Bath-based Iranian food writer, Simi Rezai, discusses the food and traditions of Persian New Year
We are all getting a bit tired of this damp and cold weather but there is hope. Yesterday was the Vernal Equinox when our planet started its new revolution around the sun. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, you’ll be pleased to know that we’re now tilting more toward the sun, so the days should get warmer and the nights longer. Yesterday was also when the people of the Greater Iranian region celebrated New Year or Nowruz as it is known. I took to Skype to join my mother in Iran and sister in Australia, with each of us sat around our Seven Siin tables, in our best bib and tucker and at the precise moment of the equinox we wished each other bayramuz mobarakdi or Nowruz khojasteh bad aka happy new year.
Similar to British New Year celebrations, the preparations started weeks in advance. First and foremost, there was a spring clean, or in Persian terms, shaking the house or khaneh tekani. I cleaned my cupboard tops, door frames and even washed my houseplants in the shower! Then I sprouted some lentils so that I had something visibly growing daily. This was then used on my Seven Siin table.
The last Tuesday before our new year is known as Chahar-shanbe Soori, when bonfires are lit. If the weather is poor, we set out a row of candles on the living room floor and jump over but this year it stayed dry so we made a small fire on our allotment and leapt into the future, asking for the fire’s rosy glow in exchange for winter pallor.
We got a bit peckish with all the cleaning and building bonfires so we ate ajil (mixed nuts and dried fruit). Each family has its own mix of Chahar-shanbe Soori ajil. Usually it’s unroasted or unsalted dried fruit and nuts: things like sultanas, raisins, currants, dates, figs, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, hazelnut, stuffed and dried pears and peaches known as mianpour, soojugh and baslugh. In Iran, my mum would have brought out the best of the previous year’s harvest and mixed handfuls of each.
Having jumped over our fire, as it is also the night before Nowruz, I made reshteh polow, noodle rice, or ‘worm polow‘. Reshteh means reins or thread. Rice is highly regarded and in days past would have been reserved for celebrations, mixing it with noodles would have made it go further. I layered my reshteh polow with raisins, currants and dates. Though it can also be served with split-peas, dried plums or apricots.
Seven Siin is a decorative table featuring a particular collection of articles. Seven of these items begin with the letter Siin, one of the four S’s in the Persian alphabet. Every family may interpret the Haft Siin a little differently. A modern Haft Siin might include seven of the following with their symbolic references:
• Sumac – the colour of sunrise, defeating darkness
• Serkeh (vinegar/wine) – as it is aged it is synonymous with the wisdom that comes of age
• Senjed (fruit of the Oleaster tree) – symbolising love
• Seeb (apple) – for knowledge, and natural beauty
• Sabzi (sprouted greens) – for rebirth
• Sir (garlic) – representing medicine
• Sekeh (coins) – for wealth
• Sonbol (hyacinth) – a fragrant symbol of spring
• Samanoo – the sweet result of patience and hard work
Other items are a mirror, for reflection on the past; goldfish, to mark the zodiacal transition from Pisces into Aries; a lit candle, for enlightenment; coloured boiled eggs, for fertility; and even, a citrus fruit afloat in a bowl of water, representing the earth in space. Finally, a great book, either of literature or scripture, may be placed on the table. Last year I made Samanoo, a sweet paste made of wheat sprout juice, wheat flour and water. Having sprouted the wheat over several days, the cooking required six hours of constant stirring! I now see why, in the past, Persian women would have held a samaroo-making party where they would prepare the dish, sing and dance.
The customary dish to have on New Years’s Day is Sabzi Polow ba mahi, aherb-infused rice dish served with fish. The herbs in this dish – parsley, coriander, dill and new garlic – are in season in Iran at the moment. In some areas, fenugreek is also added too. Here in Bath, I used wild garlic, which I picked from the Bath Skyline for my sabzi polow. I also made wild garlic, leek, walnut and barberry frittata, or kookoo, which we had with yoghurt and a plate of spring onions, radishes, parsley, wild garlic, sorrel, and poly tunnel lettuce served with a simple sweet and sour dip, or skanjebeen.
We celebrate Nowruz now for 12 days and nights. Traditionally the elders and the bereaved are visited on the first days, and then the newly married as the days go by. These brief visits are like an open house where guests are offered tea, sweetmeats, ajil and citrus. This time is pretty much an excuse to get together with friends and family. Iranians in my experience love to share food and dance.
I was last in Iran for Nowruz in 2007, and on that day we had some 90 visitors! Finally, on the 13 day, everyone packs a picnic and heads out into the countryside, or into the parks in big cities, so as to keep misfortune from their door, thus Sizdah bedar. This is the time to throw your sprouted lentils into running water and make a wish. I have been doing this over Pulteney Weir in Bath for the past four years. It just goes to show that traditions can be kept alive no matter how far you maybe from home.
I wish you all a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous orbit around the sun!