagship restaurant Chez Panisse. His time there undoubtedly added another layer to his culinary foundation, building on the lessons gleaned through family traditions. These combined experiences imbued in him a reverence for seasonality, locality, and an adoration of produce, all of which are characteristic of the “California Cuisine” Chez Panisse pioneered. While he went on to develop his own style and techniques in the kitchen, distinct from those of his family or the restaurants he’s worked in, these culinary virtues have remained prominent in all his cooking.

Eventually, Baraghani left the Bay Area for New York City, to attend New York University where he studied cultural anthropology. Thousands of miles away from home and separated from some of the harms of his past, Baraghani was finally able to come into his queerness. “I moved to New York very young for college and came out pretty quickly afterwards, and I think, while it didn’t happen immediately, I was able to kind of develop and have my own kind of new chosen family. [It wasn’t always easy, but] I feel very grateful for the process, to my family, to my friends, to the community,” he shares.

Baraghani eventually found his way into the New York food world, returning to restaurant work through the likes of Estela, a chic downtown bistro. As he continued to expand his curiosity about eating and cooking, he realized that he didn’t want to simply prepare food anymore—he also wanted to delve deeper and write about it. Despite never going to culinary school, Baraghani nurtured this curiosity and passion, allowing it to “kind of continue to expand, but now it went from beyond the kitchen. When I really started to write about food, whether that was about regional cuisines or travel, and I started to pivot from restaurants into food media, it wasn’t so much trying to cook dishes and serve to guests at restaurants,” says Baraghani. “It was about developing recipes that people will love and make at home and really learn from and see how I can empower the home cook,” he adds. This led him to an internship at the magazine Saveur, then later to Tasting Table, and then finally Bon Appétit, where he stayed on as a food editor for several years.

While writing about food and developing recipes at several of these esteemed publications, Baraghani was pulled back closer to his Iranian identity. Through his writing, he was able to see people open up to Iranian cuisine in a very tangible way. There was interest and intrigue in what it had to offer—golden rices, tangy fruits, fresh herbs. Generally speaking, sentiments about Iranians and other west Asian cultures were improving at that time, especially in comparison to the years immediately following 9/11. He acknowledges that these prejudices have not suddenly disappeared, noting that while he doesn’t expect pity from people, he does find it “interesting how we’re so quick to forget about how certain communities were treated post-9/11 and even five years ago.” He continues, “I also understand that this is my life, and what I’ve gone through. It’s my relationship with myself and my being, but I also am able to remove my emotional framework and understand that there are other Iranians, or people in the Middle East, [people] of other ethnicities or races, who have experienced far worse than I have. I want to establish awareness and acknowledgement, but also say that we all hurt in varying ways.”

Now on the heels of the release of his cookbook, The Cook You Want To Be, Baraghani continues to create a style of cooking that is inspired by not only his roots in Iranian and Bay Area cuisine, but his myriad experiences in professional and home kitchens around the world. As he reflects on the process of writing the book, he recalls the difficulty he felt putting something like this together during a pandemic. As someone very influenced “by going outward and exploring and being inspired by other people and places and different spaces, on my end, it was hard for me to ‘go there,’ but I’m very happy that I actually did have to go to those darker, harder places,” he notes. The result is a book that doesn’t feel heavy or intense, but is still true to his tastes and perspectives. Baraghani hopes that he can share his knowledge and experiences with readers, saying “throughout my life, I’ve been able to gather these lessons through my Iranian upbringing, my travels all over the world, my time in restaurants, and, my time in food media. I think my goal was for this book to distill these lessons and pass them on to the reader, to the home cook, and empower them so they can develop their own kind of cooking style and approach in the kitchen.”

We are indeed proud of this Bay Area Iranian-American son, and of the ways he’s built a foundation that recognizes all the parts of his unique identity and is sharing them with others.

You can purchase The Cook You Want To Be: Everyday Recipes to Impress through, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite local bookseller.

Reprinted from The Cook You Want To Be. Copyright © 2022 Andy Baraghani Photographs copyright © 2022 Graydon Herriott. Published by Lorena Jones, an imprint of Random House.

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