By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Azar Akrami looked delighted as she took in the colorful cover of the newly published book, “Flavors from Home,” then turned to the chapter where she and her husband Ata are featured.
“It turns out so pretty,” she said to author Aimee Zaring. Akrami’s voice is distinguished by the accent that more than three decades of living in the United States has not been able to dull.
“Our kitchen looks more beautiful than it is,” she continued as she looked at the page on which she and Ata are pictured with a spread of Persian cuisine.
The Akramis — who fled their native Tehran, Iran, due to religious persecution — are two of 23 refugees featured in Zaring’s book which melds stories of survival, courage and triumph with recipes for comfort food from the distant homelands these refugees were forced to leave behind.
Zaring has taught English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to refugees and immigrants through Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Jefferson County Public Schools.
The idea for the book grew out of the potluck dinners she shared with students, many of whom were elderly. Zaring, said she thought it was important to record the recipes “while they were still closest to their native sources.”
While thinking about putting together a recipe book, Zaring said she realized she couldn’t present the dishes without telling the stories.
“To present these dishes without telling the stories of the refugees who lovingly prepared them would be like forgetting the saffron in the Persian rice dish tachin or omitting the hot chili peppers in the Bhutanese stew ema datshi,” wrote Zaring in her book, which she spent close to three years researching and writing.
Zaring said she watched the dishes featured in this book being prepared by the refugees in their homes. And she spent many hours re-creating the recipes in her own kitchen. She noted that most contributors didn’t cook from a written recipe or by measuring ingredients. Some, she said, didn’t understand what a recipe was.
As Azar Akrami sat in a booth at Shiraz Mediterranean Grill in Holiday Manor — one of four restaurants owned by the Akrami family— she told Zaring that the book was a good idea and that she didn’t think many like it had been published before.
The story of the Akramis’ lives as refugees began in 1979 when the persecution of members of the Baha’i faith reached a deadly peak, she said.
“They were killing so many Baha’i and many were friends,” Azar Akrami said, recalling a young dentist and good friend of the family who was killed.
Azar Akrami said she knew they had to leave because she couldn’t deny her faith and she couldn’t stand the thought of her young son being harmed. So they abandoned their home and comfortable life in Tehran where Azar worked as a psychologist and her husband was chief accountant for an international oil company.
They took a chance at freedom in the United States.
The couple knew very little English, but were familiar with the U.S. from visiting their eldest son, who was studying in this country at the time. Life was difficult, she recalled. They had nothing, but they were determined to re-build their lives, she said, even if it meant picking up pieces of old furniture to try and make their new home comfortable or working minimum wage jobs to sustain themselves.
Zaring wrote in her book that when refugees prepare native dishes in their new homes “it’s a way for them to find solace in an unfamiliar land … and reconnect with their personal past and preserve a sense of identity.”
For the Akramis, preparing their native food not only preserved a sense of connection to their native country — which Azar Akrami refers to as the “holy land” because of her Baha’i faith — but presented a means with which to secure a livelihood.
The couple’s love for cooking soon turned into a catering business which they operated from home. Some 20 years later, this business inspired Shiraz Mediterranean Grill and the fulfillment of the Akrami family’s American dream.