To mark the coming of Spring, Nowruz celebrations consist of a series of time-honoured, symbolic and elaborate rituals.
As a tradition, this one is literally written in poetry and carved in stone on the walls of Persepolis.
The feast that you might find on a Persian table at Nowruz reflects an intermingling of rich cultural, traditional, sacred, secular and regional influences as complex and exciting as the aromatic blend of flavours and spices.
The most widely celebrated festival in Iran today was described in Ferdowsi’s eleventh century Shahnameh. It read: “the world’s creatures gathered in wonder about him (King Jamshid)… and called this day the New Day, or Noruz ….Jamshid’s nobles made a great feast, calling for wine and musicians and this splendid festival has been passed down to us.” *
The importance of Nowruz is not just for Iran. Celebrated by other regional nations from Central Asia to the Caucuses, today the United Nations lists the annual Nowruz feasts in their record of the world’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’.
For thousands of years, the New Year’s celebration was fixed at the vernal equinox (c. 21 March) with traditions rooted in the myths and practices of the Medes and the Persians, its symbolism based on the ceremonial and social code of the Achaemenids.
The ancient halls of the palace of Persepolis (constructed 300 years B.C.) were carved with processionals and ranks of nobles and servants bearing rare and valuable gifts. The great Achaemenid kings accepting tribute from all corners of the vast Persian empire for the spring equinox are thought to be historic representations of Nowruz.
Today, beyond the well-known display of the Haftsin, or ‘Seven S’ table, what do we actually do and eat?
Iranians emulate their ancestors’ prosperity by having a clean home and a well-dressed and well-fed family, who generously entertain a great number of relations, friends and neighbours. Persian hospitality is sacred and it is renowned from palaces to picnics, from restaurants to residences.
A few weeks before the new year, Iranians spring-clean their homes, buy new clothes, and sprout seeds as signs of renewal and expectation of a fresh new year.
Traditionally, wheat, lentil or cress seeds are carefully tended and watered over 10 days, so they sprout green and grow to an even height by Nowruz. It’s also obligatory to bake or purchase mountains of pastries, cookies and cakes ‘to keep mouths sweet’ for the whole year.
Najmieh Batmanglij, in the book Food of Life, describes Nowruz foods and quotes the three-thousand-year-old legend that King Jamshid discovered sugar on Nowruz. The word candy comes from the Persian word for sugar, qand.
Homes will be stocked or gifts will be brought of dried fruits, sugar-coated almonds, decorative boxes of nuts, Persian baqlava and nougat, wheat-germ brittle (sohan), creamy wheat germ pudding (samanu) and delicate cookies made of rice, almond or chickpea flour, all to be accompanied by a constant supply of hot tea.
Noodle soup (ash-e-reshteh) is set to bubble on the stove at the stroke of New Year to ensure a plentiful future as well as be gifted to family, friends and charity.
To greet the arrival of the new year, the Nowruz table is elaborately decorated with the expensive and the exotic. The traditional menu for the Nowruz meal must include sabzi pollo (steamed rice with saffron and ‘greens’ as herbs are called) accompanied by fried white fish (mahi sefid) and a side of herb omelette (kuku sabzi). This meal symbolises everything hoped for in the New Year: bounty (the rice), growth (the herbs), freshness (the fish) and rebirth (the eggs).
Persian grandmothers and chefs alike take pride in the cascade of individual grains of long-grain basmati, prepared with lengthy soaking, rinsing and steaming.
Quantities of dill, coriander, parsley and chives - chopped fine, fresh or dry - are coaxed into fragrant and fluffy mounds of rice with strands of aromatic, golden saffron hand-picked from the shyest of crocuses, or sprinklings of rosewater and cinnamon.
The whole affair is crowned with tahdig (bottom of the pot), a layer of crisp and golden lavash bread turned out to perfection and gracing the centre of the banquet.
The traditional Persian white fish, can be substituted with cod, haddock or plaice. Fillets are dusted in flour with a pinch of turmeric if desired, flash fried in hot oil and served with a squeeze of bitter orange and a dash of saffron water.
Kuku Sabzi (herb omelette) is a delicious symbolic accompaniment to sabzi pollo, sliced into decorative wedges with a soft and tender green centre and a crispy outer crust. Special occasions such as Nowruz call for the addition of generally optional chopped walnuts and crimson barberries.
Feast like a king and savour the sophistication and generosity of Persian Hospitality with a Happy New Year.
Written by: By Kahmel Farahani
Edited: Piers Zangana
*Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings,Abolqasem Ferdowsi, trans. Dick Davis, Penguin Books Ltd., 1997