The primary reason Nasreen Zereshki wrote a cookbook, Recipes from My Persian Kitchen, and is crafting two more, is to maintain her culture and pass it along to her children and grandkids. She enjoys cooking for other people too, teaching cooking classes and dreaming of one day operating a food truck, but her secondary motivation for sharing her cuisine is cultural exposure.
“I also want Americans to get to know Persian people, and not just what they see on TV,” said Zereshki, who grew up about an hour from Tehran. “When you bring food, you bring people together.”
Zereshki, who first came to the United States for college in 1975 but returned to Iran before permanently settling in this country in 1994, said she sees it as her duty to educate Americans about Persian people and culture. With the kitchen as her classroom, she’s encountered plenty of eager students.
In Zereshki’s childhood home, the energy emanated from the kitchen. That’s where the excitement was in her family, and Zereshki begged to participate.
“I was the one, I was so insistent that my parents let me cook,” she said. “I always wanted to.”
Zereshki would shadow her grandmother, picking up sage advice along the way — some of it, like “Don’t ever throw a party that isn’t talked about later,” made its way into her cookbook. Quality food was always very important to her family, Zereshki said, and when she came to the United States in 1975, she brought her burgeoning skills with her.
On Friday or Saturday nights, her group of Iranian and American friends would gather, some of them pretty vocal about how eagerly they anticipated her cooking. But her culinary skill has never been her primary vocation; when she returned to Tehran, Zereshki studied to become an interpreter, and these days she continues that vocation working for Language Resources in Greensboro. She also runs her own hair salon, a small studio that shares some space with her fiancé’s insurance company on an unassuming commercial strip off Wendover Avenue.
She enjoys both lines of work, and said she finds interpreting rewarding because she’s helping people, but her passion then necessarily falls in the margins, though she’d like cooking to be the centerpiece.
“Cooking, it seems to me, it’s my best talent in my life,” Zereshki said.
She teaches a cooking class once a season, giving her insight into what Persian food people like the most, like a pomegranate walnut stew served over rice that she said Americans are “crazy for.”
The cookbook, like the imagined menu on her dream food truck, is an assortment of Persian and common American cuisine, stretching to include hamburger and spaghetti recipes that her American students prefer to the versions of the meals she grew up on. Recipes from My Persian Kitchen contains a whole section on kebabs and another on pickling and preserves, more than 150 recipes in all including easy dishes for inexperienced cooks, like a beets with yogurt appetizer and Grandmother’s Spinach Cucumber Dip.
Zereshki even makes a mango habanero cheesecake.
The cookbook is a reflection of her — sometimes she grows weary of Persian food, Zereshki said. The day we talked, she had made a spaghetti dish with squash, onion, zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. And her favorite restaurant, she said, is the Cheesecake Factory.
Persian food isn’t particularly spicy or strongly seasoned; the cuisine relies most on tumeric, pepper and cinnamon, she said. But Zereshki grows other things in her home garden, including basil, cilantro, parsley, oregano, jalapeño peppers and three kinds of mint. She’s particularly partial to red pepper flakes, she added, as well as garlic.
If Zereshki opened a food truck, she’d rely on that versatility to provide some of her most popular Persian dishes likely bolstered by sandwiches and soups, including her quite popular chicken soup. But until the dream is realized, the chicken soup is in the cookbook.
Her follow-up publications will focus on vegan/vegetarian fare and desserts respectively, with an emphasis on fast and simple recipes for both. Like Zereshki’s first, they’ll be a collection of Persian classics and beyond.
With Zereshki’s persistent effort to make her Persian heritage and culture so accessible through cuisine, it couldn’t be much easier to try and meet her part way.
Email Nasreen Z. Zereshki at [email protected] to ask about cooking classes or buy her cookbook directly, or find Recipes from My Persian Kitchen online from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.