If you don’t already celebrate Norooz, the Persian New Year that falls on the spring equinox, you may want to adopt it as your own. The ancient holiday has been around for at least a couple of thousand years and started out as a Zoroastrian holiday. These days, it’s a secular celebration of spring and rebirth that is observed by making amends with anyone you fell out with over the past year, cleaning the clutter out of your home, eating lots of sweets, and cooking a delicious menu of specific foods that’s heavy on fresh green herbs.
One of the best parts of Norooz is that you get to indulge your arts and crafts inclinations by creating a personalized sofreh, a ceremonial table topped with all kinds of objects that are meant to usher in good luck in the new year, like gold coins (you can use plastic or chocolate), flowers, candles, a mirror, sprouted wheatgrass (sprout your own or find some at a local juicer), and a goldfish (I always buy a marzipan goldfish from the local Italian bakery). The Norooz sofreh also has an important food element, the haft-sin. Haft means seven in Farsi, and sin means “s,” so the haft-sin is seven foods that begin with the letter “s,” all of which are symbolic foods that have been eaten in Iran for millennia. They are somagh (sumac), serkeh (vinegar), samanou (a sweet pudding made from sprouted wheat), sabzi (herbs), seeb (apple), seer (garlic), and senjed (dried lotus fruit).
In places where there is a large Iranian population, like Los Angeles or New York, you can find a Norooz festival, or a chaharshanbeh suri, “red Wednesday,” a rite that takes place the Wednesday before Norooz, where people jump over a small bonfire in a purification ritual, leaving behind anything unwanted from the old year. When is the last time as an adult that you got to do something so primordial? It’s the kind of thing you might pay a lot of money to do on a spiritual retreat, but during chaharshanbeh suri it’s free, and anyone is welcome to take a turn.
So, if you celebrate Norooz, what does it mean to you? That’s what I asked six Iranian-Americans—some food professionals, some not—to give me their thoughts on the holiday, and what stands out for them as the sweetest and most meaningful part. Here’s what they had to say.
As a typical pet-deprived Iranian child, my favorite Norooz ritual was buying those glorious golden goldfish! For a couple magical weeks, I spent hours staring at their shiny little bodies endlessly shimmying in the too-small dish and making sure that none of the visiting children ever touched them. (I still blame the early demise of my goldfish in 1971 on my cousin Babak who kept touching the goldfish despite my repeated warnings. Babak, if you are reading this, just know that even though the world sees you as a famous scientist, you will always be a goldfish killer to me.)
After having lived in America, and now Germany, celebrating Norooz outside of Iran is like trying to remember the snow-covered Christmases of your childhood by staring at a tray of ice cubes.
For as long as I can remember, Norooz was synonymous with big feasts of Persian food. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and a lot of my Iranian relatives lived nearby, so we would all gather together and food was a focal point. Sabzi polo ba mahi, or herbed rice and fish, is the classic Norooz dish, but because we were so many people, there were always lots of different dishes.
When I lived in Iran I learned that most people try to make the herbed rice and fish the last meal before the new year. After getting married, I started spending Norooz with my in-laws. My mother-in-law makes a fantastic caviar kookoo (baked egg omelet), which I’ve never seen anywhere else. It has most of the same ingredients as a kookoo sabzi, but with the addition of caviar, which she procures from recognizing which fish in the market are pregnant. It’s a really unique Norooz treat. She also serves torshi seer, or pickled garlic, almost exclusively on Norooz. Some of the cloves were jarred more than a decade ago, and it makes a great compliment to the fish.
I spent several Norooz holidays in Iran. The first one was particularly lonely, as Norooz is very much a private celebration, with one’s immediate family. In the days following, people make the rounds visiting other family members, but that first day can be very intimate. I love that time of year in Tehran especially, because the city, which is usually so congested, shuts down. The weather is clean and there’s no traffic. It’s really tranquil.
Sabzi polow, the classic herb-filled rice of Persian new year, is the main staple. Made with an abundance of fresh herbs, this really signifies spring and goes hand-in-hand with the sentiment of Norooz.
As a child, I remember visiting house after house after house of family members in what we call ayd deedani, or endless visits to people's houses for the New Year. All the houses packed with guests and so much food, drink and the most beautiful flowers and gifts. As a kid, you did well at these gatherings because the grown-ups would shower the children with gifts and money. Such great memories.
I left Iran for Britain as a toddler so I have no recollection of Norooz in Iran. But I'm told it was no different, it has always been a big thing in my family so whilst the grandparents generation were alive, it was a huge affair that lasted for two weeks. Now, less people sit house (awaiting guests) and host parties for Norooz, but we still visit a few different people and attend a few parties and eat sabzi polow at least five or six times, and plus, I cook it myself. The main difference being I'm the only cook now and the main host on my side of family.
There is nothing like coming home to Ohio and eating my dad's food. My dad immigrated to the US from Iran when he was a teenager and cooks Persian food all the time—he is, in my unbiased opinion, one of the greatest chefs in the land. Literally anything he puts in front of me I will eat. It's so basic, but one thing I love so much and miss eating constantly is TAHDIG!!!! Such a treat and my dad makes it so well. Bury me in saffron. I miss the simplest stuff like that—kebob, the works. My dad makes kebob on our deck on the grill and it's unreal. I used to be a vegetarian until I visited Iran and now I just sit and eat meats and stews until I can't move anymore. It rules. Also: kashk-e bademjan, or grilled eggplant and cheese dip. I resisted eating it for so long because it looks kinda nasty, as so many good things do, but I can eat my weight in it.
I love ghormeh sabzi, or Iranian herb stew. We used to call it gorbeh sabzi (gorbeh = cat in farsi) and my dad would tell us all how he ran over a cat with the lawnmower earlier in the day and that's what we were eating for dinner. When I was little, I believed it and really internalized it so I didn't even try the dish until I was a teen. Then I realized I loved it and had been depriving myself of a delish treat! So I guess this memory is semi-traumatic but has a happy ending in that I get to eat ghormeh sabzi now.
I’ve never spent Norooz in Iran, as I’ve only been able to make it there once in my life. I went for the first time a year and a half ago, during the summer, and it was of the best experiences of my life. Getting to meet the family I had talked to only on the phone or over the internet up until that point and getting to see the country I had been looking at pictures of for an entire lifetime was pretty life-changing.
As a kid, my favorite Persian New Year ritual was chaharshanbe suri, an event that would occur on the eve of the Wednesday before Norooz. Friends and family would gather together and make small bonfires outside that we would jump over to get rid of any bad spirits. This was in order to let the fire fill you with warmth and enlightenment. Afterwards, we would eat bowls of ash-e reshteh, a thick soup made with legumes, long, toasted wheat noodles, and a mountain of greens and herbs, and topped with kashk (a funky Iranian dairy product), sizzled mint, and crispy onions. The soup was heavy and would stick to your bones, but I always had room for a kebab wrapped is lavash.
My favorite Norooz food will always be sabzi polo (herb rice). In Farsi, we say that you can judge a cook by the way they cook their rice. And while many people will often say their mother is a great cook, I'm going to say that my mother knows her rice. She has a sixth sense for it. And sabzi polo is one of her specialties. She would go through a series of steps, rinsing the basmati rice before soaking it in salted water. She would then gently boil it until al dente before layering the the rice with a mountain-full of chopped fresh herbs. It was always so fragrant and so filling. It's one of the first Iranian dishes I learned how to prepare and even with all the labor that is involved, it always turns out to be worth it.
Unfortunately, while I feel very close to my Iranian heritage, I have never been to Iran and never got to see the Norooz festivities there. Growing up, I remember hearing how my family members in Iran would get two weeks off for the holiday and being jealous I couldn't even take one day off of school for Norooz. It's still a missing piece in my life, not having gone there, but I feel fortunate that my parents passed down their love for the country they hailed from to me.
The thing that we always had at home was sabzi polo mahi. It means green rice, because they chop up a bunch of herbs. Iranians use herbs in a more intense way than anyone gives them credit for. They like to chop them up finely and just throw them around. I think my mom also throws lima beans in there. You serve it with any white fish. What made it a special meal is that we never had it except for at Persian New Year. It’s like at Thanksgiving or Christmas when you’re roasting a turkey and you smell that special smell. It has that same feeling for me, that’s the smell of Persian New Year. All of my mom’s recipes are like, “Take one finger of walnut…” What does that mean? Everything is eyeballing it. These recipes weren’t formally written down, and that’s how she passed them on to me. I think that’s why my food doesn’t always turn out well when I make it.
Norooz is also a time when families see each other and drop off sweets. I remember there would always be an unreasonable amount of baklava. Iranians are fond of chopping up things really, really small, so there would be this kind of baklava that was cut into really small pieces and you would throw it back like a piece of popcorn because it was so small. There would just be an unreasonable number of boxes of baked goods.
I still put together my sofreh haft-sin. It’s not as glamorous as my mom’s or my grandmom’s. If I can't get real goldfish I get goldfish crackers. I’ve never been to Iran during Norooz because it’s during the school year, and we would visit during the summer. Norooz there is like Christmas here. It’s a national day off. I always wondered what it would be like to be in Iran, where it’s a nationwide celebration. It's deeply secular, it's all about spring and renewal. It's beautiful. I wish that we were all celebrating spring all over the world.
Louisa Shafia was our Writer in Residence in February. She wrote about how writing her cookbook brought her closer to her Iranian heritage, the Middle Eastern origins of ice cream, Nashville's Little Kurdistan, the art of hospitality in the Middle East, and the Perisan woman who runs some of Birmingham's best restaurants.