Our senior food editor shares his family's Persian New Year feast with herby saffron rice, roasted black bass, and rose water brittle. March 16, 2017By Andy Baraghani I must have been 10 years old or younger when I watched my grandfather plant the bulb of a hyacinth plant in my parents’ front yard in California. My love for the flower began then, but would increase over time. I remember his broad fingers, marked by his vitiligo, digging up some dirt, gently placing the bulb in the center, and covering it back up again. It was an eternal gift in a way, as the flower continues to grow back each year around the same time. First, spears of green inch up from the ground. Then, a cluster of tubular-bell-shaped violet flowers, signifying the coming of spring and Nowruz, the Persian New Year. When I was growing up, Nowruz was as a reminder of my Iranian heritage—something I had trouble dealing with. My school lunches, my parents’ accents, and the smells coming from my mother’s kitchen were a constant reminder that I was different, that we were different. This discomfort lasted for years, longer than I’d like to admit. Yet, for some reason, when Nowruz came around, I was quick to embrace the holiday. Religion, race, language, never bogged me down during this time because Nowruz wasn’t about any of those things. It was a holiday that celebrated nature, and how could I (or anyone else) be against something like that? Ash reshteh, a soup with beans, greens, lots of herbs, and noodles.Photo by Alex Lau, Styling by Sue Li
he holiday begins on the spring equinox and then stretches 13 days. The festivities, however, start when friends and family gather on the Wednesday before Nowruz for Chaharshanbe Suri, also known as the Festival of Fire. Little bonfires are built to jump over and get rid of any bad luck or problems, and to absorb the fire’s warmth in order to be enlightened. If this sounds a little hocus-pocus to you, remember that this holiday goes back over 3,000 years. The singing, dancing and worry of being burned by the fire was accompanied with a bowl of ash reshteh a thick soup made with beans, greens, and long noodles. It looks like hell but tastes like heaven. The noodles are supposed to represent the different paths a person is presented in life. In preparation for Nowruz, my mother was constantly talking about who we’d be seeing and what she’d be cooking. We’d go grocery shopping in her purple Dodge minivan (don’t get me started), collecting what we needed for the Haft-Seen. Haft means seven in Persian and Seen stands for the letter S, so it would be a table spread of seven symbolic that begin with the letter S in the Persian alphabet. The Haft-Seen was no joke and can be taken very seriously. The seven items include sabzeh (wheat grass); which stands for rebirth and which we usually grew ourselves, serkeh (vinegar) for patience; seeb (apples) for beauty; seer (garlic) for health; senjed (wild olive) for love; samanu (wheat germ pudding) for affluence; and sombal (hyacinth) for spring. My immense fondness for the hyacinth spurs from those memories of my grandfather, but also a story my sister would repeat about our dad. She said that he would take a flower from the clusters of the sombal, place it between his nose and upper lips, and go to sleep with it because he enjoyed the smell so much. And to my family, if this is not true, please don’t tell me. In addition to the seven items on the Haft-Seen, we left a book of poetry, goldfish (that we got from an Iranian market), painted eggs (the closeted homo in me spent a lot of time on those), candles, and a mirror (a reflection of the past). Some people got so caught up on making the most elaborate and beautiful Haft-Seen. I always thought the real winner was who could keep the goldfish alive past the 13 days. We never won that game. For a quick appetizer, set out feta marinated with good olive oil, toasted coriander, and cumin. Don't forget this Barbari bread with nigella and white sesame seeds.Bobbi Lin
nce it was all laid out, my family would come together on Nowruz to count down to the exact moment of the equinox (like counting down until the ball drops in Times Square), known as saal tahvil—this year it will be at 6:28 a.m. EST. Then we’d take take a family photo behind the Haft-Seen. Looking through them now, and seeing that Kramer cut I sported for a couple years, can make me cringe. After the photos, kids would get ay dee, (AKA money), and we’d feast. For the next 11 days, we’d visit family. Kuku sabzi, a Persian herb and egg dish, similar to frittata. Bobbi Lin
uring Nowruz, you eat specific foods to welcome the new year. Herbs serve as a base to most of the dishes in the menu. Kuku sabzi (a Persian herb frittata-like dish that’s made with a mixture of parsley, dill, cilantro, turmeric, eggs, and fenugreek). Depending on your family’s traditions, zereshk, dried barberries that are quite sour, and walnuts can be added. It’s lighter and fluffier than a frittata, and my mom cooked it until it had this brownish-green hue on both sides. My recipe only browns one side and the top part is finished under the broiler (it stays really green this way). Yogurt with dried shallots (mahst musir) or yogurt with cucumbers and mint (mahst khiar) are always on the table, along with a platter of a raw herbs (sabzi khordan). Mahst musir, yogurt with raisins, cucumber, and walnuts Bobbi Lin
he main dish is sabzi polo mahi (herb rice with a whole fish). I’d watch my mom go through the labor-intensive steps to making perfectly fluffy Iranian rice: rinsing, soaking, parboiling, and steaming. The rice would then be piled high like a mountain on a platter. She nails the seasoning each time, drizzle the perfect amount of butter to coat each strand of rice. Over the years, I’ve tried to develop a version of my own sabzi polo, based on my mother’s method, but it’s never as good as hers. Sabzi polo, herb rice with green garlic, saffron, and crispy shallots.Bobbi Lin
he fish (usually smoked white fish or fried fish with sour oranges) always seemed secondary to the rice in my household, but that could’ve been just me. My mom went rogue and baked salmon with turmeric, saffron, garlic, dill, and lime juice. As my mother’s son, I also went a little rogue with my recipe: a whole black sea bass (you can use whatever white flaky fish you like), that gets butterflied and stuffed with a spicy garlicky herb mixture before being roasted. That is how I eat my sabzi polo mahi. Sabzi polo mahi, roasted black bass with orange-flower water. Bobbi Lin
fter the meal, there were always sweets, plates of sohan, a kind of Iranian toffee with pistachios and almonds. The version I make is more of a brittle and doesn’t contain any flour. There was also vanilla or saffron-flavored cotton candy known as pashmak, marzipan shaped like Persian mulberries, and too many other sweets that I avoided in favor of more rice. How to make sohan: The 13th day of the new year is sizdah bedar, and you’re supposed to surround yourself with nature. My family, 30 to 40 of us, would take over a section of the park. Even though it wasn’t entirely warm yet in northern California, we would still do what we do best: eat. Chicken, lamb, and beef kebab would be stacked high over layers of lavash bread that would soak up the hot grease. Tables were scattered with tubs of yogurt, bowls of pickled cucumbers, and plates of cold cuts. Eventually, I would get my hands on a popsicle or, even better, saffron-cardamom ice cream dusted with crushed pistachios sandwiched between two wafer cookies. I’d occasionally join in and play soccer for a quarter or two, before looking for something else to nosh on. Before sunset, my grandfather would sing poetry and charm the crowd with his raspy voice and dancing eyebrows (a signature Baraghani move) and I knew it was the end of the celebration, until next year. --- --- ...