I first met Nasrin at Taim, a Falafal chain in New York City where she was cooking on the occasion of the Refugee Food Festival. At first, Nasrin seemed anxious to me. I figured that was to be expected, given the festival’s attention. And then Nasrin tells me she is cooking falafel. Although it is definitely not her first time, it’s certainly the first time she is selling them. I tell myself “that would explain her slight anxiety”…
Nasrin is still new to New York City. Hailing here only two years ago from Iran, she spent two years first in Turkey before being resettled to the United States. When she first arrived, she could barely speak English, but cooking has always been her main expression. Nasrin tells me she learned to cook from her mother and grandmother. “Cooking is a way to bring people near you. Everyone loves eating”, she says with a wistful look in her eye. I immediately relate, I know in her mind, Nasrin is back in her childhood kitchen with her beloved family.
Nasrin tells me she has been cooking her whole life. For friends, family, at home and in exile, cooking has meant sharing to her – community. She tells me “cooking means love”, and that love transcends today in her new life in Queens where she’s seen frequently cooking for her landlord and neighbors. She says it’s part of her culture to cook for others, “I cannot cook for just a few people. Not just for us, but for friends, for neighbors.” Fesenjoon, a classic Iranian stew, is her absolute favorite. She tells me she still uses her grandmother’s recipe, the “best chef”, who taught her everything and made her Fesenjoon every birthday. Nasrin puts a twist on the recipe though. It’s traditionally made with walnuts, but she was inspired to try it with cashews and says her customers rave about its creamy quality. During the festival, she is also cooking at the high end French restaurant Le Coq Rico – New York, and of course, her special Fesenjoon dish is on the menu. Before that, she is offering an Iranian twist on falafel at Taim. Spicier, with extra coriander seeds that produce an extra zest and freshness, I can attest the Iranian inspiration pays off.
Nasrin says she feels lucky to earn a living cooking. She dreams of opening an Iranian restaurant in her new home, but she imagines one that offers a different view of Iran. She wants to share the Iran unseen, instead of kebabs and rice, she sees a place where people can mingle over drinks and desserts and a few special treats unknown to most Americans. It mirrors her thoughts on refugees. She says she wants people to know that “refugees are normal people.” “I want everyone to see that refugees are good people and doing the best for America.”. We see, and we agree.