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Growing up Iranian American, she didn’t feel ‘enough’ for either culture. Here’s how her mom helped her find home

By Zamira Rahim, CNN

(CNN) — Roya Shariat doesn’t think of her cookbook “Maman and Me” as a Middle Eastern book. She co-wrote it with her mother, Gita Sadeh, and each page unfolds an Iranian-American recipe with gentle, firm affection.

Some of the dishes are classically Iranian, such as the tahdigs that helped the pair run up millions of TikTok views during the pandemic. Others carry Western influences – a clever recipe for orange and cardamom French Toast has been a particular favourite with readers.

Shariat knows the book will likely end up classified as Middle Eastern. The term is loosely used to refer to countries that span from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula to Iran. In her cookbook, Shariat suggests the fitting term for the region is “Southwest Asia.”

“The term Middle East was coined by the British,” she says. “You think about those two words; they’re quite meaningless, unless you’re thinking … from a Western point of view.” She says she felt it was important to be intentional with the language she used on the page.

Shariat has never been to Iran, a country her parents left in 1985 for the United States, though she says she’d love to visit someday. The 30-year-old grew up in Maryland but her connection with her heritage is rooted in cooking.

For Gita Sadeh, food was a way to connect with a country she’d left behind, according to her daughter.

“[Maman] would say… as soon as she was tall enough to reach the stove, she was next to it, helping her own mom cook,” Shariat says. “And she just had a natural gravitation to the kitchen from a young age.”

Sadeh moved to Tehran for university, where her knack for throwing together basic student fare such as eggs and rice or soup developed into composing extravagant meals for her friends. When building a new life in America, she cooked Iranian and Western dishes, finding a link to her past within her kitchen.

Food and language

Shariat’s own culinary journey was similar. The writer picked up the basics while in and out of her mom’s kitchen at a young age. The French Toast with a twist from the book has its roots in a Mommy and Me cooking class the pair took when Shariat was a small child.

“For me growing up in America [and] growing up outside of Iran, food was that lifeline to [the country]. Food and language,” Shariat says.

“Being able to speak Farsi and being able to recreate the recipes and cook, was a connection to home,” she adds.

“When you’re a third-culture kid, you’re not quite American enough but you’re not also quite Iranian enough for either group of people and you need to find something that keeps you grounded and rooted and feels like a tether to home. Food was definitely that for me.”

The Glossier beauty brand executive had always dreamed of writing her own cookbook but her ideas came to fruition when she began posting TikToks from her mother’s kitchen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’ve wanted to write a cookbook since I was a teenager,” Shariat says. “But it was during the pandemic that I started taking videos of my mom’s cooking [and] my mom’s beautiful tahdig.”

The writer had gone home to her parents for Iranian new year, which coincided with the early days of the pandemic. Shariat ended up spending two months in Maryland. She said she knew that this time, when she was hunkered down with her folks as an adult, was special.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get this time back,” she says. She started taking lots of photos and videos, latching on in particular to fun clips of her mom in the kitchen. TikTok was surging in popularity at the time, spurred on by droves of people who were also isolating at home.

A few videos in, Shariat posted a video of her mom making a simple chicken stew. The video went viral and Shariat’s account gained several thousand followers. Three years on, the account is close to 200,000 followers and the short videos have been viewed millions of times. Shariat has also started a beloved Instagram page called “Maman and Me” and the online success bloomed into the much-hoped-for book, which has the same name.

Third-culture cooking

The pair’s viewers delight in Sadeh bustling around the kitchen, in the mother and daughter banter and the specificity of third-culture cooking, which is infused with longing for an old land while standing in a new one. It is easy to see why Shariat hopes a cooking show could follow the book.

“People became fascinated with my mom,” Shariat says. “People call her ‘our mom.’ They wanted to see her cooking. This community rallied around her.”

Sadeh, who is not on TikTok, was startled and entertained by the sudden burst of fame.

“She and my dad were amazed,” Shariat says. She updates her parents on particular TikTok highlights or view milestones. “[My mom] laughs, she cries, she tells me what to say in comment replies!”

The book is as much for Shariat’s generation as it is for Sadeh’s, reflecting as it does a mix of Iranian and Iranian-American dishes. It is also a consummately millennial cookbook; there are traditional stews and rice dishes but these are balanced with tips on how to throw together an easy weeknight dinner. There are also pages dedicated to great snacks, cocktails and finger food ideas such as the Chips and Greek Yogurt Dip recipe that Shariat names as one of her favourites.

Other highlights include a spiced red lentil soup made with garlic, cumin and turmeric and a turmeric rice dish that Shariat describes as a “one-pot wonder.” The dishes were photographed for the book by the Arab-American photographer Farrah Skeiky.

I ask Shariat what her mother, who has now lived for 38 years in the US, had to say when she saw the book for the first time. The writer tells me there’s a video of her parents seeing the book’s PDF for the first time. When they scrolled, the book’s dedication came up first. It reads: “This book is a tribute to all the immigrant parents and caretakers who left their homes for a foreign land….Maman and Baba, this one’s for you.”

“I showed them the dedication and you hear [Mom] reading it and her voice cracks and she immediately starts crying,” Shariat says.

“Everything I feel like I do is to thank [my parents] for their immense courage [and] tenacity – all of the amazing things that immigrant parents so often give to their children.”

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