Words and Images by Niloufar Haidari
‘Persepolis’ - or Takht-e-Jamshid as it is more commonly known by Iranians - was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire; its ruins are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Iran’s greatest tourist attraction. The word literally means ‘city of Persians’ and its earliest remains date back to 515 BC. It is also the name of a popular graphic novel and film by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian football team, and a Persian shop-cum-café in Peckham owned by Sally Butcher and her Iranian husband, “Mr Shopkeeper”.
It took me a while to figure out how I felt about Sally Butcher and her shop. When I first moved to Peckham I remember feeling excited when I spotted the little yellow building with its windows strung with coloured lights like the bustling neighbourhood of Farahzad (an area in Tehran famous for its rich berry gardens and traditional ghelyoon-spots overlooking the mountains). As an ethnic minority, particularly one from a very small community, there is an automatic feeling of pride that arises when you come across anyone repping your shit. Yes! Iranian food! In my younger and more foolish days, the fact that this white woman loved Iranian food and culture so much that she decided to open her own café would have made me even happier than had it been an actual Iranian (you know, the prestigious White Stamp of Approval that proves us and our weird foods to be human at last). But my initial glee at the existence of this small piece of Persia in Peckham was quickly replaced by a sense of uneasiness. Why is this red-haired white woman our biggest culinary representative? Whilst she has been interviewed and featured by the Guardian,Time Out and The Evening Standard to name a few, where are the famous Iranian chefs? Why is her husband’s name not on any of the books to give them even a slight bit of credibility? Obviously I am usually against men taking credit for shit they didn’t do or only partially contributed to (too much female erasure already happens in the creative industry) but let’s be real - she married him and consequently found out about the recipes that have led her to have four book deals.
Timeout, the number one fan of white people appropriating ethnic cuisine for money, describes the food served at Persepolis as “a liberal vegetarian interpretation of Iranian and Levantine dishes, with Peckham influences”. Levantine? Butcher herself describes her mission as “to bring Middle Eastern and Levantine cooking to South East London”. This is clear in the menu - despite naming the shop after Iran’s most prestigious heritage site and advertising themselves as all things Persian, most of the food isn’t actually Iranian. Despite popular assumptions about the Middle East, we’re not all the same. Both Persian culture and cuisine are incredibly different to that of our Arab neighbours. Our food is not spicy, we make use of herbs rather than spices and in fact many of our savoury foods are often leaning towards sweet. Finding an Iranian in Iran who even knows what hummus or halloumi are would prove a challenge, and yet there they are, taking centre stage on Persepolis’s menu. There is something really gross about ordering the meze platter and having it inexplicably arrive with a random pofak (basically the Iranian version of Wotsits) sitting on top whilst being told that it is “Iran’s favourite snack” by a long-haired white man who has probably never been to the country. (For the record, it’s not Iran’s favourite snack. It is one snack option among many. And it definitely would never be served in a restaurant on top of or with any food).
One rainy day, feeling nostalgic for home comforts but not wanting to travel across London to visit my mum, I decided to go to Persepolis. I ordered their “fragrant Persian tea with cardamom”. Persian tea is always made in a samovar with freshly brewed tea leaves, the cardamom is put into the teapot whilst the tea is brewing, meaning its rich flavours are infused into the tea itself. What arrived was a mug of hot water with an Ahmad Tea (Iran’s preferred brand of tea) teabag in it accompanied by two sad little cardamom seeds floating around. Aside from its inauthenticity and the offence it caused to my palette, it is embarrassing. To have a white woman appoint herself as the guardian of Persian food is bad enough, but to then not even bother with doing it properly? Fam. The Iranian diaspora in London is small, in South London it is even smaller. The small size means we have few outlets for representation: the fact that this cup of lukewarm water is representing my culture to hundreds, if not thousands of people who know no better is more than I can bear. It is widely accepted now that food is not just a source of nourishment: it is a sensory experience that can bring joy, feelings of warmth and care, the rush of childhood memories. Inauthentic ‘ethnic’ food basically tells us that our feelings and emotional connections don’t matter; our food, much like everything else we have ever cared about, is just another commodity to be profited from.
Butcher also has a range of books: Persia in Peckham, Veggiestan, Snackistan, and Salmagundi. Yes, I’m sure they come from a place of love and respect, that she’s spent years perfecting and tweaking the recipes to make them hers. But the food isn’t hers to perfect. She attempts to provide insight and background into Iranian cuisine, filling in the supposedly ignorant reader on when and why we eat certain things, but these segments read as voyeurism at its worst. Otherising sentences describing Iranian cuisine and the social norms surrounding it sound like David Attenborough narrating the behaviour and eating habits of a herd of exotic giraffes.
The debate around the difference between appreciation and appropriation is still far from over, but it does become a lot more clear-cut when profit is involved. You married an Iranian man and you fell in love with the food and the culture: good for you! But to take a leap from there to writing loosely-themed Iranian cookbooks and selling hampers of Persian spices named ‘Scents of the Orient’ (tagline: “to make your home smell that bit more mysterious…”) is a whole different thing entirely. No matter how noble her intentions, Butcher lacks any real affiliation or connection to Iranian culture and its food. She wasn’t raised on gheymeh and ghormeh sabzi, the recipes she so proudly sells in her books were not passed down to her by her mum, who in turn had them passed down to her from her own mother. There is no root, no love, no authenticity. And when there are so few us, hell, NONE of us visible in the culinary world whilst you have been appointed the living expert on Persian cuisine, this lack of authenticity matters. You are taking up space from those that have struggled to carve out a space in a hostile culture, from those who have spent years secretly bringing back herbs and spices and nabat from the homeland wrapped in their dirty laundry, from those who have had to fight so that their children didn’t grow up preferring potatoes to rice as the accompaniment to their meat.
As writer and artist Shin Yin Khor puts it in her comic ‘Just Eat It’, “Eat, but don’t expect a gold star for your gastronomical bravery. Eat, but don’t pretend that the food lends you cultural insight into our ‘exotic’ ways. Eat, but recognize that we’ve been eating too, and what is our sustenance isn’t your adventure story. Just – eat.”
Niloufar Haidari is also 5ft1 and a 2.5th generation Iranian born and raised in London. She spends her days writing for i-D and Noisey, but mostly dreams of booking a one way ticket to LA to live out her destiny as an adopted extra on Shahs of Sunset.