Serving up memories of home
Taking refuge in the familiar, cooking dishes that reminded her of home, has led to Atoosa Sepehr’s first cookbook, writes Marie- Claire Digby
One fateful evening in 2007, Atoosa Sepehr was out with friends in her home town of Isfahan in central Iran, saying goodbye as she prepared to leave for a new job and a new life in the UK. The social gathering was interrupted by a phone call from her estranged husband, who informed her of his intention to prevent her from leaving the country.
“I called my mum and dad and they said get back home quickly. So I went back, packed my stuff, and we drove to Tehran, a seven- hour drive. We went straight to the airport. I was so lucky, there was a flight the same night to London. The next morning, he banned me from leaving the country.”
It wasn’t easy for her in those first days, weeks and months in London, she says. “Going to a country knowing that you’re going back [ home] is one thing, but going and knowing you’re not going back, you’re going to stay . . .”
In the period that followed her dramatic escape, Sepehr took refuge in the familiar, cooking dishes that reminded her of the home and the family from which she was separated. “Food was really important to me. When I was feeling lonely, missing my family, I cooked. I was calling my mum and my aunts, asking for recipes.”
Now divorced and living between London and Dublin with her Irish partner, Sepehr has put those dark days behind her. The former software engineer turned steel industry consultant and accountant, has just published her first cookbook, a compendium of Persian family recipes.
It is a beautifully produced and authoritative work, illustrated with stunning food photographs that Sepehr styled and shot herself. The images have the careful composition and appearance of still life paintings. It is all the more impressive when the author tells me that she began the project with no knowledge of photography.
Originally, her partner, who is a lecturer and professional photographer, was to shoot the book, “but he was doing his PhD and didn’t really have much time, so he spent an hour with me going through the technical things about the camera”.
Undaunted, Sepehr set up a studio in their home, scoured skips for pieces of distressed wood to turn into backdrop boards, and filled a whole room with props. “I was cooking in the morning, running with the food, before it got cold, to the studio, and taking the shots.”
Having moved on f r om t he s t eel import/ export company that brought her to the UK, Sepehr became an accountant, but she took a break from business to work on the book. “Sometimes in life you get to a point where you want to do something that you really like, and always wanted to do, but never had the chance to do, and for me it was [ bringing out] my creative side.”
She also wanted, in writing the book, to promote Iranian food and culture, “and show the other side of Iran because all we hear is the bad news”.
She now returns to Iran once or twice a year to visit her parents, who still live in Isfahan. “It is a beautiful country, and I miss the people. I go [ there] with my friends and they are amazed, because when people see you are a foreigner, they come to you and say, ‘ Why don’t you come to my home, or have you been here? Would you like me to take you? Have you done this?’”
She says that food, and hospitality, are at the core of life in her country of birth.
“I remember when I took my friend, my brother said to him, ‘ The first thing you need to remember when you go to somebody’s home in Iran and you are invited for lunch or dinner, is never empty your plate. Because as soon as you empty it, they’re going to fill it up again.’ ”
She and her partner plan to move to live in Ireland full- time in the next year or so, and she has been getting to grips with life here.
“I love the humour in Ireland, you know, the slagging. In the beginning, I wasn’t getting the slagging and I was quite defensive. It was like . . . ‘ Atoosa, we’re slagging, you need to learn.’ I am getting much better at it now.”
Robinson, £ 26