They were lighting bonfires on the streets of Tehran last week, but it didn’t have much to do with revolution or regime change. Every year, on the Tuesday before the vernal equinox, Iranians jump over bonfires as a symbol of purification which is said to bring good health in the coming year. It also kicks off Persian New Year or Norouz, the 13-day national festival which involves heaps of traditional foods, extensive time spent visiting family and close friends, and in every home, a table decorated with seven items ( haft sin) which symbolize happiness, health, and prosperity. The most important holiday in the Islamic Republic of Iran was entrenched in Persian culture long before the 1979 revolution, and in fact, hails back to Zoroastrian rituals that predate the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. It marks the year 1390 according to Solar Hejri, the official calendar of Iran and Afghanistan, which began during the Prophet Muhammad's migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. For the Persian diaspora around the world including Muslims, Jews, Kurds and Baha'i, the foods and traditions of Norouz are among the most indelible remnants of their homeland.
Norouz has taken on a profound significance for Iranians in the United States, many of whom vacated their homeland with few personal belongings to escape living conditions in a totalitarian regime. Johns Hopkins Professor Azar Nafisi, the bestselling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I've Been Silent About has written extensively about the rich cultural history of Iran and the asphyxiating impact of censorship. She is also a genial party hostess who knows her way around a Persian kitchen.
"This is everyone's favorite part," Nafisi whispers in a conspiratorial tone, while delivering two trays of crispy rice mounds, known as tah dig to the dining table in her sister-in-law's home, where a few dozen family members from three generations had gathered to celebrate Norouz. Before the platters drew the attention of revelers who had been munching on a fresh fruit appetizer, she immediately hands me a plate with a sample of each style of tah dig, one composed of a thin layer of basmati rice cooked to a crisp in butter, and the other with thinly sliced potatoes in addition to the rice. In Persian cuisine, perfectly browned wisps of tah dig are evidence of a cook's skill, much like a flawlessly rendered soufflé in European cooking. And indeed, it's only fitting that the sublime morsels were the first dish to disappear from the laden banquet table.
Yogurt, vegetables, lamb, and fish all play a significant role in Persian cuisine, but rice is still the center of every meal. A traditional Norouz spread includes sabzi polow, a rice dish redolent with green herbs such as cilantro and parsley, and sometimes dill and scallions, which represent the fertility and rebirth of spring. Sabzi polow is traditionally served with fish, either smoked or fried. The savory cod served by Nafisi's family was perfumed with lemon and saffron and gently sauteed. In Tehran, Nafisi recalls, she would make the dish with kutum, a white fish plentiful in the nearby Caspian, but cod works well as a local stand-in. The same green herbs that appear in sabzi polow are invited back for an encore in a frittata-like egg dish known as kuku sabzi. The Norouz menu was rounded out with a stew of cubed chicken in a fragrant turmeric sauce. Nafisi says the dish is usually made with beef in Iran, but the family adjusted the recipe to cater to the restrained diets of the younger generation.
Nafisi opened her home to The Daily Beast for Norouz because she wanted to highlight the festive side of Persian culture that is as far from Islamic politics and nuclear rhetoric—which often dominate discussions on Iran in the United States—as the Caspian is from the Mississippi. But despite the complicated political differences between Iranians and Americans, the notion of rebirth and renewal in springtime has a universal appeal that resonates on both sides of the divide. Since the much-publicized Iranian elections of 2009, public Norouz celebrations in large cities such as New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have been heavily attended, and not just by the 1.5 million Americans of Iranian descent.
"The first year we held a Norouz family day," explains Massumeh Farhad, curator of Islamic art at the Smithsonian in Washington, "we expected 500 people and 8,000 arrived." This year, the Smithsonian held its third Norouz celebration, the most extensive to date, which included an exhibition of the Shahnameh, the most significant book in Persian literature, and arts and crafts projects for children. Farhad hopes that the appeal of Norouz to Americans of all backgrounds will echo the universal enthusiasm for St. Patrick's Day. "Everyone should be a little Persian on Norouz." she says, "because after the winter we've just had, the first day of spring is a day to be celebrated." And while kuku sabzi and sabzi polow are not as familiar to American palates as corned beef and cabbage, they are certainly no less appealing.
Azar Nafisi’s Recipe for Kuku Sabzi
Adapted from Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij. Note: You can use frozen or dried herbs found in most Persian shops, but I recommend using fresh herbs, it will make a difference in both taste and aroma.
5 to 6 eggs 1 teaspoon baking powder 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed 1 cup finely chopped parsley 1 cup finely chopped chives or spring onions 1 cup finely chopped cilantro 1 cup chopped dill 2 medium sized finely chopped lettuce leaves Optional: 1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped walnuts. I recommend as much or as little walnuts as you like. They should be cut into small pieces, so that you can feel the crunch. The crunchy feel of walnuts and the soft texture of herbs and eggs are marvelous! ½ cup oil Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 325°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Coat a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with clarified butter or vegetable oil; place it into the oven to heat. Break eggs into a bowl, add salt and pepper, baking powder, stir rather vigorously with fork, add flour, chopped herbs, garlic and mix well. Use a non-stick skillet, and pour enough oil to cover the surface of skillet and heat for a few seconds. Pour the mixture, cover, lower the heat, cook for about 5-10 minutes or so until the bottom part is set, but the top part is still soft. Put in the walnuts, make sure they are evenly distributed, cover and cook until the mixture is set enough to be turned over. Cut the mixture into even-sized wedges and turn each over and let the mixture cook on the other side. I sometimes venture to put a plate that will fit the size of the skillet on top of the skillet, turn it over and carefully slide it back into the skillet, cover and let the other side cook. (It’s a little bit more adventurous and quite risky, but the kuku comes out whole and you can let it cool a little before cutting it into wedges at the table)
Makes 4 servings.
Azar Nafisi’s Recipe for Sabzi Polow
Adapted from Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij.
Note: You can use frozen or dried herbs, but again this food is best when made with fresh herbs.
3 cups long-grain rice ½ cup chopped chives 2 cups coarsely chopped dill 2 ½ cups parsley 2 cups chopped coriander ¾ cup oil 1 teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in 4 tablespoons hot water Salt and pepper to taste
Bring 8 cups of water and two tablespoons salt to a boil in large non-stick pot. Wash rice and add to the boiling water, let it cook until the rice becomes soft (you can test this by biting a few grains). Drain the rice in fine-mesh colander and rinse well. Mix the chopped herbs. Heat ½ cup oil and 2 tablespoons water and a drop or two of saffron water at the bottom of the pot.
Place two spatulas of rice in the pot, add one spatula of herbs and repeat this until you have piled alternate layers of rice and herbs. Pour the remaining oil and ½ cup of water on the mixture.
Place a clean dish towel over the pot, covering with the lid. Cook over high heat for about 3 minutes, then lower the heat, cooking over low heat for about 45-50 minutes. For the last five minutes of cooking increase the heat to make sure the crust is right. (The art is to cook it enough so that you will leave a wonderful golden crust at the bottom. Do not leave it to cook too much because then the crust will burn!)
Take the pot and place it on a damp surface for a few minutes to free up the crust. Then with a spatula place the rice on the serving platter. To finish put the rice and saffron mixture on top the rice, so that there is nice layer of saffron colored herb rice on the top. Free up the crust with a spatula, and breaking it into smaller pieces, place and serve on separate serving dish.
Makes 6 servings
Azar Nafisi's Recipe for Norouz Fish
Adapted from Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij. In Iran we use a wonderful white fish from the Caspian Sea (called white fish!). Rock fish, cod, or as Najmieh suggests, white sea bass or sea bass are the closest in taste and texture to this kind of fish. You should use whichever you like best.
Fish (8 pieces, cleaned, scaled, washed and dried) 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice 4 table spoons olive oil 1 teaspoon of saffron water Salt and pepper to taste
Mix the lime juice, olive oil, saffron water and salt and pepper. Marinate the fish in the mixture for two to three hours. In a non-stick skillet, put a little oil, heat and place the fish, turning it over and cook until tender.
Karen Fragala Smith is an Associate Editor at Newsweek where she writes about culture and geopolitics.