A Persian New Year Feast, From Herbs to Eggs

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Hamed Saber/flickr

Though like the rosebud, the world's work is a knot
Like the spring breeze, you! Be the knot-opener!

—Hafez (1325-1389)

To try recipes for traditional foods served during the Iranian New Year, click here for herbed rice with fish, here for an herbed omelet, and here for walnut cookies.

Moment of beginning. Moment of green shoots and budding flowers, promising peace and plenitude. The Iranian New Year, Nowruz (or "new day" in Persian), began on Sunday at the instant the sun crossed the celestial equator. This year the ancient holiday, which has been celebrated for more than 3000 years, unfolds in a particularly fraught atmosphere. In Iran and throughout the communities of the Iranian diaspora, many hopes and fears are in thrall, and the festival of renewal and rebirth is ushered in with reverence and mixed expectations.

Although political and social scenarios change, this holiday is fragrant with imagery that has endured milenia: rituals, decorations, and, of course, food. Primordial symbols dating from Zoroastrian times have lost none of their power to evoke freshness and joy: eggs for fertility, fresh herbs for rebirth, fish for life and abundance, sugar for sweetness. Sabzeh polow ba mahi, herbed rice with fish, is always the main dish on the first night of Nowruz. Kuku-ye sebzeh, an herb omelet, is another star throughout the holiday season, tasting like spring itself with a profusion of fresh greens. And noon-e gurdui is just one of the many kinds of tiny delicate cookies served to holiday visitors in order to sweeten social relations and family bonds.

The context in which these foods are served is as important as the meals themselves. All over the greater Iranian world—which includes Kurds, Pashtuns, Baluchis, and others—this ancient rite of spring is the biggest and most festive event of the year. The Wednesday before the equinox, bonfires are lit in the streets, and in a buoyant atmosphere people jump over the fires, purifying themselves for the new year, borrowing strength and health from the flames. Houses are cleaned and repainted, new clothes are purchased, hair is cut, old disputes are settled, and everything is primed for renewal.

Each household also lays out a precise array of foods, the haft sin, or "seven S's," each of which promises a blessing for the coming year: sabzeh, or sprouted wheat, for rebirth; sir, garlic, for health; samanu, a dense syrup, for strength; somaq, sumac seeds, for the sunrise, victory of light over darkness; senjid, wild lotus-tree fruit, for love; sib, an apple, for beauty; and serkeh, vinegar, for age and patience. These are elegantly spread on a table decorated with candles (for light), mirrors (for transparency), decorated eggs (for fertility), sweets (for hospitality), blooming flowers (for love), books of poetry and scripture (for wisdom), and a goldfish in a bowl (for good luck). The overall effect is one of abundance and grace: a small haven or interior garden apart from the busy world, with room for both playfulness and high purpose.

This centerpiece—and the spirit of generosity and hope it represents—presides over the household throughout the two weeks of holiday as families and friends visit each other, bring each other best wishes for the new year, read the evocative verses of the Persian poet Hafez, and eat.

Taste these recipes and think of the new year, of everything that is green and grows, of the courage required to speak the truth, of slender poplars and blown roses. Happy New Year to all of you! Aid-e Shoma Mobarak! Nowruz piroz be!