Features & Stories

Author Profile: Saghar Setareh, author of Pomegranates & Artichokes

Pomegranates & Artichokes is published on 4 May 2023 and we are excited to announce that this beautiful and unique cookbook is now available to ckbk Premium Members

We met with author (and photographer) Saghar Setareh and discussed the difficulties of her situation at the time of writing the book. Read about how she overcame these extraordinary challenges to produce a wonderful new book that explores the cuisines of Iran, Italy, and “In Between” (Eastern Mediterranean and Levantine).

To celebrate the launch, thanks to publishers Murdoch Books, ckbk has two copies of the book up for grabs for two lucky winners. Scroll to the end of this article to find out how to enter and to check out Setareh’s recipe for Midnight Spaghetti with Garlic, Chilli and Olive Oil. ckbk Premium Members have access to the full content of Pomegranates & Artichokes.

By Ramona Andrews

What comes most naturally to you, the cooking, the writing, or the photographing? 
I would have to say the photography. I’m always chasing light, moving things around for a perfect composition. Funnily enough, when I cook seriously (for friends, for cooking classes, or for shoots) I don’t take any photos.

Can you talk about how the book came about and your inspirations for it?
Since I started writing about food I always discussed both Iranian and Italian food. I didn’t like the idea of having a niche, as in sticking to one national food. Then I started noticing similarities between the dishes and decided I wanted to put these two cuisines on the same level. 

What chefs or writers have most influenced you?
The first chef who really changed something in the way I cook was Jamie Oliver. This was a long time ago, first in the early 2000s when I just watched his Naked Chef series, amazed, and then more seriously in about 2009-2010. Later, when I was already doing some food writing myself I was inspired by the work of Olia Hercules, Caroline Eden, Diana Henry, Rachel Roddy, and Emiko Davies. Then I fell in love with Claudia Roden


Saghar Setareh, author of Pomegranates & Artichokes. Photo by Valentina Solfrini.


You write that "The long process of making this book coincided with the most challenging physical and mental state I have ever been in in my life, as well as a catastrophic global pandemic, and a brutal war." Tell us about the process of writing this book and some of the challenges you faced researching it. 
This is a long story so I won’t go into details to keep it as short as I can. I had sat with my proposal for a couple of years. I finally completed it late 2019. By the time I submitted it and signed with my agent, it was January 2020. I was very excited to finally make this long-time dream come true and, not knowing anything about the publishing world, I thought I could get a deal in no time at all. I was supposed to add a few more recipes to the proposal.

On the evening of 6 March, when it was already very quiet in Italy and tourists had fled away, I went out to shop for the groceries for these recipes and I was hit by a car on the zebra crossing. It was the worst night of my life. Miraculously all I got was a fractured knee and a very bruised body. A couple of months later I was told I should’ve been operated but they didn’t do it because of Covid concerns. The day after I came back home with a full leg cast and crutches, Italy went into lockdown. I live alone, so I leave you to imagine what the strict lockdown of Italy combined with a broken leg post-accident must’ve meant. Eventually, a couple of months later I added the said recipes to the proposal and after a bumpy first round, we finally got a deal.

That experience sounds so awful and lonely, but how did it feel to finally get a book deal?
I was on such a high when I first signed my book contract, but as months passed and I delivered the first part of the manuscript and did the photoshoot, the weight of everything that had happened, the continuing lockdowns, a severely debilitated body and limited capacity of movement, started to take a significant toll on my mental health. I fell into a severe depression and there was a very brief moment when I thought I couldn’t get the book done. My great luck was that I had planned everything about the book at the proposal phase, so I never felt lost. As soon as I got my two doses of vaccine, I travelled to Istanbul for some travel shots, I had originally wanted to go to Beirut too, but that was impossible. 

Then when I was about the deliver the very last pieces of the manuscripts, Russia invaded Ukraine, and not only I was terribly triggered, remembering war between Iran and Iraq in the 80s, I was infuriated and heartbroken about the media covered the refugee situation, calling the Middle Eastern refugee “uncivilised” and the rest of it. I’m glad I had not delivered the introductions to each three chapters, because this whole part went into the “In Between” introduction, which perhaps is my favorite piece of the whole book. 


Baklava Beyond Borders: “The technique of layering many sheets of flat bread and then pouring syrup over them apparently comes from the Turkic people who resided in the current Azerbaijan, and it was later adapted by the Seljuks and perfected in the kitchens of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace during the Ottoman Empire”.


Thank you for sharing this with us. In the book you write about falling in love with Italian food when you first arrived in Rome in 2007 as a student from Iran. Tell us more about that.
I didn't think about food at all in those early years, but what I do remember is that I found Italian food disarmingly more simple than Iranian food, and yet very delicious, despite the simplicity. I remember once a roommate had made spaghetti with tomato sauce —something we would never eat in Iran at home, just carbs and a bit of tomato sauce. It should have meat, and spices and layers and stuff — and I asked him how he’d made it and he started with the onion. I can’t remember that astonishment now because I’m so used to it now, but I remember I was so surprised. Of course you start with onions, but we would’ve never mentioned it in Iran, we would’ve taken it for granted.

Yes, in the book you write that you want to say piaz dagh (fried onion) is what soffritto is to Italian cooking, but that would be an understatement! Tell us about some of the other parallels between Italian and Iranian cuisine. And what it is that makes piaz dagh so vital to Iranian cuisine?
Well, not all Italian dishes start with a soffritto but almost all Iranian dishes start with piaz dagh. What’s more, piaz dagh is also used as topping for many Iranian dishes, something that never happened in Italian dishes.  I mention quite a few of these amusing parallels in the book. For example, the use of stale bread that is shown in three recipes in Iran, “In Between” and Italy. Another favorite of mine is why melon and prosciutto are eaten together and how this is connected to the Iranian habit of paring “cold” and “hot” food. I explain it in the recipe headnote for Pears Poached in Wine with Mascarpone Cream


Piaz dagh (fried onion) from Pomegranates & Artichokes.


What is your top comfort food - both from Iran and from Italy?
I have an undying love for potatoes, so potatoes fried, arroste (roast) and boiled are my top forms of comfort food. I love all the soupy pastas, things like pasta e ceci (with chickpeas) or pasta e fagioli (with beans). In Iran I must say ghormeh sabzi, a very classic lamb stew (khoresh) with tons of wonderfully overcooked herbs, beans, dry limes and verjuice.

If you could only eat Italian or Iranian food for the rest of your life, which cuisine would you choose and why?
This would be a very sad existence. I don’t ever wanna have to choose between these those (and the cuisine of “In Between” which perhaps is my favorite). The whole spirit of Pomegranates & Artichokes is to put these cuisines next to each other and observe their similarities and look for shared humanity through these recipes and techniques.

You list some of the most important ingredients in the Iranian pantry, the Italian pantry, and the “In Between" pantry in the book. What are the ingredients that are absolutely essential in all these pantries?
Good saffron in Iran, lemon in “In Between” (to squeeze over everything from kebabs to fish to vegetable dips), and extra virgin olive oil in Italy. 

Which of your "In Between" dishes do you love best and why?
This region’s cuisine is probably my favorite. There are lots of dishes that I love that aren’t in the book and I should say I truly love all the “In Between” recipes. I love the kebab karaz (Sour Cherry Meatballs from Aleppo) because I love sour cherries and because the taste is so close to Iranian flavors. And the Zucchini Patties, god they’re insanely delicious.
In the book you write about "Nashta" - that is, food to begin the day with. What's your favorite dish to start the day?
I love the Iranian Breakfast as explained in the Nashta section, but I also really love the Syrupy Baked Quince or the Pears Poached in Wine with some Greek yoghurt.
How do you think Iranians and Italians view the role of food in their respective cultures, and what are some of the cultural meanings and associations that are attached to different dishes or ingredients?
I think Italians talk about food a lot more than Iranians. They think a lot more about their food, whereas in Iran food is more present than in Italy. There’s not any sort of ceremony, celebration or commiseration where food is not flowing. Apart from this, I believe food has the same meaning and associations more and less everywhere. This is why food is such a good means of communication on a universal level.

In the book you write about "ingredients and cooking methods that have migrated through these territories over centuries, appearing in different forms and condiments" and give aubergine as an example of an ingredient that has travelled to Italy, first brought by Arabs in the Middle Ages. Which of your aubergine dishes in the book - from Iran to Italy - do you love the most and why?
Oh, aubergine is such a loved vegetable in this whole region and I didn’t have the space to include all my favorite recipes. In Iran, we have Mirzaghassemi, a dip of smoky aubergine, tomatoes and eggs, in “In Between” I LOVE imam baylidi (Turkish Aubergines in Onion Sauce) and Parmigiana from Italy.
What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the future?
At the moment, apart from doing a lot of things for my baby book like planning events and cooking classes, I’m very busy with my new Substack publication Noon, where apart from writing about Iran and Italy, I write about the experiences of an immigrant woman. There are occasional recipes as well. I’m also in the middle of a couple of important photography projects.

Midnight Spaghetti with Garlic, Chilli and Olive Oil

Originally from Naples, this pasta is a favourite all over Italy for its convenience and speed, and for the nostalgia of having a big pan of pasta at 3 a.m. Curiously, when I was once in Milan, a Neapolitan guy whipped up another spaghettata with anchovies, garlic and walnuts, and said this was what students there made at midnight.

With only garlic, chilli and heaps of olive oil, it might look as if this pasta dish has left a main ingredient behind — but taste it and you’ll no longer think this. In the Neapolitan dialect, this dish once went by the name vermicelli con le vongole fujute — vermicelli with ‘escaped clams’; arguably, all you’d need to turn your ajo ojo peperoncino into real spaghetti with clams is a cup of wine, and the clams themselves. (In Naples, the current version of spaghetti with escaped clams has tomatoes, too — a further step away from ajo ojo peperoncino, which is always ‘white’.)

My favourite version of this dish is with breadcrumbs, a celebration of carb on carb that creates the most satisfying sandy texture; they say it’s a Sicilian touch. As an extremely ‘poor’ dish, it doesn’t even require cheese — and most importantly, cheese is not required flavor-wise. (I am diplomatically trying to tell you to never, ever add cheese to this dish.)

Midnight spaghetti with ‘escaped clams’ is both for those nights when something has escaped us, or to celebrate the things that haven’t escaped — all tinted with the intense flavours of garlic and chilli.

Serves 4–6


  • salt, for seasoning the pasta water

  • 500 g (1 lb 2 oz) spaghetti

  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) good-quality olive oil

  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

  • 1/2 –1/4 teaspoon chilli flakes, or 1 red chilli, finely chopped, seeds included

  • 1/2 cup (50 g) dry breadcrumbs

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and season generously with salt. Add the spaghetti. We’re going to cook it very al dente, only for half the time recommended on the packet.

So, you have about 5 minutes to add the oil to a large (but not necessarily very deep) pan with the garlic and chilli (but don’t turn the heat on yet; just let the oil and spices get to know each other). Meanwhile, toast the breadcrumbs in a small frying pan for a minute or two, until fragrant and lightly browned, then tip into a little bowl.

Set the heat under the pan with the oil, chilli and garlic to medium–low. Be very careful not to burn the garlic, as it’ll get a nasty aftertaste that will ruin the dish.

When your spaghetti is two-thirds cooked, save about 3–4 cups (750 ml–1 litre) of the cooking water. Drain the spaghetti and immediately add it to the pan of oil on blazing high heat and give it a stir with a wooden spoon (or even better, a pair of kitchen tongs). Add 1 cup (250 ml) of the cooking water and stir vigorously for a minute. Keep stirring for about 4 –5 minutes, then add the remaining cooking water little by little, until you get a silky, creamy sauce that is still too wet to serve; keep in mind that it’ll keep drying up after you take the pan off the heat.

Mix in half the toasted breadcrumbs. Dish up the spaghetti quickly, sprinkle each bowl with more breadcrumbs, drizzle over a bit more oil and serve immediately. No cheese needed.

ckbk Premium Members have access to the full content of Pomegranates & Artichokes and more than 700 other cookbooks.

Win a free copy of Pomegranates & Artichokes

We have two copies of the book to give away. For your chance to win a copy, simply email us at hello@ckbk.com with “Pomegranates & Artichokes draw” as the subject title and we will select two lucky winners from the entries at random. Please enter by 23.59 GMT by 19 May. Good luck!

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