For me, this time is made rich from a lifetime of memories, as it is for most Iranians. New clothes are purchased. Families deep-clean their homes for weeks in advance; we do this because the days bring a constant parade of visits from friends and relatives.
Joyous festivities begin on the last Tuesday of the Iranian calendar year with bonfires that are danced around and jumped over. Firecrackers keep the city awake late into the night. Children disguise themselves and go door-to-door, asking for treats while they make a ruckus by banging on pots and pans — like a mash-up of Halloween and the Fourth of July. In my neighborhood, my dad was always the first to make a fire.
Food plays a central role in all this, of course, and dishes are infused with symbolic meanings. Some are prepared once a year, only for Nowruz.
The past two years that I have been away from Iran, I did not get to jump over any fires. But I did make Ash Reshteh, the hearty soup of beans, herbs and noodles that can chase away a winter’s chill. Garnishes of dried mint that’s fried until blackened, fried garlic, caramelized onion and whey make it special. My mom would make a cauldron of it on that bonfire night, called Chaharshanbe Suri. In some parts of the country, such as Shiraz — one of Iran’s most beloved cities, known for its rich history of wine, flowers and poetry — locals say their food must be at the boiling point the moment the year changes. (In Washington, that moment will happen shortly after midday March 20.)
No matter what time of day the change occurred, my grandmother had her soup set to boil at that precise moment. It’s that rhythm of consistency across centuries, I think, that makes Iranians such a proud people.
We always eat Reshteh Polow, rice with vermicelli noodles, on the eve of the new year. It pays homage to the notion that life is like a mess of tangled noodles, and eating them as the year changes will help us take control of our destiny. This stems from an old proverb that says “may life’s noodle always be in your hand,” which seems to make more sense in Farsi. The dish takes some time to make but, trust me, it is delicious.
My grandmother used to reminisce about a time when there was no way to transport fresh fish from the Caspian Sea in the north to Tehran. So to enjoy fish in the rest of the country, Tehran residents began eating smoked fish as part of their annual feast. It is now among the most popular Nowruz dishes throughout Iran and among our diaspora — but I can’t get my husband to eat it.
Shopping for the right fish — plump with roe — and watching my mom’s talent for bargaining with fishmongers to make sure she got the freshest, best fish available are vivid childhood memories, equal parts fun and lesson. When I buy fish at the Maine Avenue seafood markets in Southwest Washington, I use the techniques I learned long ago. White-fleshed mahi from the Caspian Sea region is the preferred type of fish for the Nowruz feast. The fish has many bones in it, so trout has become a popular alternative.
My mom pickles her own and replenishes them periodically. Hers was one of the few possessions that accompanied her as a new bride, arriving in my dad’s home 40 years ago. The bottom of that original jar is now a thick mud. Every time she reaches past the newer top layers to pull from the older cloves, we know the recipient is someone very dear to her.
Another of our favorite Nowruz bites is an olive spread that we call Zeytoon Parvardeh. Most people buy it already prepared, but I’m not sure why, because it’s so simple to make and adds so much flavor to our meals.
The centerpiece for Nowruz is a ceremonial arrangement of seven symbolic food items, because seven is a lucky number. Each one has a name that begins with the letter S in Farsi. Families gather around the sofreh to wait for the beginning of the new year. The celebrations come to an end on the 13th day, called Nature Day. Iranian families go on picnics together, taking with us sprouted wheat or lentils — one of the S foods from the ceremonial setting — that we throw into a body of flowing water. It symbolizes a letting go of the misfortunes and sadness of the past year.
This year, I’ll be throwing mine into the Potomac.
Rezaian is an Iranian-born freelance journalist who discovered a passion for cooking her native cuisine after she came to the United States in 2016. She is married to Washington Post staff writer Jason Rezaian. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
Here, steaming the rice makes shorter work of this traditionally time-consuming dish for the Persian new year, which is often served with fish. The rice is rinsed but not soaked.
Dried rose petals are available at spice shops and at Middle Eastern markets.
Recipes from Washington cook Yeganeh Rezaian.
½ teaspoon saffron threads
¼ cup hot water
¼ cup canola oil
1 flatbread, such as lavash or a flour tortilla
3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
2 cups uncooked basmati rice
4 cups water
1 cup mixed finely chopped fresh dill, chives, cilantro, parsley and tarragon leaves (may use 2 tablespoons of each herb)
4 cloves garlic, minced (may substitute 1½ young leeks cleaned and minced or 4 minced garlic scapes)
Dried rose petals, for garnish (optional)
Place the saffron threads in the hot water in a cup or small bowl; cover and let this brew for 10 to 15 minutes.
Pour half the oil into a pot, then sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the brewed saffron over the oil. Place the flatbread on top, trimming to make it fit; drizzle it with 1 tablespoon of the melted butter.
Pour the rice into a separate medium pot. Use cool water to rinse (and drain) it 3 or 4 times until the water runs clear. After pouring out the water for the last time, add the 4 cups of water, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat; once it comes to a boil, cook for 5 to 7 minutes, then stir in the herbs and garlic; cook for about 5 minutes. The rice should be softened at this point, and the water should be mostly absorbed. Stir well to make sure the herbs and garlic are evenly distributed. Turn off the heat.
Gently transfer the herbed rice mixture to the pot with the flatbread, so the bread remains in place. Use the handle end of a spatula to create a few holes in the rice; this will help during steaming.
Cover and set the pot over medium-high heat; cook for 5 minutes, or until it starts to steam. Uncover and drizzle in the remaining 2 tablespoons of brewed saffron and the remaining 2 tablespoons of melted butter on top of the rice. Wrap the pot lid in a dish towel; this will help absorb moisture inside the pot. Cover the pot tightly with the wrapped lid. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 45 minutes, or until you can smell the rice.
To serve, uncover and invert a plate over the pot. Holding them tightly together, carefully turn the pot upside down, trying to keep the crusty tahdig intact; you should hear the rice hit the plate with a thump. Lift off the pot. The rice should look like a cake with a firm, golden top; this is called a tahdig.
Garnish the tahdig top with dried rose petals, if desired. Serve warm.
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