Just as spring is a time for rebirth, the Persian New Year is a time to celebrate new life. Nowruz is celebrated on the spring equinox, which is Saturday, March 20.
This celebration of spring is filled with symbolism around rebirth and renewal, because spring is a time when life is coming back after a long, cold winter, said Yasmin Khan, the London-based human rights campaigner turned author of “The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen” and “Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen.” These two cookbooks from Khan inspire and provide a window into the cultures and stories of people from the Middle East through food.
Khan’s latest work, “Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from the Eastern Mediterranean,” will be published on May 4.
CNN: What are some of Persian New Year’s traditions and rituals?
Yasmin Khan: On the last Tuesday before the New Year, there is a tradition to make small bonfires in your garden. Traditionally people jump over the bonfires, and it’s supposed to be a symbol of purification, challenges of the year gone by, and energetically cleansing you and preparing you for the year ahead.
A key tradition is to set up an altar in your house called a Haft-seen, which means seven S’s in Farsi. You place seven things on your altar that begin with the letter S in Farsi, which are symbols or qualities you’d like to invite in for the year ahead. You can have apples for good health, candles for light, eggs for fertility, wheatgrass for rebirth and renewal, vinegar for wisdom, and a gold coin for abundance and prosperity. Each person chooses items that have meaning for them.
The festival lasts two weeks. At the end of the festival, you take the wheatgrass you’ve been growing on your altar and you take it down to some running water somewhere. You tie knots in the wheatgrass then throw it into the running water. It would float off along with all your hopes and dreams for the year ahead.
CNN: What food is important for the holiday?
Khan: Like all cultural celebrations, food is a really integral part. Because it’s a festival celebrating spring, we eat lots of green and fresh herbs. For example, there’s this dish called Kuku Sabzi (see recipe below), which is a gorgeous herb and spinach frittata that we always eat on the first day of the year in our house. The frittata is fragrant and aromatic and is served with flatbreads, sliced tomatoes and pickles.
The first meal of the Persian New Year is always fish served with herb-flecked rice filled with dill, parsley and chives in it. The two-week festival is a time of celebration with people you know. Not in these pandemic times, but traditionally you go to people’s houses and eat lots of delicious sweets and pastries.
CNN: What are some easy ways people can join in the celebrations?
Khan: Cooking is probably the easiest and most fun way to celebrate the new year. I really recommend that people give some Persian recipes a go. As well as being delicious, they’re healthy and vibrant with all the herbs that are packed in them.
In the weeks before the new year, we do a big deep spring cleaning called “shaking down the house” in Farsi. We’ve all been stuck at home, and it’s definitely got quite dusty around the corners of where I live. It’s really lovely to have a focus and have something that is about bringing in new life, renewal and rebirth during this difficult time.
And no one regrets a spring clean, so I think that’s also a really great idea. I think this is a beautiful kind of nonreligious festival that everyone can join into and that we can all relate to. It’s a time where we really try and let go of any difficulties that we’ve had in the past year and try to start the new year with a clean slate.
Recipes for the Persian New Year
This Iranian frittata is a sensational deep green color and tastes like spring on a plate, bursting with fresh herby flavor. It is incredibly quick to throw together, will keep for a few days in the fridge, and can be enjoyed hot or cold.
Serve as an appetizer or as part of a mezze spread, wrapped up in a flatbread with some slices of tomato and a few salty and sour fermented cucumber pickles, or add some crumbled feta and lightly toasted walnuts for a more substantial main.
Makes 4 servings as a main or 8 servings as a starter
Prep time: 15 minutes | Total time: 35 minutes
7 ounces|200 grams spinach
1 3/4 ounces|50 grams fresh parsley
1 3/4 ounces|50 grams fresh dill
2 2/3 ounces|75 grams fresh cilantro
5 medium eggs
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaf
2 teaspoons sunflower oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
- Wash spinach, parsley, dill and cilantro, then dry well on paper towels or in a salad spinner. Squeeze out as much moisture as possible; if the greens are wet when they are cooked, they will make the kuku go spongy. Chop finely or blitz in a food processor, in a couple of batches.
- Heat broiler to high. Crack eggs into a large mixing bowl. Add turmeric, flour, salt, pepper and fenugreek leaf. Stir in the chopped spinach and herbs.
- Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet. Add garlic and gently fry over low heat to soften, about 2 minutes.
- Make sure garlic is evenly distributed around the skillet, then pour in the egg mixture. Cook over low heat until kuku is almost cooked through, 5-8 minutes. Finish off in hot broiler.
- Let kuku cool slightly, then cut into triangular slices to serve.
Sabzi Polo Baa Mahi – Mixed Herb Rice With Baked Salmon
Makes 4 servings
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup dark soy sauce
Juice of 1 medium lemon
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
4 salmon fillets
Mixed herb rice
1 3/4 cups white basmati rice
Pinch of saffron strands
Pinch of granulated sugar
2 tablespoons freshly boiled water
1 small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 small bunch fresh coriander, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
2 tablespoons bunch fresh chives, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- To make the marinade, combine garlic, soy sauce, lemon juice, olive oil and cayenne pepper, if using, in a deep bowl. Add salmon, turn to coat well, cover with plastic wrap and let marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
- Rinse and parboil rice and prepare the saffron liquid. Place saffron in a pestle and mortar with sugar and grind until you have a fine powder. Add just-boiled water and let steep for 10 minutes.
- Very carefully, fold rice, chopped herbs, garlic clove and 1 tablespoon oil together, being careful not to break the rice grains.
- Preheat oven to 400°F/Gas 6. Place an 8″-wide nonstick saucepan with snug-fitting lid over a medium heat. Melt 1 tablespoon butter with 2 tablespoons oil. Add 1 tablespoon saffron liquid and season with a pinch of salt. Once the fat is hot, sprinkle a thin layer of rice over the bottom and firmly press down to line the base of the pan. Using a large spoon, gently layer the rest of the rice on top, building it up into a pyramid shape. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, make 4 holes in the rice. Dot remaining 1 tablespoon butter into holes and then pour over the rest of the saffron liquid
- Place a clean tea towel or 4 paper towels on top of the pan and fit the lid on tightly. Tuck in the edges of the tea towel, or trim paper towels to fit, so they won’t catch the flame. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to very low and cook 15 minutes more. Take rice off heat and let sit. Do not be tempted to sneak a peek while it is cooking as this will disturb the steaming process. When rice has been cooking for 10 minutes, place salmon on a baking tray and bake skin side up until cooked to your liking, 10-15 minutes.
- Once rice has cooked, fill sink with 2″ cold water and place saucepan — with lid still tightly on — in the water. This will produce a rush of steam that should loosen the base of the rice. Remove lid, place a large plate on top of pan and quickly turn rice over. Present the herbed rice with the fish and serve immediately.
AUTHOR NOTE: This recipe is adapted from Yasmin