The most famous feast day in March is St. Patrick’s day, but not so for the people of Persia. The vernal equinox occurs precisely at the moment the sun crosses the equator on March, 20, 21, or 22. In harmony with the rebirth of nature, the Iranian New Year’s celebration, or Aide Noruz, always begins on the first day of spring. The tradition of welcoming in the New Year is a time honored custom in almost every culture. Washing away the old, and bringing in new hopes, wishes and luck is universal.For the past couple of years I have been invited to the Gordon household in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey to participate in their Persian New Year’s celebration. Mrs. Gordon was raised in Iran in the 1940’s and continues the tradition today for her family. One of the most important components of the holiday is the significance of the food that is prepared.
To prepare for the New Year, Iranians engage in a thorough Spring cleaning. Many households make new clothes, bake pastries, and germinate seeds as a sign of renewal. Hadji Firuz (troubadours) travel from house to house spreading good cheer and announcing the New Year.
Normally the festivities span thirteen days after the equinox, but the Gordons have adapted the duration to fit their schedules. During the first few days, the younger members of the family visit their older relatives and friends as a sign of respect. These visits are filled with sweet pastries and frosty drinks. On the thirteenth day of Noruz (sizdeh bedar) entire families leave their homes to attend picnics near a stream or river. Sprouts are then thrown into the water bringing an end to one year and bracing for the new year. Last year the Gordons visited relatives near the Potomac River and tossed sprouts as part of the ritual.
Traditionally, sofreh-ye-haft-sinn (a ceremonial cloth) is set on the carpet or table where seven dishes are displayed symbolizing the seven angelic heralds of life: health, happiness, posterity, joy, patience, rebirth, and beauty.
“Noruz is not a religious holiday. Many Iranians are Zoroastrian. When the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he ordered everyone to place the Koran on every table. The citizens were outraged. He tried to cancel the ceremony altogether. Not even the Ayatollah could match the will of the people,” Mrs. Gordon proudly tells. In its place, a copy of the 50 poems by the famous Persian poet Hafiz is displayed on the cloth.
The number seven has been sacred in Iran since ancient times. The seven dishes consist of sabzeh (sprouts), samanu (a pudding of wheat sprouts), sib (apple), senjed (lotus tree fruit), seer (garlic), somaq (sumac berries), and serkeh (vinegar). These ingredients represent the original basics of Persian cuisine.
Mrs. Gordon prepares the traditional menu of several dishes which are actually served on New Year’s Day. An abundance of small appetizers are laid out on the table to arouse hunger. There’s dolmeh barg (stuffed grape leaves) and nazkhatun (eggplant caviar) nestled next to mast va khiar (yogurt with cucumbers).
She begins the meal with a sumptuous noodle soup (ashe-reshte). The noodles are made fresh and are tied in special knots. Eating them helps unravel life’s problems. This is followed by a serving of nane lavesh (thin flat bread), panir (feta-like cheese), and fresh herbs, to be nibbled for prosperity’s sake. A main course of rice with fresh herbs and fish (sabzi polow ba mahi) is then brought in signifying life and rebirth. Kukuye sabzi is a favorite of all Persians. It is a vegetable casserole supreme, consisting of leeks, spinach, herbs and onions, all tossed with eggs and baked until crisp and brown. The Herb Kuku this year gets an eggplant twist, a mash with garlic, onion rings, and eggs.
This Noruz, Mrs. Gordon is shaking things up a bit by adding khoreshte gormeh sabzi ba polow (green herb stew with pilaf) to the mix. This is a hearty beef stew with sautéed chives, foengreek, scallions, spinach, parsley, and onion together simmered in a broth flavored with turmeric, cinnamon, and dried limes.
Then there is a mad dash for the tadik or sticky part of the rice. The bottom boasts a crispy, nutty flavor and texture, and is the cause of many a family fight.
The preparation of dessert begins two weeks before Noruz is well worth the effort. Homemade baglava and Persian cardamon cookies such as nune shekari (sugar) and badam choragi (almond) and halva provide a sweet-filled ending to the meal. A spice cake and non-traditional flan is also added for variety. Miveh (fruit in season) is offered for the weary tooth as well.
“The secret of the baglava lies in the thinness of the dough,” writes Maideh Mazda, aunt and recipe source to Mrs. Gordon and author of In a Persian Kitchen.
On a full stomach, I realize Noruz will be my third New Year’s (Jan. 1st, & Chinese). As to the cycles of life, I believe that each individual’s birthday is the mark of the true new year, or personal rebirth and celebration. It’s a day to reflect on the past year, start anew, and make plans for the future. Perhaps that’s why people feel so special on their birthdays. As for Noruz, eat and drink life.
The old adage goes, “Good thought, good word, good deed – to the year end, happy indeed.”