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The saffron rice and the Lapis-coloured dish: What does food tell us about art?

The history of rice and its adaptation from a staple food in East Asia to a culinary canvas for innovative recipes, objects, and ceremonies is an altogether Iranian story. That is my claim and the basis upon which I build this talk.

Event details

Thanks largely to the Mongols rule in West Asia, rice was made a widespread agricultural product and source of food, just as Persian spread across West, Central and South Asia as the language of literary high culture, and being a shah, and not a caliph, gained ascendency as the legitimate mode of rulership. Rice, however, does not command its central role as a marker of Iranian cuisine until the early modern period and especially in the Persianate Asia. How do we know this? From late 15th century onwards, cookbooks written by chefs, not chroniclers who might have also written on calligraphy, indicate a form of professionalisation of the cookery crafts. Vessels, amongst which the large, wide, shallow platters are distinctive products of ceramic arts of the 16th and 17th centuries in Safavid (1501-1722) Iran, indicate specialised function, namely for serving rice dishes in a particularly ‘artistic’ manner. Epigraphic sayings about specific functions of the vessels and the food they carried, and not generalised decorative well-wishings of medieval ceramics, act as mediators marking the food and the dish as a multisensory experience of art. None of these signs of rice as art are found in food elsewhere! 


Sussan Babaie joined The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2013 to take up a newly established post teaching on the arts of Iran and Islam. Born in Iran, Sussan attended the University of Tehran’s Faculty of Fine Arts (Graphic Design) until the revolution of 1979 when she moved to the USA to study for a Master’s degree in Italian Renaissance and American Arts, followed by a PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, where she focused on the arts of Islam. She has many years of experience teaching at Smith College and the University of Michigan in America, and as the Allianz Visiting Professor at the Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich.

Her research interests include the early modern Safavid period with topics on urbanism and empire studies, on sexuality and social habits of ‘seeing’, and on transcultural visuality and notions of exoticism. Most recently, she has been developing a book-length project on Food/Art and the link between taste and seeing. A university-trained graphic designer, she writes and lectures on the historiography of the global contemporary and its implications for the arts of Iran and the Middle East. Most recently, her research has been supported by grants from the United States National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright (for research in Egypt and Syria) and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.


Tea and coffee will be available from 16.45.



IAIS Building/LT1