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

The Irish Times Magazine - - FOOD -

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

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