What is Nowruz?
There is something about spring and the power of new beginnings. Iranians celebrate the arrival of spring as Persian Nowruz on the first day of vernal equinox. In the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox is when winter ends and spring begins astronomically.
Nowruz essentially means ”new day”. Like the Chinese New Year, Nowruz is the Persian New Year which usually falls on the 20th or 21st of March. Nowruz, a UN-recognised hallmark event, has got nothing to do with religion. In fact, it is based on astronomical celestial events. Persians have been celebrating Nowruz for over 3000 years. Nowruz is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of Zoroastrians, which is the ancient religion of Persia before the advent of Islam in 7th century A.D.
Whether you live in Iran or outside of Iran, Nowruz comes with its own set of traditions to follow. Here is everything you need to know about Persian Nowruz.
Persian Nowruz Rituals
Nowruz rituals have been commemorated amongst Persians for many years. There are rituals and cultural pre-celebratory events leading up to Nowruz. Iranian Bonfire Night or Chahar-Shanbeh-Suri is the prelude to Nowruz where people light bonfires, jump over them while singing and repeating ritualistic phrases. Chahar-Shanbeh-Suri essentially means Eve of Red Wednesday in Persian. It takes place on the last Wednesday of the year annually. The fire symbolises enlightenment, light and goodness in life.
Nowruz celebrations span over 13 days. It is custom to spring clean the house in preparation for Nowruz. Arranging and preparing the ceremonial Nowruz spread ”Haft Seen” is a significant part of Nowruz. During Nowruz, Iranians pay visit to the homes of elderly members of the family as an act of respect. Gifts in terms of fresh money notes or other forms are usually exchanged. Festivities involve visiting family and friends, dancing, singing and eating lots of fresh fruit, nut and seed trail mix (Ajil), sweets and delicious food over Nowruz holidays.
On the last day of Nowruz which falls on the 13th day of spring, Persians leave their homes to go outdoors in parks, mountains and countryside for a festive picnic. On this day, Sizdah Bedar, Persians believe in getting rid of bad omens by going out into the nature. Single girls are also encouraged to tie a knot between green shoots, symbolising marriage and good fortune in the new year ahead.
Nowruz Spread ”Haft Seen”
The Haft Seen table is the symbol of Nowruz. Persians prepare this spread by laying out 7 symbolic items starting with the letter ”S” in Persian. Furthermore, they add Complementary items such as a mirror, candles, the holy book of Quran or poetry of Hafez, coins, painted eggs, goldfish and seasonal Hyacinth flowers. These items all have symbolic meanings associated with wealth, health, prosperity and new beginnings.
Haft Seen (Haft Sin) comprises of the following symbolic items.
Sabze or wheat grass symbolises the rebirth of nature, prosperity and growth. Ancient Persians grew their own Sabze out of wheat or lentil seeds in flat dishes a few days prior to Nowruz. Nowadays you can buy Sabze from Nowruz markets all across the country.
Samanu is a sweet Persian pudding, made out of wheat sprouts. It symbolises the sweet moments of life.
Senjed or sweet silver berry symbolises love. It is a dried fruit and tasty.
Sumaq with its crimson colour symbolises the colour of dawn before sunrise. Hence it represents the victory of light over darkness.
Serkeh or vinegar represents patience, old age and wisdom.
Sib or red apples symbolise beauty.
Sir or garlic symbolises health.
Food plays a major role in Nowruz celebrations. Traditional Nowruz meals could vary by region or household to household. Iranians typically either eat Sabzi Polo Mahi or Reshteh Polo on New Years Eve and/or New Years Day. Consequently, the choice comes down to what region of Iran your family is from. Additionally, Kuku Sabzi is another light meal choice on the Nowruz feast spread of some families.
Sabzi Polo Mahi
Sabzi Polo Mahi is Persian rice cooked with fresh herbs and served with smoked, grilled or fried white fish.This dish is symbolic to Nowruz and very popular all across the country.
Reshteh polo is essentially rice with noodles. Add tender lamb shanks, mini meatballs or chicken to the dish. Toss the ingredients with some turmeric and add some Iranian saffron to the pot. Garnish with raisins, dates and fried onions and you have a celebratory dish to enjoy with family and friends.
Persian herb frittata or Kuku Sabzi is a light and tasty Persian vegetarian dish. This dish is a main meal on its own, but some prefer to serve it as an entree or to complement other main dishes. The main herbs in Kuku Sabzi are cilantro, chives and dill. Mix all the herbs and add some eggs to bind the paste. Pour the paste into a frying pan to cook. Add some walnuts and barberries to garnish the dish.
Persians love their sweets and confectionaries. Undeniably, there is no better occasion to munch on such treats, than during Nowruz festivities. Although there are a vast variety of traditional Persian sweets and pastries unique to different regions of Iran, Nowruz treats are the sweetest. In most big cities like Tehran, we tend to buy sweets and confectionary local to other cities of Iran such as Isfahan, Yazd or Kashan. Every region in Iran has its own unique pastry and sweets, which also make great souvenir upon visiting these cities.
One of the most popular confectionaries during Nowruz is Persian Baklava, densely packed with pistachios or almonds. Persian Baklava is traditionally made with olive oil dough rather than with this sheets of Phyllo dough like Turkish or Lebanese Baklava. Persians cut baklava in small bite-sized diamond shape pieces and have them all year around.
Sweet taste of pure honey over roasted cashews, almonds or pistachios with hints of cardamom and rosewater remind me of Nowruz festivities in Iran. Growing up, munching on these caramelized chewy and crunchy gems during Nowruz was tradition in my family. Prior to Nowruz, my mum used to stock up on these little gems. Every time we had family and friends over for
Persians have this weird obsession with white Mulberries. These exotic berries are only available for a short period of time in Iran. Hence when they go out of season, Iranians get into baking nutty Marzipan Berries.
Marzipan Berries are Mulberry shaped sweets for Nowruz festivities. Coat them in sugar and add food colouring to get an assortment of them for Nowruz celebrations.
Persian Chickpea cookies (Nan-Nokhodchi) are reminiscent of Nowruz in my family. I don’t ever remember celebrating Nowruz without having a tray full of these tiny, earthy coloured Chickpea Cookies on my mum’s Nowruz food table.
Chickpea Cookies are mini flower-shaped cookies that are super soft and literally melt in your mouth. The exotic taste of cardamom, rosewater and chickpea flour evokes taste buds and makes it inevitable not to have a mouthful of them.
Nowruz celebrations end on the 13th day of Nowruz. Sizdah-Bedar in Persian mean ” Thirteen in the outdoors”. Families go out into the nature and have family picnics. Once again, food plays a huge role in Sizdah-Bedar gatherings. Eating lots of green food is customary. Here is a list of traditional dishes you should try on Sizdah-Bedar.
Kahoo Sekanjebin ( Vinegar syrup with lettuce)
Kahoo in persian is lettuce leaves. Sekanjebin is a compound name of vinegar and honey syrup. This combination is an unusual one and many consider it a weird Persian dish. However, Kahoo Sekanjebin takes me back to my childhood, where my grandmother used to prepare it as a refreshing afternoon snack on hot summer days. Interestingly, it is tradition to share and eat this combination on Sizdah-Bedar as well. Dip the lettuce leaf in the syrup and enjoy the delicious taste of this unusual combination.
Baghali in Persian refers to broad beans. Polo is rice. This dish is essentially steamed rice with fresh or dried dill, broad beans and salt and pepper. Braised lamb or chicken compliments this dish, however feel free to enjoy it as a vegetarian dish with some yogurt and various Persian side dishes, such as Salad-Shirazi. On Sizdah-Bedar, Baghali Polo is a must eat with family and friends.
This Persian vegetarian dish has a special place in every true Iranian’s heart. It is a dish served at different Persian ceremonies such as Yalda night, Nowruz and Sizdah-Bedar. Ash Reshteh is a thick noodle soup consisting of yogurt whey, beans, herbs and often some hearty meat stock. This soup makes a great afternoon picnic meal on Sizdah-Bedar with bigger groups of families and friends.
All photos by Shirin Tahanan