Words & Photos: Afsaneh Kaviani [twitter] @afsanehkaviani
After moving to the UK forty years ago, Afsaneh Kaviani has since made Leeds her home. Showcasing her Iranian roots with joyous Persian cooking, Afsaneh appeared on Masterchef and now hosts her own supper clubs. She tells her story here of home comforts, from Persia to Leeds…
As the days get shorter, this time of year is full of mixed emotions for me, as it always takes me back to that cold and rainy October evening in the late 1970s, when I arrived in the UK having left my family and my home in Iran. Of course, autumn’s arrival also comes with the anticipation of hearty, warming food for those nights in.
Food plays a big part in Iranian life. I grew up watching my mum, aunties and grandma all cooking together and I remember coming home from school every day with the only thing on my mind being what was for lunch. We all shared a big house, which was always hectic until it came to lunch time, when everyone focused on the food. We children were on our best behaviour as we were warned that if we misbehaved, we wouldn’t get our share of tahdig! Those that know the delights of the crunchy bottom of the rice can understand our obedience.
I was taught that every meal time is an occasion to celebrate and to show respect – respect for the ingredients, for the recipes and traditions, and above all for the people you are cooking for. Persian cuisine is based on quality ingredients, simply and lovingly put together. We believe each flavour should keep its identity, so Persian food is simple, seasonal, generally not spicy, and typified by the use of fresh herbs and dried or fresh fruit.
Every region has their own dishes inspired by ingredients that are indigenous to their area.
Some favourites include slow-cooked stews (khoresh) such as Ghormeh sabzi (lamb with mixed herbs and dried limes), Fesenjaan (poultry or lamb in a sweet and sour walnut and pomegranate sauce), Gheymeh (lamb with lentils, tomatoes and dried limes).
Of course, rice is the centrepiece of every dining table, and not just a side dish. My grandma used to say, if you can cook rice perfectly and chop your herbs finely, you are ready to get married! Colder weather always meant Aash (a hearty soup with fresh herbs, pulses and grains that comes in many variations). Every time heavy rain pounded the windows, my mum would say that it was reminding us to make Aash!
When I first moved here, I remember having difficulty finding all the right ingredients, so my mum would send me food parcels. I always tried to recreate the tastes of my childhood but I soon came to the realisation that, even with all the years of practice and all the finest ingredients available, my mum’s cooking is still the best.
I made Leeds my home in the 1980s, it is where I have spent most of my life, and where my sons were born and raised. Although my roots are firmly tied to Iran, Leeds is not a second home but where I will spend the rest of my life.
After appearing on Masterchef in 2012, I discovered so many people interested to learn more about Persian food and culture. Determined to promote home cooked Persian food, I set up my own supper clubs, which I have been successfully running ever since. These days, I don’t find any problems finding ingredients locally and have a great array of fantastic produce in Leeds.
Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than sharing my food and culture with others! I am so happy to know I am playing my part in showcasing Persian food in a city so encouraging and supportive, and where diversity is celebrated.