Originally from Iran, Saghar has been living in Rome, Italy for the past eight years. Her blog is her laboratory where she creates and experiments with seasonal and natural food, and shares her photography and small DIYs. Lab Noon is a finalist in the 2015 SAVEUR Blog Awards for Best Special Interest Blog.
I’m so excited to have Saghar Setareh of Lab Noon here on the show today.
(*All images below are Saghar’s.)
On the Role of Food in Her Family:
I have grown up in a family where my parents have always cooked. My mom, especially being a housewife, she always cooked at home and she was very reluctant to let me get processed food and snacks at school. She was so strict about it that she often didn’t let me take my pocket money to school because she always baked cakes at home and she always gave me a lot of fruit because she was always quite obsessed with this.
While with my father, he’s a huge food lover but he doesn’t have that healthy sort of approach to food. He just loves really eating a lot so he also loves a lot of different types of fast foods. He experiments with cooking, and he just makes things up, which most of the times were great but sometimes just had some culinary disasters too.
That’s how I grew up. I have grown up mostly with homemade meals and then, from a certain point, also with a lot of junk food and fast food.
On the Food Culture in Iran:
I would say that it’s quite strong but since I came to Italy, I’m not so sure about it because I don’t think that the food culture is anywhere as strong as Italy.
People take a lot of take outs, even for big parties they order homemade food because there are, they call them “Kitchens.” There are people who make what they call homemade food and they bring everything to your house and so you don’t have to cook. Our food culture in Iran is all about abundance.
We are also famous for being very hospitable. That hospitality often translates to an overabundance of food, which a lot of time leads to also a lot of food waste which is not quite okay. But when we want to show that we care, there is always a lot of food and I mean literally a lot of food. We serve everything together. It’s not like I serve the starters first and then there comes different dishes. We serve everything together and people choose what to eat first and what to eat after that.
I would say we’re a very meat eater nation. So also the amount of meat in each type of dish is directly connected to the same thing. The more abundant the dish is with meat, it means that we usually care more and we’re more hospitable. Food is directly related to what kind of face we make, especially with our guests, something that people, neighbors, family would talk about in years to come if it’s a wedding or something like that.
On Iranian Cuisine:
The thing is that Iran is a huge country and it shares borders with Turkey that shares that Mediterranean type of cuisine. Then, on the other hand, with Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia which are connected to India and in the south to the Arab Middle Eastern countries. So it has taken a little bit from all of them.
But, in general, I would say the Iranian cuisine is very delicate. It’s not the image that some people might have of very spicy and strong flavors. The flavors in Iranian cooking are actually very delicate. The food is not very spicy, everything is very balanced. But I would say that, yes, without any doubt the most famous and the most appreciated Iranian dish is definitely the Persian Kebab, which is very different with the Turkish one, the döner one. It’s like a huge barbecue and, ironically, it’s something that usually always men do. And we have different sorts of kebab. One of the most famous ones is with minced meat. We have chicken kebabs. We have chopped rib kebabs that are very great.
We have very good restaurants. We have the rustic, old family restaurants who do them. We have luxurious restaurants who do them. And then we have all sorts of these different stews that we have with our rice because our rice is very famous, it’s similar to basmati rice. We’re very, very fussy about how we cook the rice and how the rice should be. I think even if not as fussy as Italians about their pasta, definitely not less.
We have these very beautiful mixed rices. Like now is the season for sour cherries, which people don’t even eat or I don’t see them selling that. We have this very beautiful mixed rice with sour cherries, a little bit of saffron and pistachios. Some people serve it with small meatballs, some people with saffron chicken or, actually, saffron chicken kebab or it depends. You can serve it with whatever you want. So we have these very, very particular rices that are interesting.
And there some rustic dishes and some elegant dishes. In the last, I would say, 30, 40 years or maybe more, we have adopted a lot of dishes that are actually not from Iran but in the course of the years, they have become so. Like we have this salad which is called salad Olivier or something like that which is actually a Russian dish. It’s the famous Russian potato salad. And if you ask Iranians, most of them wouldn’t even know that the dish is Russian. Everybody thinks that this is Iranian for the amount of years that people have been preparing and eating it.
On a Dish that Reminds Her of Tehran:
There are so many. If we want to talk about something that I have on my blog, it’s something that I’d like to cook quite often because it’s very healthy, and it’s probably one of those Iranian dishes that I cook most often here because I don’t normally cook Iranian. It’s rice and lentils, which is called Adas Polo in Persian, in Farsi. And I just did it even in an Italian cooking show I was participating in because it’s so simple, so full of layers of flavors because you would think, rice and lentils what could that be? But there’s chopped fried onions with turmeric, and there is a little bit of saffron in the rice. There’s also raisins that are lightly toasted with some butter and a little bit of saffron. Everything is mixed together with a little bit of cinnamon.
So from the most simple ingredient, this one is actually a very poor dish but it turns out to be a very tasty and a very nutritious dish. If I have it, I usually have this with yogurt because we have this sort of thing that we mix rice with yogurt. It’s even said that it’s not the nicest thing to do if you are at a party or in a wedding, it’s not nice to add yogurt to your rice but it just works so well, the combination of yogurt and different sorts of spices. You can find it on my blog, too. I made some sort of risotto out of it. I mixed it with the Italian rice. That’s one of the dishes that reminds me a lot of my childhood among many other.
On Her Current Home, Rome, Italy:
What brought me to Rome was really chance because I was just graduating from university, and I had always wanted to go abroad and I had mainly thought about Europe. I came to know about coming to Italy as a student with a student visa and continue to study by chance, and I realized that it was quite an affordable way, especially comparing to other countries in the same situation. And I thought, “Okay let’s do this,” so I had actually never thought about Italy before that, before knowing about this.
I chose Rome simply because it’s the capital city and by my measurement of things, the Iranian way, the capital cities are always the best. So that’s how I chose the city, and I fell in love with it almost immediately. I’m very attached to the city. I notice that whenever I take tourists around, friends come from different parts of the world, friends of family, I take them around and I realize most of the times that I have seen these places. I have been there millions of times by now. I am still the one that is most enthusiastic about these places.
On Food Culture in Italy Versus Iran:
I think the attention and how Italian people care about their food is something very unique. That you wouldn’t find it anywhere else. I remember one of the things I was most amazed by the early months is that when you call somebody on the phone, a friend, your mom, your child and you’re talking on the phone, the first question is, “Hi, how are you?” Immediately, the second or the third question is, “Have you eaten?” and then, “What have you eaten?” This doesn’t happen anywhere else.
If you want to look at it from this point of view, no, there are not much similarities. But in terms of ingredients, sometimes there are some foods that remind you of some particular Iranian dishes while at the same time, the cooking is very different because Italian cooking is all about the simplicity, few ingredients, few great ingredients. So it’s all about the original ingredient and just a few touches and you have a great dish. While in Iran, we have even the most simple dish of all, you always have some onions somewhere, some spices somewhere, some turmeric or something. So Iranian cooking is more complex and definitely it takes much more time compared to some kinds of Italian cooking.
But, in terms of taste, I think that there are some dishes that recall each other. For example, there is this very, very, very Roman dish which is called coda alla vaccinara, which means the oxtail with tomato sauce. And it kind of tastes like. . . we have some sort of stew that we make with filet. I think it’s either sheep filet or maybe it’s beef. I’m not sure. But they kind of … with sauce and everything, they kind of taste the same but we would serve it with rice. These are the dishes that are most similar.
On Her Blog:
The blog was and still is connected to the other side of my life, which is graphic design because I have studied graphic design and I have been a graphic designer for so many years now. I was searching and I stumbled upon many different food blogs, I was awed by the beauty of the pictures. And I had the critic eye, I would say, to recognize composition and the graphic element actually. That’s why I was not really surprised when I read about these people and most of them were graphic designers or designers of some sort. I said, “Oh my God this is really cool!” It’s a great way to express creativity and it’s a great way to create this sort of window through the world.
And it’s a perfect way to combine these two sorts of passion also because, before actually launching the blog, one of projects in my specialist course, my Master’s course in Graphic Design and Photography, was about the design of a food event. So I had already done a lot of graphic material for this, and I realized that I loved this. This is something that I wanted to do not only in the process of recipe developing but also in the process of the graphic design. That’s how I thought, “Okay, let’s do this.” Although Lab Noon was initially not intended to be only a food blog, actually I intended to create more. By the time I actually launched the blog, it kind of found its own way just as time went by. Also because I realized that it needs a huge amount of time to create high quality content, from the idea of the recipe to developing it, shooting, editing and the text and everything and then I have to also translate it.
The blog was meant to be in three languages, English, Italian and Persian. Eventually, right in the very early month I realized this is not going to be possible. So I almost immediately omitted the Persian. Right now I struggle to write the Italian part because it’s not very easy to me, but I try. So I think it’s something that puts everything together for me. Actually, I get my final project, my thesis in this semester of university. I created a cookbook with my own photos and recipes. Most of them have been already published on the blog by now, and it has become an interesting book speaking directly from the aesthetic and design point of view.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I always watch Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube, and that I found really, really entertaining. You learn a lot from it.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
There are so many of them. I am pretty much in love with this food blog called Hortus Natural Cooking. It was written by Valentina Solfrini who is an Italian girl who has lived a long amount of time in New York. She is amazing, very inspiring.
The other blog that I really like is The Vanilla Bean Blog. I really like it, especially for the dessert. She’s also a fellow SAVEUR finalist.
I love a friend of mine who is actually, it’s not quite a blog, but she has this little food strategy company that is really amazing, and it’s called WE Factory.
If you want to know more about some good Persian cooking, there is another blog who was another SAVEUR finalist a couple of years ago, who’s called Bottom of the Pot. I think these are really good.
There are too many of them. I could make a list that would never end.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook that make you happy?
I follow way too many people. People who make me really happy, especially in the terms of photography, one of them is Call Me Cupcake, the blog, by this amazing Swedish blogger who is called Linda.
The other one is by Beth Kirby who writes the Local Milk blog, and her photos are just out of the world. I also follow Two Red Bowls. I love them. My Blue and White Kitchen, I follow these people on almost all of their socials, and they are very good, especially in terms of the visual impact.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I don’t think I have any unusual because, especially once you’ve entered the world of food, nothing is really unusual. My most treasured item is definitely my saffron because it comes from Iran. My mom has made it for me, prepared it for me and it’s a tiny little box and a tiny little jar. It definitely is the most precious one.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
There are so many of them. I almost hated all sorts of vegetable and now I love them. Especially eggplant, I hated eggplant and now I love it.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
I have this cookbook called What Katie Ate, which is the name of the same blog by the Irish photographer and blogger Katie. I love her photography.
Another cookbook which has definitely made my life better, not now that I cook but when I was younger is actually a Persian cookbook. It’s a huge cookbook by Miss Roza Montazemi, Iranian lady who has this huge cookbook which is a must in all Iranian kitchens. Then the Italian ones, the Artusi cookbook, the very famous cookbook by Artusi about the Italian cooking. They’re very good.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
I love the Juno soundtrack, the movie, and there are some certain songs on that album that I get relaxed and say, “Okay let’s whip up something!”
On Keeping Posted with Saghar:
I would say that my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the most updated. Of course, the blog itself www.labnoon.com where you have most of the postings both in Italian and English, but I do have quite a lot of things on my socials that are not always updated on the blog.