In their native Iran, Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat are best known for their soaring voices, flawless harmonies and dedication to the art of singing in the face of tough restrictions on public performances by women. But on a Sunday morning last weekend in the Wiltshire region of southwestern England, Mahsa’s chief preoccupation was the correct sourcing of dried plums.
“These are from eastern Iran, from a village near the desert,” she told host Roger de Wolf and the assembled crowd at Taste the World stage at Womad, a festival of traditional music and dance, as she unwrapped the fruit, brought with her from the Middle East. “They’re sourer than others.”
Around her, sister Marjan assembled lemon powder, turmeric and saffron for the chicken dish they were cooking, while in the background, the stage’s sous-chef and kitchen assistants supplied saucepans, chicken and rice.
Within a few moments, the sisters had broken off from the recipe to demonstrate the talent that brought them from Tehran, with a rendition of their fusion-edged Iranian song for the assembled crowd. Shortly after that, the meal they had prepared was distributed to the same audience, so they could taste, as well as hear, a little of Iranian culture.
This combination of food and song is the culmination of an idea dreamed up by one of the festival’s organizers Annie Menter, who set up the Taste the World stage at Womad (the acronym stands for World of Music and Dance) eight years ago.
Menter, who had long been involved with the festival in its various incarnations around the globe, had seen how the musicians she traveled with sought out their national dishes on tour, as a little taste of home.
“If you’re away from home and family, what connects you back to those is food,” Menter said. “It’s a comfort thing. If you’re feeling lonely or out on a limb, even a bowl of rice that’s traditional for you instantly raises your spirits.”
She began asking musicians if they would be prepared to cook a dish from their home country while being interviewed before the Womad crowd, peppering the process with songs.
Given Womad’s focus on bringing together music from around the world – acts this year have hailed from as far afield as Rwanda, Cuba, Armenia and Wales – the result has been eclectic, to say the least.
This year New Zealand-based reggae-soul collective Fat Freddy’s Drop knocked up a seafood ceviche; Sweden’s Linnea Olsen produced dumplings with chanterelles and lingonberries; and Cyprus’s Monsieur Domani prepared a traditional meat stew that was marinated by the Taste the World team overnight.
From a strictly culinary perspective, the experiment has not always resulted in Michelin-standard results, Menter said, but that was not the point. Its success has been in bringing another dimension to the festival by broadening out its presentation of the different cultures represented beyond just music.
It has also allowed the crowd to see a wholly different aspect of these musicians. Host de Wolf invited questions from the audience throughout the interview with the Iranians, and they came thick and fast, on food and culture as well as music.
“I love the fact that it’s so intimate,” said Karen Chapman from north London, who works in film finance. “You really get to hear the story behind the artist and their culture, through music and through food.”
From the small tent it occupied on the edge of the festival in 2006, the Taste the World event has grown considerably. Menter says she’d be happy for it not to expand any further, but she’s clearly delighted with what’s been achieved.
“The rationale for me was, what’s life about?” she says. “Music, food, conversation. This is an extension of sitting around your kitchen table and cooking for friends.
“In that situation, you want to share your food, but you also want to share your conversation, your opinions, your ideas, your culture. That’s what’s important.”