June 20, 2019

Nowruz: A Time for Renewal

“And still, after all this time, The sun never says to the earth, “You owe Me.”
Look what happens with A love like that, It lights the Whole Sky.”   

These are the words of Persian poet Hafez, who extolled the joys of love and zeroed in on political and religious oppression as early as the 14th century. His books of poetry are considered the pinnacle of Persian literature and usually can be found in the homes of Persians who learn his poetry by heart and recount them as proverbs.

This is just one of the reasons that I consider myself so fortunate that there has never been a time when I haven’t had at least one Iranian family in my life, and at many times, more than one. 

I think I’d be a considerably different soul had I not been blessed to inhale the scent of a Persian home, a place where decades of cooking have permeated every surface, the perfume of saffron and turmeric and the lingering aroma of tea heavily laced with bergamot and served in a seemingly endless stream. I would have missed out on seeing elegant, manicured hands in the delicate balancing act of pinkie and forefinger around the rim of small glasses of the hot liquid, taking sip after sip with a sugar cubes poised just so — in perfectly lipsticked mouths. 

And it is during this time of the year in particular, the Persian New Year called Nowruz, when I’m most reminded of my first encounters in the homes of these mysterious people, with their colorful traditions and delightful customs, many centered around food, ones that reminded me so much of my own family, which was too far away in Israel. It’s the time of year when I remember myself as a young student, invited into the home of a Persian classmate and recognized in her mother’s kitchen a pot with a towel-wrapped lid that contained rice. Up to that point, my house was the only one in which I’d ever seen that trick used, meant to create a barrier between lid and pot so that the rice could steam perfectly without the condensation falling back into the pot. This familiarity, this connection to family and celebration of food that I found among the Persian community gave me goosebumps and added incentive to learn to re-create their incredible sabzis and khoreshts, perfect saffron rice with crispy tadiq (crust) and rose- and orange-flower water flavored sweets. With each new friend came a recipe, more lessons ranging from how to brew tea to how to use herbs and the intoxicating Persian spice mix called advieh, a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger, combined in faultless proportion to highlight the taste of the herbs, vegetables and meat in the dishes. 

Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans and many other cultures celebrate Nowruz on the first day of the spring equinox and continue the celebration for 13 days. It’s a secular holiday celebrated by Muslim and Jewish families across the world by decorating a table in their home with different foods. Much like a Passover seder, where each food symbolizes something to come in the new year, the Nowruz table, called a haftsin table, is a tradition that dates back at least 1,000 years to the ancient Zoroastrians. The haftsin means the seven S’s, and the table decoration reflects that with seven different foods that each begin with the letter S, all symbolizing the seven days of creation. 

The first ‘s’ is sabzeh: lentil, wheat and barley sprouts that are sprouted in a dish weeks before the holiday. They symbolize rebirth and renewal. Serkeh (vinegar) represents the patience that comes with age. Seeb (apples) are put on the table to represent health and beauty, and seer (garlic) for medicinal value. Samanu, a sweet brown pudding made from cooked wheat germ, represents affluence, and sumac, the bright red spice berry, represents the colors of the sunrise. Last is senjed, the dried fruit from the oleaster tree, which symbolizes love.

The word Nowruz means “new day”; it’s a time for renewal and purification. I learned from my friend Maryam, who grew up in Iran and left her family there to make a new life for herself in the United States, that it’s very important that at the exact moment that the radio or television announces the equinox, there is a countdown when all family members should be around the hafsin table so that they can kiss and hug, hold hands and pray that they may be together for the rest of the year.  

Throughout the 13 days of the Persian New Year, friends and family gather and eat traditional foods such as sabzee polo mahee, a Persian herbed rice dish with baked fish and a tangy condiment. Nowruz is the time to do spring cleaning, to let go of grudges, apologize, hug, to make up and ultimately to start all over again. 

It’s a beautiful holiday of reflection that everyone can celebrate and relate to, and if nothing else, you can never go wrong when you make a pot of aromatic tea and sit down with an inspiring book of poetry or philosophy. Take a page from my friend Taranay’s mother’s book: Make these wonderful rice cookies sprinkled with poppy seeds you might have left over from Purim. The combination of these not-too-sweet, gluten-free cookies called nane berenji with tea is traditional for Nowruz but will become a cookie staple in your arsenal for other times of the year too.

NANE BERENJI – PERSIAN RICE COOKIES

2 cups rice flour
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup unsalted butter (soft)
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons rose water
1 teaspoon cardamom powder
1/4 cup poppy seeds for topping 

Sift the rice flour through sieve and place in bowl. In same bowl, mix all ingredients except poppy seeds with your hands until dough is smooth.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Roll dough into walnut-sized balls and place 1 inch apart on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Flatten the top of each ball (use a glass or make a pressed design with a cookie stamp). Sprinkle the top of the cookies with poppy seeds.

Bake for 10-12 minutes. Check the cookies at 10 minutes to make sure the bottoms aren’t burning.

Cool cookies on a rack for an hour before
serving.

Makes 2-3 dozen cookies.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.