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Learning to Cook in a War Zone Makes You Appreciate Good Rice

During the Iran–Iraq War, Moh Narimani’s hometown of Ahvaz was evacuated. He remained to protect his house, but with no women around, he became an impromptu community cook. "The best Iranian chef is judged on who can make the nice rice,” he says.

Out of all the places to learn how to cook, a city on the edge of a war zone is hardly top of the list. Not that Moh Narimani had a choice. When the Iran–Iraq War started in the early 80s, the Iranian city of Ahvaz near the Iraq border was 50 kilometres from the frontline. While women and children were evacuated, 20-year-old Narimani and many other young men stayed behind to protect their houses.

"In this neighbourhood, we knew each other but we weren't close to each other," he recalls. "At night, it was completely dead—completely dark. And it was boring and a little bit scary. We were hungry so we sat together, to be together. It was only to sleep we go to our house."

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The men that stayed in Ahvaz were all aged 18 to 25. None of them knew how to cook—they'd relied on their mothers to do that and now their mothers had fled like so many before them. Someone had to cook and that someone was Narimani.

"There was a community but the food was missing," he says. "I was not a real chef. But the best Iranian chef is judged on who can make the nice rice, the base of Persian food—steamed, not sticky. No Uncle Ben's rice."

Moh cooked with whatever he could find. In the daytime, he would go to the market (if it was open) for bread, vegetables, and dairy but there was rarely meat or fish. He raided his mother's kitchen for beans and rice and would often make dishes with herbs—of which there was an abundance—and okra or aubergine.

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Moh Narimani and his wife Christien. Photo courtesy Moh Narimani.
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After two years, the war situation changed and Ahvaz started to come back to life. The Iranian army pushed the Iraqi army back and the war zone shifted away beyond 100 kilometres. For the next few years (the war ended in 1988), soldiers would come to "rest, to shower, to eat something" and then go back to their position. Eventually the war ended and Narimani left for Germany.

Now 29, Moh started doing maintenance jobs and held a position at a Persian carpet company. Eventually he got the opportunity to return to the food industry, first in an Italian pizzeria and then in a Persian eatery. It was here that his boss taught him everything he knows about combining flavours in six short but intensive months. This was Narimani's catering college.

"For Persian food, you have to have a lot of patience. You have to know all the different tactics and ways to cook," he says. "The best dishes I learned in Germany were —a lamb stew with kidney beans and parsley, chives, not with coriander or spinach—and a fish stew from my city called ghalyeh mahi. After these six months, I say I am Persian chef but it is not so easy."

Once his boss went back to Iran, Narimani returned to the carpet company. But a holiday to England to visit his siblings would change all that.

Bristol was not so different from in Iran. Many people were solo, they didn't have any family, and they didn't want to eat pizza every day.

"My brother had two restaurants in Bristol and my sister was in a little restaurant on the Isle of Man," he explains. "When I came to visit, my brother offered me a job."

A two-year stint in a fish and chip shop followed ("a good experience because I learned about different fish and which metal is good for grilling") during which time, he lived above the shop.

As most fish and chip shops don't open on Monday, Narimani would invite friends over to his flat, where they'd sit, play backgammon, and make music—until they got hungry. And for the second time in Narimani's life, he became the "community chef."

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A pita dish at Narimani's Kookootoo eatery. Photo courtesy Kookootoo.

"It was not so different from in Iran. Many people were solo, they didn't have any family, and they didn't want to eat pizza every day," he says. At this point, one of Narimani's close friends approached him and asked if he could cook for them more regularly.

Narimani's response was rather novel. He would text his friends with the following: This Friday I will be cooking lamb shanks please order your portion and come and collect after six o'clock.

His contact list started with just ten people. After a year, he was texting 250.

"I had to pay a lot to the telephone company," he laughs.

But Narimani had other worries. He had been cooking his text takeouts on a small cooking stove at the back of the fish and chip shop. Eventually his brother told him he had to do it elsewhere.

Supported by his wife Christien—whom he met through the texting—Narimani opened the Kookoo cafe in Bristol in 2012. He was still using a one-flame gas bottle burner but it didn't matter. People flocked to eat the home-cooked Persian food.

READ MORE: Persian Food Is a Goldmine for the Intolerant

"The top dish was a very simple dish called fesenjaan, a chicken fillet cooked in walnut and pomegranate sauce," says Narimani, who is involved in Bristol's 91 Ways to Build a Global City food culture project. "It is a special food from north Iran but I serve food from north, south, east, west. Real Persian food with lots of character."

The cafe lasted just one year before Moh realised he had to expand again, shifting from 30 covers to 50. In 2014, he launched Kookootoo, a restaurant—this time with a proper kitchen. Fifteen months on, and Bristolians can't get enough, something Narimani puts it all down to the community spirit embodied in his food from those dark nights in Ahvaz.

"When customers say they are happy with price, the food is nice, happy with service, they make me energy and I am proud that I bought something new to the people here in Bristol," he says. "Food can make a big connection between humans, as music can. I am proud that I could do this for the neighbourhood for a long time."