Iranian New Year, Persian New Year, or Nowruz — which translates to new day — takes place on the vernal equinox, meaning this Thursday, March 19. What originated as a Zoroastrian feast is now an annual celebration. Never heard of Nowruz? Don't know the major dates or what food to prepare? We can help break it down.
Festivities begin on the last Wednesday of the year with chaharshanbeh suri — or Wednesday festival of fire. To be exact, people start celebrating on Tuesday night when they make multiple bonfires and jump over them, singing: “Give me your glow, take away my ill health.”
Further back, there was a tradition reminiscent of trick or treating — except with adults. Folks would disguise themselves and bang on pots and pans to announce their arrival in the neighborhood. The neighbors would open the door and fill the pots with fistfuls of dry ingredients ideal for a hearty soup. The trick-or-treaters would use the ingredients to make the soup and deliver it to those in need.
If you ever travel to Iran around this time of the year, you’ll feel the spirit of celebration on the streets a few weeks before Nowruz. Vendors set up stands on main streets, artists are commissioned to decorate park benches, and Iranians shop for haft seen (more on that later). And you can smell the wheat germ cooking.
First, the table.
The equivalent of a Christmas tree for Iranians is sofra haft seen. Sofra refers to fabric that used to be a spread on the floor (today, the setup is on a table) and haft seen refers to seven items that start with the letter “s” in Farsi. Seeb (apple) symbolizes beauty, sir (garlic) for health and keeping away bad omens, sabzi (wheat or lentil sprouts, which most folks grow at home) for rebirth and our connection to mother nature, sumac represents sunrise and new beginnings, serkeh (vinegar) symbolizes age or patience, samanoo (wheat germ pudding) for abundance, and senjed (oleaster tree fruit) for love and wisdom.
Caspian Food Market in Scottsdale is the place to go for samanoo, sabzi, and senjed.
There are also modern additions to the haft seen. Sekkeh (coins) represent affluence; sonbol (hyacinth) represents happiness. Goldfish represent life, colored eggs denote fertility, a mirror signifies light and clarity, and candles bring eternal light. Since Islam is the most common religion for Nowruz, you’d typically see the Quran. But Iran also has a strong literary culture. Therefore, you'll usually see a book poems from either Hafez or Ferdowsi on the table. Part of the New Year's ceremony is to ask a question and open the Hafez book to receive the answer.
Now, the food.
Iranians have traditional foods for New Year’s Eve and day. The dishes commonly used on New Year’s Eve are ash reshteh (noodles and herb soup) or reshteh polo (noodles in saffron rice) with onions, dates, and raisins mixed in.
According to Najmieh Batmanglij, hailed as the Persian cooking guru, “[Noodles] symbolize the choice of paths among the many that life spreads out before us. Eating those tangled strands is like unraveling the Gordian knot of life’s infinite possibilities in order to pick out the best.” They are believed to bring good fortune and success in new ventures.
New Year’s Day food also includes sabzi polo (a fragrant herbed rice) with fish, along with kuku sabzi (herb frittata). Make the frittata more flavorful by adding tart barberries along with walnuts.
In an interview of Persian cooks by Francis Lam, Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, said: “…herbs are the main ingredient and not just garnish in our cooking. In Iran, herbs are not sold by the bunch, they're bought by the kilo, which is like six bunches.”
In The Language of Food, Dan Jurafsky, says: “It was the Persians whose love of desserts was the impetus that eventually changed [the] simple wafers and nuts into our modern desserts.” Not surprisingly, there are sweets specific to Nowruz. Some examples are noghl (sugar-coated almond slivers); noon nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies), rice, coconut, and puff walnut cookies. Plus, baklava. In fact, you must at least eat some noghl when the year changes to sweeten your mouth and your life.
There's one more treat. Eidee (gift) is most commonly money given by the older family members to the younger ones. The elders typically place envelopes of money or loose bills in the Quran to bless them. You can see the children’s eyes sparkle in anticipation when an auntie or grandpa reaches for the Quran. After the immediate family celebrates and exchanges presents in the house, they begin to make the rounds to visit extended family members, starting with the oldest. Iranian culture is that of ancestor worship, demanding respect for the elders.
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Spring cleaning commences a month before Nowruz. Persian culture is one of symbolism and tradition. Tradition says, whatever state you are in at the moment of the vernal equinox, you’ll stay in for a full year. So, houses get spick-and-span clean with everything in its proper place, lest you have a messy home for a year. Ditto your body. Bathe and wear at least one new item of clothing the moment the year changes. The rule applies even if the equinox falls in the middle of the night. It doesn't have to be elaborate. A new sleep shirt or pair of socks will do.
The festivities end on the 13th day when you must leave the house to throw the sabzi, which has gathered the home’s bad energy, into running water. It’s bad luck to bring someone else’s sabzi into your house or throw it into water. The term for this day is sizdah be dar, or, "out on the 13th." For this, people usually picnic with friends and family. The dish for day 13 is baghali polo: lima beans, dill, and rice with lamb (if you want to be fancy), beef, or chicken.
You might see women tie a knot in the grass. Technically, they are silently making a wish. Years ago, a single woman would wish for a husband while married women hoped for children.
Today, wishes have a much wider range.