Celebrating Norooz

Filed under: Holiday Foods,Recipes , Tags: , , , , , — Author: Caron Golden , March 11, 2019

This year Norooz, the Persian New Year, begins on March 21. Celebrating Norooz, which means “new day,” is a very old celebration that has nothing to do with religion. It marks the transition from winter to spring and is filled with feasting.

In fact, the holiday, celebrating the vernal equinox, has been a part of the culture of the people of Iran and Mesopotamia since antiquity and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of the Zoroastrian, the religion of ancient Persia before Islam. Weeks before, people will put seeds of grass or lentils or wheat or mung beans in water in a decorative pot so that they will sprout by the first day of Norooz—bringing to life the concept of growth and the arrival of spring. Then the house gets a thorough spring cleaning.

Norooz is celebrated for 12 days, but my friend Mahin Mofazeli, who owns a Persian restaurant in San Diego called Soltan Banoo, explained that on the 13th day, Sizdeh Bedar is celebrated. In Iran, she said, the tradition was to leave the city and go for a picnic to “get rid of the thirteenth.” They’d bring the sabzeh that had grown tall in the pot and tie knots in the young growth, then make wishes on the knots. Then they’d leave them behind, throwing them in the river, before returning to the city because after that, having the sabzeh would be bad luck.

So, what foods are made for the new years?

The first thing to know about Persian food is that everything starts with basmati rice. Know how to make this well and you have the foundation for numerous dishes. The rice requires rinsing a couple of times to remove the starch and then soaking to reduce cooking time. When you’re ready to cook it, you’ll drain the water and transfer the rice to a large pot of boiling water containing a little olive oil where it will cook, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.

Perhaps the most traditional Norooz dish is Sabzi Polo, or Rice with Fresh Herbs. The herbs usually include cilantro and parsley, but could also include dill weed and fenugreek. At the bottom of the pot is really the best part—the tahdig, a crunchy layer formed by rice or bread or sliced potatoes, or even tortillas. Mofazeli prefers potatoes. She slices russets with the skin on and makes a single layer on the bottom of the pot, which already has a little olive oil and saffron water (she always has a mixture of that in her kitchen), then starts layering with rice, then herbs, then more rice, then more herbs until she’s used all the ingredients. She’ll add a little saffron water, then put it on the stovetop over fairly high heat to cook uncovered for about five minutes. Then she puts on the lid, lowers the heat, and lets it cook for about 30 minutes. The dish is traditionally served with Mahi, or fish, since it represents abundance. In Persia, it’s white fish from the Caspian Sea.

For a true feast,Sabzi Polo can be accompanied by dolmehs, or stuffed grape leaves; kookoo sabzi, an herbaceous omelet-like dish; Baghali Ghatogh, lima beans with egg and dill; and pastries like honey-soaked baklavah.

Norooz Pirooz! Wishing you a prosperous New Year!

Sabzi Polo (Rice with Fresh Herbs)
Serves 6

Ingredients:

½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups water
½ teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in 4 tablespoons hot water
1 large russet potato, sliced
3 cups cooked basmati rice, prepared using the four steps
1 large bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 bunch fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 bunch scallions, chopped
3 whole cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 whole cloves garlic or green garlic
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Directions:

  1. Whisk together 4 tablespoons oil, ½ cup water and 1 tablespoon saffron water. Spread the mixture on the bottom of a large non-stick pot. Place a layer of sliced potatoes on the bottom of the pot.
  2. Cover potatoes with a layer of rice. Combine the herbs and then add a layer of the herbs and the crushed and whole garlic over the rice. Repeat the layering of the rice and herbs, adding a sprinkling of cinnamon between the layers.
  3. Pour a mixture of 4 tablespoons oil and 1 cup of water over the top of the rice and add the remaining saffron water.
  4. Place pot on medium high heat for five minutes, uncovered. Then cover the pot, reduce the heat and cook for 30 minutes.
  5. To serve, spoon out the rice onto a platter. Garnish with the potato tahdig and serve with fish.

Do you celebrate Norooz? Have you ever made any Persian dishes?

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