We’re many of us guilty of spending hours watching cooking shows, and Dubai-based chef and cookbook author Ariana Bundy is no different. Except that two years ago, she finally turned off the endless series of burger-in-a-doughnut shows and decided to do her own show — in Iran.
Bundy, an Iranian-American who has been living in Dubai with her family for six years, has a unique position: She is able to travel and film in Iran with relative ease, something a Western presenter wouldn’t be able to do; being an English-speaking cooking personality, she is in a position to showcase the country’s incredible history, culture and cuisine to an audience that’s craving new flavours.
“I’ve been wanting this for ages,” said Bundy, sitting in her Dubai living room sipping sekanjebeen, a refreshing sweet-sour mint drink that she’s spiked with chia seeds. “I approached production houses in the UK and they were very interested in doing something but they were all quite nervous about it. I went ahead and said ‘you know what? I am going to do it myself.’ I hired a crew and got a producer and a cameraman. I did very little pre-production, I wasn’t prepared but I went for it.”
The result of two years’ work is Ariana’s Persian Kitchen, an eight-episode series exploring Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd and the Caspian region, taking in rose festivals, rice, pomegranate and saffron harvests and fairy floss. The show airs from May 8 on the Nat Geo People channel.
It was a self-funded labour of love for Bundy (who makes sure to give a shout-out to her husband: “He really brought it together for me”). She had never produced a TV series before, but wasn’t going to wait any longer for someone to give her a green light. Her timing couldn’t be better; Iran is ripe for someone to showcase its hidden delights.
“It was challenging but it was exhilarating. I had to deal with a lot of men and I had to deal in a country that is very closed,” she says, remembering the trials of filming permits and a lack of understanding of sponsorship and promotion. “But we managed; for some reason the doors would open for us,” she adds.
While her first cookbook, Pomegranates and Roses, was a tribute to family recipes, presenting traditional Persian cuisine lightened a little for a modern audience, in the TV show, Bundy gives a little more of a twist to the cuisine — although fear not, she’s not doing any fusion business.
“I still use Iranian ingredients — I don’t use soy sauce or corn. I’ve made like a Persian Pimms, with strawberries and apples and mint, or a Persian trifle. I’ve taken a dish and made it with a different kind of meat, or I’ve put fish in a recipe when it’s usually chicken.
“When I did my book I realised Iran was such a culinary influence around the world. I really felt it was time to put a stamp on our culinary tradition and say, these are ours and they are wonderful, and Iranian people are wonderful. I really wanted to show how hospitable they are. We’ve been in a negative light for 30 years and as an Iranian-American I felt compelled to go back into Iran. I have a different viewpoint as well, so I wanted to capture the beauty, the essence and people. I also wanted women to be featured — cooks, tour guides.”
Each 25-minute episode features Bundy exploring Iran, then preparing dishes, which she filmed at a villa in Arabian Ranches.
“I come back to Dubai and recreate the dishes. I wanted to get Dubai in here because this is my home and this is the place that I wanted to take off my headscarf and be myself. I kept my headscarf on even indoors while filming in Iran, out of respect for the government.”
She’s returning to Iran next week for a family holiday, although the temptation to start filming again is great. “The one thing I would say is I couldn’t do it justice. The show is only 25 minutes long, and I really tried to pack as much as I could, and I tried to do a bit of history as well because you just can’t help yourself. The history really overtakes you.
“But at the same time, “I’ve had enough of these moustached men. It was hard telling them what to do as a woman to a certain extent. I was a real tyrant.”