American-born Iranians from my generation understand a few things as fact: We are expected to become doctors or engineers. Given the political situation in Iran in the 1980s, expats will watch a great deal of “World News Tonight.” Our parents will assimilate beautifully here, but our homes will seem so foreign, guests will practically require passports to enter.
Lastly, we grow up knowing that our food is not just good, but good for us.
Persian food is the ultimate comfort food; layered with subtle flavors and complex textures. Everything is home-cooked and usually homegrown. Iranian children are truly spoiled when it comes to food; it’s our cultural lottery.
To know an Iranian family in the U.S. or Iran is to be immediately invited to their home and feted as though you were just awarded a Nobel prize. The table will be laden with shish kabob, rice scented with jasmine and saffron-tinted.
There will be three or four different kinds of stew to ladle over the rice, and hearty platters of greens, onions and radishes will be served as garnish. Feta cheese with flat barbari bread and thick, rich yogurt will be served in individual bowls.
It may become one of the best meals you have ever had. Spoiler alert: we are not known for our sweets (too much rosewater). Fill up on dinner and enjoy some fruit.
As a child, this kind of glorious food, homemade, on a daily basis was an understood part of my Iranian upbringing. That, and graduate school.
Years later, as a physician, watching the skyrocketing numbers of obese, diabetic, hypertensive patients I see having limbs amputated, I thought about the healthy aging Iranians I knew.
Why were they not ill? Could this health disparity have something to do with the food here as opposed to “our” food here?
It comes as no surprise that in all age groups, and in all socioeconomic groups, weight has been increasing steadily in the United State since 1965. Indeed, over 40% of Americans are overweight, a 2020 study shows. Comparatively, Iran has a national obesity rate of 22%.
For me, the wheat, meat and eggs do taste different in Iran. In a recent Epicure article, the author struggles to find a cause, but there is no question that other nations do not allow nearly the preservatives and antibiotics in their farming that is allowed in the United States. The end result can seem tastier to many palates, and may actually result in smaller waistlines.
I began to consider some of those same assimilated Iranians I know. For all the ways in which they had become “American,” they never really changed their food choices or the way that they prepare it.
Their kitchens and gardens remained stocked with ingredients and herbs to make fresh food. My parents and their friends were the original “farm to table” crew.
And even as their children achieve any manner of the American dream here, their comfort and favorite food remain Persian. My children are no exception.
Many of those Iranian immigrants from the 1950s, who populate my childhood culinary memories, are now reaching their 80s and 90s. But for the most part, in any gathering of that generation, there will be few needing canes, wheelchairs, or oxygen tanks.
Most are healthy and will be discussing their recent world travels or trips to their second homes. Many are still actively working as physicians.
To be sure, Iranians who stayed in Iran did not enjoy that same expatriate longevity. Life in the U.S. was far more stress-free in important ways that did not involve food: freedom of thought and speech being tantamount.
Still, the health disparity seen in this small cohort of Persian food eaters in comparison to other patients in the United States deserves further thought and investigation. My guess is that it is not what we eat, but what is in what we eat that matters.
Perhaps we can begin by looking more closely at what is in our own pantries and refrigerators to decide what effect it might be having on our health.
In the meantime, I invite everyone to try Persian food. If nothing else, it really is very, very good.