I used to absolutely hate fish as a child. While I was typically a good eater, I would not so much as touch fish. On ordinary days, it was not much of a problem: Not so many Iranian dishes are based on seafood, since only two small parts of the cat-shaped country at the north and south touch the sea. But on Norooz, the Iranian celebration that marks the beginning of the new year on the first day of spring, my fish-hating habit meant disaster.
On March 20th, the last day of the year, Iranians around the world will eat Sabzi Polo ba Mahi, a fragrant pilaf with herbs (like chives, parsley, dill, cilantro, fenugreek) and sometimes fresh garlic, served alongside fish. The type of fish and its exact preparation varies from region to region and among families. In the northern parts of Iran, the Caspian White Fish is a renowned favorite, while in the south, fish come from the Persian Gulf and strong flavors like tamarind are added.
Back in my childhood days, I ended up eating my herby pilaf with a sad frittata, hastily made by my fed-up mom who had lost hope of feeding me the precious fish. It wasn’t exactly the most propitious start of the new year.
The fish we eat as the last meal of the old year symbolizes Pisces, the final astrological sign before the Earth enters Aries on Spring Equinox. This precise, scientifically-calculated astronomical event is the exact moment of celebration and has drawn people around the table at any time of night or day for centuries.
There’s living fish on that table, too—goldfish in a bowl to symbolize life and liveliness. It is one of the last elements that make up the Haft Seen, the table of “Seven S’s” that includes seven symbolic, edible elements that start with the letter “S” in the Persian language: fresh sprouts of wheat or lentils for rebirth, vinegar for patience, sumac for sunrise, garlic for health, apples for beauty, a sweet wheat pudding (samanu) for wealth, and oleasters for love.
The poetry of Haft Seen table is mixed with the excitement of choosing the nicest dishes and the prettiest and most elegant decorations. That table stays untouched for the whole thirteen days of Norooz celebration, and its appearance is vitally important for making a good impression on the friends and family who come to visit during the holidays.
The dedication that is put into setting the perfect Haft Seen table is similar to that of decorating the perfect Christmas tree. And the buzz of the busy streets of the cities of Iran in the days before Norooz can also recall the pre-Christmas frenzy.
But that scenery is very different: Instead of the jingles ringing through the chilly air, the fresh spring weather is filled with the sound of tambur; instead of mulled wine, there’s the smell of rose water and hot samanu. No red and glitter ornaments, but greens and flowers galore.
There are sprouts for sale, although many families grow their own from lentils or wheat, and hyacinths and tulips everywhere. Large aquariums and small bowls for the goldfish, swimming together jam-packed. Colorful eggs, mirrors, candles, ancient poetry books and the holy Quran. The sale of the bits and details that end up on the Haft Seen table is a big business. Streets are full of well-groomed people with fresh haircuts and the nicest clothes. Every single element calls for a fresh start, in perfect harmony with the arrival of the new season.
For the past decade, I have been living in Rome with the vivid memory of the Norooz preparation. When the air suddenly starts to smell different, I begin to crave my mom’s yearly tour de force of baking—nuts, coconut, butter, cardamom, endless batter for me to lick off the bowl. As for the meal preparation, I always think of my father’s meticulous technique for choosing the perfect fish, which, by the time I was eighteen, I ate.
Here in Rome, I have created my own Norooz rituals, as do all people who are away from their home on holidays. It’s never quite the same, because the spirit of holidays is missing. But we try our best, even when the holiday occurs on the most boring Wednesday. My Haft Seen table is quite tiny, but I do grow my own lentil sprouts.
For the herby pilaf and fish, I usually go the Market in Piazza Vittorio. It’s the only market in Rome known to have “alternative ingredients”, and when you live in Rome, cilantro is considered very alternative. During the years, after many shared Norooz with friends instead of family, I can say that my herby pilaf and fish has come to a decent form.
Like most other parts of my life that are a mixture between Iran, Italy, and everything in between, my recipe is a combination: of my parents’ method and my friends’ tips and tricks. I dip the fish fillet (I quite like the redfin perch) in a well-seasoned, beaten egg, then roll it gently in the yellowish mixture of flour and tons of turmeric, lemon zest, salt, and pepper. Then I fry it in abundant hot oil until golden and crisp. For both garnish and extra flavor, I make a mixture of parsley, cilantro, lightly fried barberries and walnuts, dressed generously with the fresh juice of a bitter orange.
In Iran, when preparing fish, the bitter orange is our equivalent of the lemon—another culinary tradition of the Caspian region—but in Italy, bitter oranges are hardly considered edible. Yet the street of Rome are full of bitter orange trees, making the city look like Christmas all year long. While Romans snub these oranges, I harvest them for the occasion of Norooz, and in order to stay as true to the original flavors as possible.
Evoking the memory of the Norooz meals of my childhood is worth it.
For the pilaf:
- 500 grams high-quality basmati rice
- 70 grams salt
- 750 grams to 1 kilogram (1 1/2 to 2 pounds) fresh, untrimmed herbs OR
- 40 to 50 grams dry herbs mix for Sabzi Polo (see headnote)
- 1 head of garlic (optional)
- 1 teaspoon saffron, powdered
- 80 to 100 grams canola or sunflower oil (you can substitute half of the amount of oil with the same amount of butter)
For the fried fish and herby condiment:
- Oil, for frying
- 2 medium free-range eggs
- Salt and pepper, for seasoning
- 60 grams flour
- 3 teaspoons turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
- 500 grams deboned, skinned, fish fillet, cut in 2-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons dried barberries
- 4 walnuts, chopped
- 1 small bunch of parsley, chopped
- 1 small bunch of fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped
- The fresh juice of a bitter orange or a lemon, plus wedges for serving
Have you ever tried to recreate a traditional recipe far away from its place of origin? Tell us in the comments below.