Women, Life, Freedom, Food: Chefs Spread the News of Iran’s Protests | Iran

wThinking of ice cream by the Caspian Sea and eating beef sandwiches with her dad in a Tehran café, Layla Yarjani, a hen in Iran, thinks of ice cream by the Caspian Sea. She remembers the warmth and community spirit: the hustle and bustle of boisterous dinner parties with neighbours, everyone reaching across to each other for spoonfuls of Persian soup; And in the afternoon they play soccer with the boys on her street.

She also remembers the strict rules beyond her happy bubble: forbidding her mother to leave the country without a man’s permission; They were ordered to chant “Death to America” ​​at school and on the day she was reprimanded by teachers for wearing a Disney Princess backpack, because the character’s hair was not covered by a veil.

“I remember the restrictions, the lack of freedom, the restrictions women had to live under for decades,” says Yarjani, 33. “But I also have very vivid and wonderful memories of the people, the culture, the kindness and hospitality.”

It is the other side of Iran that Yarjani hopes to highlight with #CookForIran, a social cooking movement that took off as protests continued to rage in the Islamic Republic, sparked by the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. by the morality police for allegedly violating the strict rules of hijab.

Since then, the protests have evolved into broader demonstrations against the regime and led to a brutal government crackdown, with an estimated 15,000 people reportedly arrested, 2,000 charged, and five sentenced to death. More than 400 others have been killed in clashes with security forces, including a nine-year-old boy whose family says he was shot in a night of violence in southwestern Iran on Wednesday.

Yotam Ottolenghi, who runs seven restaurants in London, is supporting the campaign. Photograph: Manuel Vazquez/The Guardian

“My heart clung to see the news,” says Yarjani, who now lives between London and New York and has been watching the news from afar. “We all smile and believe in ourselves and process our feelings and show a lifetime of life in the West, but I think the Iranian people…our hearts are aching for Iran right now. I felt the struggle personally not to take action.”

Launched this month, #CookForIran is the latest in a series of initiatives that seek to engage people in social causes using food, and builds on the success of #CookForSyria and #CookForUkraine. Where those campaigns aimed to highlight the devastation of war, by encouraging people to try Syrian and Ukrainian recipes and restaurants, #CookForIran# calls for “human rights and freedom” in the Islamic Republic and aims to shine a light on the women who died fighting for them. rights.

Over bowls of Persian pomegranate-walnut soup, or among mounds of hazelnut-like halva, people would be more inclined to talk about protests then spread the word—or so the thinking goes.

“When the news gets repeated, people are like, ‘Oh, another huge protest in Iran.'” More young men are being killed in Iran, Yarejani says, “and they are starting to fumble.” So we wanted to revive the energy and bring in a whole new group of people who hadn’t talked about Iran before to talk about it. In my personal experience, food and culture are the most effective ways to connect.”

So far, the campaign has had the support of culinary personalities including Yotam Ottolenghi, a celebrity chef who runs seven restaurants in London. Nasim Alikhani, owner of a travel company in New York. Kian Samyani, founder of Berenjak in London’s Soho, and recipe developer Mersedeh Brewer. “The more the regime is seen, questioned, and challenged by the international community, the greater the chance that protesters will survive,” Brewer said in a post announcing her support. “The main goal is to continue the dialogue,” she added, signing the words chanted by the protesters: “Zan Zindagi Azadi” – “Women, life, freedom.”

Participants include Kian Samyani, founder of the Persian restaurant Berenjak in London's Soho.
Participants include Kian Samyani, founder of the Persian restaurant Berenjak in London’s Soho. Photograph: Valerie Martin/PR

Restaurants and cafes around the world are also getting involved by adding dishes to their menus or running special events, including Yarjani Family Restaurant in Texas. In the UK, the Coffee Hut in Helston, Cornwall, is temporarily serving khorak, a green bean stew, with basmati rice and warm pita bread, while the Koocha Mezze Bar in Bristol has added geymeh, a pea stew. In London, Michelin-starred Behind in Hackney is holding a special supper club event in January, and Emad’s Syrian Kitchen in Soho is serving up a limited-edition mini zard, a traditional saffron rice dessert.

People are encouraged to take part at home, hold dinner parties or try the historical Iranian cuisine, which draws on Middle Eastern influence and key ingredients such as saffron, pomegranate, pistachios, rose petals and turmeric. Recipes, including Turkey Meatballs with Pistachio and Pomegranate, are available on the #CookForIran website. For a successful Iranian-style dinner party, Yarjani recommends having fresh herbs and pickles on the table, and inviting lots of people. “Dinner is usually long, and always followed by Persian tea,” she adds.

The campaign’s creators hope it will contain the ingredients needed to keep the protest movement in the public eye while drawing global attention to Iranian culture and cuisine.

#CookForUkraine won the support of 292 restaurants in the UK alone, generating nearly £2 million. It also won the Editor’s Choice award at the Monthly Observer Food of the Year Awards. #CookForSyria#, which started as a dinner club in 2016, has led to more than 10,000 Syrian specials being served in restaurants from Hong Kong to Australia. Both campaigns also produced successful cookbook ranges.

The Iran Initiative is also raising money to provide trauma support to protesters. But the most important thing is to keep the conversation going.

“By paying attention to what is happening in Iran, we are giving time for the Iranian people to get the freedom they demand,” says Yarjani. “How fierce are these women fighting for their freedom? In the comfort of our own home, we can make a Persian dish to raise awareness; it’s the least we can do.”

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