Cooking can be a great humaniser of another culture.
My grandfather refused to eat garlic because that was food for Frenchmen and Arabs. But I mean something broader than that.
Our impressions of other countries are news driven. Not the countries we’ve visited, or whose films we watch, or whose clothes we wear, perhaps; but that still leaves whole continents we only know about in terms of wars, revolutions, famine, disease and abject poverty.
If you asked people what they thought if you said “Iran”, the list of topics would be short: oil and fundamentalist Islam. I’d be tempted by that answer myself. But I also own various cookbooks which tell me that Iranians eat dishes like a pilaf cooked so that the rice at the bottom forms a golden crusty base; or tea made from dried limes; or dishes flavoured with lots of mixed fresh herbs – dill, flat-leaved parley, mint, coriander. And they make meat dishes flavoured with fruit – duck with cherries, chicken with apricots.
I guess if you don’t cook a lot, especially food which is foreign to you, that might make Iran seem even more distant. For me, though, it transcends religion or language or culture and makes us all just human. I read these recipes, and my mouth waters. A dried lime pilaf doesn’t compensate for a lack of human rights – but it does bring out the shared experience of being human. The food of other cultures can seem forbidding – try cartilage on a stick or soy-fried grasshopper, if you’re in Japan – but the more you know how to do it, the more it just all becomes food.
I should stop before I become any more like “I’d like to teach the world to sing…”