The start of spring signifies new beginnings – buds start to reappear on trees, grass begins to push up from previously frozen ground, and the daylight lasts a little longer. During the first official week of spring, Iranians all over the world celebrate New Year, or, Nowruz, spending time with family and friends, and eating really, really good food.
Other traditions for Nowruz:
Cleaning out your house (Khouneh Tekouni): This tradition is somewhat similar to what we used to do in Hawaii (Japanese tradition) – cleaning out your house in preparation for the New Year. For Nowruz, this can extend to buying new clothes so that everything is fresh and clean for the upcoming year.
Festival of Fire (Chahārshanbe Suri): This festival, celebrated the Wednesday before Nowruz, includes making bonfires, and jumping over them while singing a traditional song. The fire is believed to burn out all the fear in one’s spirit, in preparation for new year.
Haft Sīn: This is the traditional table setting to bring in the new year and the new beginnings of spring. It consists of seven items begin with the letter “S” in Farsi:
Sabzeh (lentil sprouts that grow in a dish, symbolizing rebirth)
Samanu (sweet pudding made from wheat, symbolizing affluence)
Senjed (dried fruit of the oleaster tree, symbolizing love)
Seer (garlic, symbolizing medicine)
Seeb (apple, symbolizing health and beauty)
Somaq (sumac berries, symbolizing the color of the sunrise)
Serkeh (vinegar, symbolzing age and patience)
I have an unexplained love affair with Persian food – so much so that when Jules and I got married in Los Angeles last year, we chose to have our rehearsal dinner at Javan Restaurant in Westwood. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to perfect tahdig, a Persian specialty: the golden, crispy crust taken from the bottom of the pot where the rice is cooked, but for Nowruz there is a variation of rice called Reshteh Polo, a noodle and rice dish which is said to symbolically help one succeed in life.
1 1/2 cup basmati rice
4 dates, seeded and shopped
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 onion, diced
3-4oz of reshteh (you can buy this pre-toasted)
1/8 tsp turmeric
big pinch of saffron
2 tbsp canola oil
optional: handful of slivered pistachios and almonds
Soak rice for 2 hours. (You can soak up to 6 hours if you want.) In a large stock pot, boil 6-8 cups of water and add a handful of salt. Add the soaked rice and boil for about 8 minutes, until just soft, then drain. Put to the side while you prepare the sweet ingredients.
In a large saute pan, add 2 tablespoons of butter (you can use clarified butter – ghee – if you like) and melt over medium-high heat. Add the diced onion and saute until soft, adding a bit of water to prevent the onion from burning. Add the turmeric, dates, and raisins, and a dash of cinnamon, and salt. Continue to cook over medium heat until items are well combined and the flavors have had some time to blend, about five minutes. Remove from heat.
In a small saucepan, boil 1/4 cup of water with your saffron. As soon as it comes to a boil, remove from heat and let it sit.
For this dish I like to use a non-stick 8-qt casserole/Dutch oven with a lid, which helps the rice come out at the end. Add 2 tablespoons of canola oil, and enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Add a layer of the boiled rice, a layer of half of the raisin-onion-date mixture, then another layer of rice, the other half of the raisin mixture, then finish with another layer of rice. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, poke five holes in the center of the rice. Cover the rice, turn it on low for about 10 minutes, then crank up the heat for another 10 minutes.
Add a tablespoon of melted butter to the saffron water. Pour this mixture over the rice, then cover the rice again – this time, wrapping the lid in a kitchen towel to catch the condensation – and then set the pot back on the stove. Cook on low heat for an hour. DO NOT PEEK. After an hour your rice should be ready.
The moment of truth is when you flip it over onto a plate. The crust should loosen freely, and you should be able to see a complete, golden, crispy tahdig! To serve, sprinkle with the slivered almonds and pistachios, or, if you don’t have that on hand, you can do what I did and throw a handful of pumpkin seeds on top for garnish. Normally, this is served alongside a lamb or beef dish, but it’s pretty tasty on its own.
I want to also share this photo by my friend Omid Tavallai, who made this beautiful Nowruz dish, Sabzi Polo ba Mahi, herbed rice with fish. (I wanted to make this too, but since it was only Jules and I at home, I couldn’t make a proper Persian feast without feeling horribly gluttonous.) Instead, I have to resign myself to drooling over Omid’s photo of this traditional New Year’s dish.
So, as they say, Eide Shoma Mobaarak! Spring forth and have a wonderful, prosperous New Year, Persian style!