When Layla Yarjani thinks of Iran, she thinks of ice-creams by the Caspian Sea and eating beef tongue sandwiches with her dad in a Tehran cafe. She remembers the warmth and community spirit: the bustle of noisy dinner parties with neighbours, everyone reaching across one another for spoonfuls of Persian stew; and afternoons playing football with the boys on her street.
She also remembers the strict rules beyond her happy bubble: the ban on her mother leaving the country without a man’s permission; being ordered to chant “death to America” at school and the day she was scolded by teachers for wearing a Disney princess backpack, because the character’s hair was not covered by a headscarf.
“I remember the restrictions, the lack of freedom, the limitations women have had to live under for decades,” Yarjani, now 33, says. “But I also have very vivid and fond memories of the people, the culture, the kindness and the hospitality.”
It is this other side of Iran that Yarjani is hoping to highlight through #CookForIran, a social cooking movement launched as protests continue to rage in the Islamic Republic, sparked by the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by morality police for allegedly breaking strict rules on hijabs.
The protests have since evolved into wider demonstrations against the regime and led to a brutal government crackdown, with an estimated 15,000 people reported to have been 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 say he was shot in a night of violence in south-western Iran on Wednesday.
“My heart is clenched seeing the news,” says Yarjani, who now lives between London and New York and has been watching from afar. “We all put on a smile and compose ourselves and process our emotions and show up for life in the west, but I think Iranian people … our hearts are aching for Iran right now. I felt conflicted personally not taking action.”
Launching this month, #CookForIran is the latest in a series of initiatives that seek to engage people on social issues 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 experiment with Syrian and Ukrainian recipes and restaurants, #CookForIran calls for “human rights and freedom” in the Islamic Republic and aims to highlight the women who have died fighting for their rights.
Over bowls of Persian pomegranate and walnut stew, or between mouthfuls of nutty, fudge-like halva, people will be more inclined to talk about the protests and then spread the word – or so the thinking goes.
“When the news is on repeat, people are like, ‘Oh, another huge protest in Iran. More young people killed in Iran,’ and they start to be desensitised,” Yarjani says. “So we wanted to enliven the energy and bring a whole new group of people that were not previously talking about Iran to talk about it. In my personal experience, food and culture are the most effective ways to connect.”
So far, the campaign has won support from culinary figures including Yotam Ottolenghi, the celebrity chef who runs seven London restaurants; Nasim Alikhani, owner of Sofreh in New York; Kian Samyani, founder of Berenjak in London’s Soho, and the recipe developer Mersedeh Prewer. “The more the regime is watched, questioned and challenged by the international community, the chance of survival of the protesters increases,” Prewer said in a post announcing her support. “The key objective is to keep the dialogue going,” she added, signing off with the words chanted by protesters: “Zan Zendagi Azadi” – “women, life, freedom”.
Restaurants and cafes around the world are also taking part by adding dishes to their menus or running special events, including Yarjani’s own family restaurant in Texas. In the UK, the Coffee Hut in Helston, Cornwall, is temporarily offering khorak, a green bean stew, with basmati rice and a warm pitta bread, while the Koocha Mezze Bar in Bristol has added gheymeh, a split pea stew. In London, Michelin-starred Behind in Hackney is throwing a special supper club event in January, and Imad’s Syrian Kitchen in Soho is offering a limited edition shole zard, a traditional saffron rice pudding.
People are being encouraged to take part at home, throwing dinner parties or experimenting with historic Iranian cuisine, which draws on Middle Eastern influence and key ingredients such as saffron, pomegranate, pistachios, rose petals and turmeric. Recipes, including pistachio and pomegranate turkey meatballs, are available on #CookForIran’s 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 it’s always followed by Persian tea,” she adds.
The campaign’s creators hope it has the ingredients needed keep the protest movement in the public eye while garnering global attention for Iranian culture and cuisine.
#CookForUkraine won the backing of 292 restaurants in the UK alone, and generated almost £2m. It also won the Editor’s award in the Observer Food Monthly Awards this year. #CookForSyria, which started as a supper club in 2016, led to more than 10,000 Syrian specials being served in restaurants from Hong Kong to Australia. Both campaigns also spawned successful cookbook ranges.
The Iran initiative is also raising funds, to provide trauma support for protesters. But most important is keeping the conversation going.
“By us paying attention to what’s happening in Iran, we are allowing time for the Iranian people to get the freedom that they’re asking for,” Yarjani says. “How fierce are these women that are out there fighting for their freedom? In the comfort of our home we can make a Persian dish to raise awareness; it’s the least we can do.”