May 4, 2014
Welcome to the Ardeshirian home; please leave your shoes at the door.
Subtle smells of spice and lingering traces of incense hang in the air. You feel as though you may have wandered into somewhere a little more exotic than Bicton.
A pot of Dhal is simmering on the stove. Guavas and pomegranates from the backyard orchard are on the dining room table.
Your nostrils have an eager, though slightly confused, party.
Shoi, short for Shahbahram, is Persian though spent his childhood in India. At 22 he left Iran for Paris.
He lives here now with his wife Sandra and their three sons, all named after Persian kings.
Sitting at the table, Shoi’s eyes light up when he is asked what Persian food culture is like.
“It’s like a big party all day and into the night,” Shoi says.
Sitting on beautiful Persian rugs on the floor, his family relaxes, laughs, talks and eats.
Sandra says the Persian food culture is about respect for eating naturally.
“If we were sitting here, there would be a plate of greens between us, mint, cucumber, parsley,” Shoi says.
We walk into the back garden and Shoi proudly presents plant after plant, of a range of fruits and vegetables.
Sandra tells me the word for ‘paradise’ in Persian is ‘garden’.
We all need it.
This is something we all share.
It’s our fuel, our nutrition and our nourishment to get us through the daily grind.
Is there any more to it than that?
No question, Aussies sure love food, although for a lot of us it has become more of a love-hate relationship.
Obesity and eating disorders are commonplace now, a predominantly western-culture trait we share with the United States of America.
Something has clearly gone wrong along the way.
Curtin University anthropology and sociology associate professor Joan Wardrop is interested in our culture’s relationship with food.
To examine the state of our food culture today, Associate Professor Wardrop looks to how it has developed through history.
She describes Australia’s ‘western’ food culture as English, Irish and Scottish derived (Anglo-Celtic).
When the industrialised English culture arrived in Australia, a simple, ‘making-do’ diet followed, Wardrop explains.
Things slowly started to change with migration after World War II.
Even with this change, many Australians are disconnected from their food in comparison to other cultures.
Reanne Archer from Matters of Taste Cooking School in Bicton explores the cultural connection to food on a daily basis.
Archer describes herself as a ‘mix-breed’ – a flavoursome combination of Burmese, Indian, English, Dutch, German and French.
People attend her classes mainly because they want to be healthy.
And because they love food.
“When I go shopping I buy fruit and veg and meat, then I cook with it and create something beautiful,” Archer says.
“I think when people obsess with it, they end up eating things born out of obsession with food, and an obsession with not eating it.”
Archer sees the culture of food changing in Perth.
She sees young people becoming increasingly knowledgeable about such things as where to go for Dim Sum and where to find her native Burmese mohinga (fish soup).
“People are slowly opening up, moving away from processed foods and opening themselves up to culture and real food, “ Archer says.
She says a healthy relationship with food is about finding balance in order to be both happy and healthy.
Archer urges people to eat real foods – a bit of everything, the good and the bad.
Associate Professor Wardrop speaks of her French friend whose desire, if it were nutritionally possible, would be to live only on cheese. When the cheese plate comes around however, her friend only ever takes a couple of small slices.
“It is about allowing ourselves to enjoy,” Professor Wardrop says.
“It is a lesson I am always learning in France.
“Watching someone take a very small helping of something, to eat it slowly and clearly enjoy it while having a good talk with other people.”
Darius, Shoi’s son, says his Memas’ (grandmother) most common phrase is “Chom Vhe Khu” – ‘Do you want food/Are you hungry?’
Shoi says his mother often calls him up in the morning to see what she can cook for them.
She will then also turn up in the middle of the day, unexpected, and start cooking big pots of food for the family, he says.
“She is always worried about us,” Shoi says.
“It is in our culture to be that way.”
Associate Professor Wardrop speaks of her experience with children in France.
She says the attitudes towards child rearing, as well as food, are much different over there.
Children in French schools are given three course meals at lunchtimes, to learn the proper way of eating from a young age, she says.
“They are expected to do what people do during mealtimes, to have conversations with the people around them, not to just dive into their food and shovel it down,” she says.
“This is part of what they are taught at home and what they are taught at school.”
Associate Professor Wardrop says that in France rural living is brought into the city.
Herb garden balconies, farmers’ markets with stalls selling 10 to 12 different types of potatoes and stalls purely dedicated to mushrooms are the norm in the city.
People of Paris are in touch with where their food comes from and how it is produced, Associate Professor Wardrop explains.
Felicity Newman, who lectures in food, cultural and media studies at Murdoch University says that, generally, people living in rural areas have a very different attitude toward food.
Eastern cultures are more connected to the production of food and more often acknowledge the loss of life, Dr Newman explains.
She says this is avoided greatly in urban life.
Terms such as ‘beef’ are used when we buy cow, for example.
Dr Newman describes food as the lubricant for social interaction.
“It is about when two people sit together and they share food,” she says.
“In goes the food and out come the words.”
Coming from a big Jewish family, for her food is about the enjoyment of being able to cook for them and then share the food.
She says the idea behind food is simple, yet we tend to make it complicated.
“What I love about food is that it takes it back to that sheer simplicity – the basic desire – ‘I’m hungry, feed me, the fact that you can bring so much happiness so easily through a good meal.”
Associate Professor Wardrop reminisces about her trip to the Mauritius Islands.
Long strips of grass and tall trees on the beach host enormous family gatherings of up to 80 people every Sunday.
The whole family comes along, from newborns to their grandparents. Plates and plates of food are brought and piled up in the middle, for all to dig in to.
She likens this to French culture, where groups at dinner regularly take over small restaurants with their celebrations.
There is no reason needed to celebrate food together.
Shoi says that music is a big part of the Persian culture, along with dancing and homemade wine.
“They drink and they put the music on and they dance and that’s what they do,” he explains.
“You don’t drink, drink, drink to get drunk, you drink to enjoy.”
Off a hidden courtyard in central Fremantle is Gypsy Tapas House.
Walk in on any night and you may be be hypnotised by the live music or sangria.
Manager Callum Johnston says the concept came from a loose European Gypsy culture.
“The things you notice when you travel, the food, the music, the mismatched décor, the relaxed attitudes … it’s all about the experience,” he explains.
The tapas are inspired from a variety of cultures and are designed to share among friends.
Johnston says Perth people need to get further out of their comfort zones with food, which is starting to happen.
As people get excited and interested in food, they want to share this with other people, he says.
“The real idea of food is to bring people together,” he says.
Newman quotes Winnie the Pooh.
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last. “What’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.