Sundance and Pistachio Soup

Writer-director Noora Niasari on family, food and the journey of her Sundance-winning debut feature, Shayda, which is in theaters this week.

I take a clove of garlic, peel away the skin and dice it up, slowly but effectively. I hack away at a whole leek, chopping and chopping until my hand feels numb. I ask my boyfriend if this is the best knife we have; he uses a fancy word for his Japanese knife and says it is. As I wash and chop the spring onion, I ask him, “A spring onion is the same as a shallot, right?” He responds, No, babe, a shallot is a small onion. The taste is pretty different.” I beg him to quickly go and buy some in town. He notices my shoulders tense up, and reminds me of the promise I made.

I review the recipe for pistachio soup again, making sure I have all the ingredients. I pour the two packets of shelled pistachios into a blender. Exactly one cup, as the recipe calls for. I grind them to a pulp and think to myself, Why would pistachios taste good in a soup?” I smell the ground pistachios. Mom has never made this. If it’s bad, she will have nothing to compare it to. It’s the perfect choice …” I agree and nod to myself.

Stop overthinking it, Noora.

Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Selina Zahednia in Noora Niasari’s debut feature, Shayda. (Photo by Jane Zhang, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.)

Music will help me relax, so I find the album 40 Golden Hits of Hayedeh and press play. For non-Iranian readers, Hayedeh is like our Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin. Hayedeh often uses orchestral music and poetic verses by Hafez, and her operatic voice is otherworldly and timeless. She left Iran in 1978 and took exile first in London, then in California. I still can’t comprehend how any government would find her music threatening (must write a separate essay on pre-revolution Iranian pop stars …). But for now, back to the soup.

I’m preparing an Iranian lunch for my mother and stepfather at our place in the Victorian countryside … let’s call it “upstate Melbourne.” My boyfriend and I live off-grid, on 10 acres of land in a mud-brick house amongst eucalyptus trees, kangaroos, winding dirt roads and the beautiful sounds of nature. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a city girl, relatively new to the countryside, but I’m happy to say I’ve fallen in love with it. We are busy filmmakers with a tranquil home base and lovely neighbors – plus there’s a cinema in the town nearby, as well as our offices. We are set.

Persian walnut cookies.

This lifestyle is not exactly something my Iranian family can fully comprehend, though. Every time Mom comes over, she insists on bringing a bag of things for our pantry, or a pressure cooker, or a half-dozen homemade hamburgers, even though I told her months ago I don’t eat meat and that I am a grown woman who can buy my own things at the nearby supermarket!

I remember when I told my grandmother where I was living now, she decided to tell me a harrowing story of when she lived in the jungles of northern Iran during my grandfather’s military service. There were no doctors or hospitals within several hours’ drive and my mom (then a toddler) nearly died from pneumonia because she ate a few handfuls of snow on a cold winter’s eve.

Chill, Grandma, we live within 10 minutes of a hospital and doctors – nothing to fear! I mean, yes, there are Brown Snakes in the area, but they mostly keep to themselves. She gasped, SNAKES!” I spent another five minutes reassuring her I wouldn’t be killed by a snake out here. Is there anything I can bring you from Iran? And when is he planning to propose now that you’re living with him?” Oh gosh, why did I tell her anything … and why can’t I just lie to her like Mom tells me to?

Noora Niasari’s grandmother’s saffron rice pudding.

Back to the soup. My relationship to cooking has always been a complicated one. In my eyes, my mother is the Queen of Iranian cooking and I have never eaten any Persian food remotely as good as hers. It’s even better than Grandma’s (except for her saffron rice pudding). Mom doesn’t use recipes anymore, she knows everything by heart, and she is the most generous, selfless host. She barely takes a bite before everyone has food on their plate and each guest shows some sign of being settled and content.

Even when we lived in a women’s shelter and she had no access to saffron or Persian ingredients, she would still cook for everyone, and when she didn’t have saffron, she would use yellow food coloring. She is the type of person who will make do with the ingredients at hand; her resourcefulness in the kitchen is phenomenal. If I text her about Iranian food and substitute ingredients, she will text me back within two minutes with a solution. She loves it when I cook, or try to, and even gave me a beautiful cookbook, which I highly recommend, called Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies by Najmieh Batmanglij.

Noora Niasari and her mother, Yaz, in Park City, Utah, at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

It’s Saturday, January 20, 2024. The summer sun spills through our vertical windows as I set the table for lunch. My phone pings a few times. I check the notifications, messages from film friends with throwback photos of us at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s been 12 months since we premiered Shayda in Park City. I will never forget the moment I told Mom I’d gotten into Sundance with my debut film. She shrieked with joy, hugged me tightly, then looked at me and said, What is Sundance?”

Sundance started like a dream and having Mom there was incredibly special, albeit stressful. It was the first time we were sharing the finished film with an audience (we had only mastered it seven days prior). Shayda is a narrative drama, inspired by my mother’s and my story. With every Q&A we did, I saw my mom’s confidence growing, but I felt so guilty about putting her in this public-facing position. We knew the cost of making this film: that we wouldn’t be able to go back to Iran. But I never anticipated the amount of intrusive questions complete strangers would ask without shame. At times, I had to grab the microphone to reassure her, Mom, you don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to…”

From Sundance 2023, Noora Niasari and her partner Keiran Watson-Bonnice (left) and Noora and actor Mojean Aria celebrating Shayda‘s Audience Award (right).

Despite the heaviness of wanting to protect her and our story, there was a catharsis in sharing the film with our first audiences in beautiful Park City. Before the festival’s end, as Mom was leaving, she hugged me and said, It was one of the best experiences of my life. Thank you.” Three days later, we won the Sundance Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition – I FaceTimed Mom and my actress Zar Amir to show them the prize; we all laugh-cried, thousands of kilometers apart, connected in heart and spirit.

A knock at the door. My stepdad waves through the window. Mom carries in a tray of homemade walnut cookies and Persian (Barbari) bread. She greets my boyfriend, who casually asks her in Farsi, “Khoobi? (Are you well?)” She jovially replies, “Khoobam, toh khoobi? (I’m well, and you?)” He looks at me like, What was that word? Mom unravels her bag of things; jars of quinoa, chia seeds, dates and more bread. I simply smile and thank her as I stack them in the pantry, alongside the other jars with Farsi writing.

Noora Niasari’s Persian lunch spread: pistachio soup, cucumber and pomegrate salad, barbari bread and eggplant dip.

Pistachio soup garnished with barberries, cucumber and pomegranate salad, eggplant dip and Barbari bread. I make sure everyone is settled at the table. Mom takes her spoon and tastes it; her eyes light up. What a delicious soup! Where did you learn this?” I smile. My shoulders relax.

Featured image shows Noora Niasari and Keiran Watson-Bonnice at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival (left) and Noora Niasari’s Persian lunch spread. All images courtesy Noora Niasari unless otherwise stated.

Tehran-born, Australia-raised filmmaker Noora Niasari’s debut feature film, Shayda, premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award, and is in theaters from March 1 through Sony Pictures Classics. The film, which stars Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Cannes Best Actress Winner for Holy Spider) and was executive produced by Cate Blanchett, is a drama about an Iranian mother living with her six-year-old daughter in an Australian women’s shelter, trying to start a new life away from her estranged husband. Shayda is Australia’s official submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards. (Photo by Keiran Watson-Bonnice.)