Nowruz: Celebrating the Persian New Year with a Delicious Spring Feast

A version of this story first ran in March 2014.

The arrival of spring is a time for celebration, particularly after enduring a long and harsh winter. However, nothing compares to the 13-day extravaganza of the Persian New Year, Nowruz.

Nowruz, meaning “new day” in Persian, is an ancient festival that heralds the beginning of spring and rejoices in the resurgence of nature. It is a vibrant celebration that revolves around fresh and green foods, reminding us that winter is not eternal.

The festivities commence at the precise moment of the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator. This year, it occurred on the early morning of March 20. When the equinox arrives, millions of Iranian families gather around a ceremonial table called the haftseen. This table is a fusion of vibrant, elaborate Day of the Dead altars and a blend of Easter and Passover traditions. Hand in hand, young and old count down to the New Year, cheerfully exclaiming “Eide Shoma Mobarak,” or Happy New Year!

The haftseen table, a relatively recent addition to Nowruz, is a folksy tradition with unclear origins. According to Ahmad Sadri, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College and an expert on ancient Persia, “We do not even find this spread mentioned in the chronicles of travelers to Iran up to the modern times.” However, Columbia University’s Encyclopedia Iranica suggests that the haftseen table gained popularity only in the last century due to media exposure.

Nevertheless, the haftseen table’s essential items can be reasonably explained as reflections of the pastoral and sedentary conditions of ancient Iranians and their beliefs. Every home decorates the haftseen table with seven items, as the number seven is considered auspicious. Each item commences with the Persian letter sin (s) and symbolizes spring and rejuvenation. These items include:

  1. Seeb (apple), representing beauty
  2. Seer (garlic), representing good health
  3. Serkeh (vinegar), representing patience
  4. Sonbol (hyacinth), representing spring
  5. Samanu (sweet pudding), representing fertility
  6. Sabzeh (sprouts), representing rebirth
  7. Sekeh (coins), representing prosperity

Other “s” words, such as the spice sumac, symbolizing the sunrise with its radiant golden color, or senjed, a dried fruit from the Lotus tree signifying love, can also be incorporated into the haftseen table.

Some families go the extra mile to add distinctive flair to their haftseen tables. These tables may feature a Quran, a book of poetry, a mirror, and candles to reflect upon the future, or a goldfish swimming in a bowl, representing life. Painted eggs, representing fertility, as well as an assortment of sweets and fruits, are also common. For many families, Nowruz entails preparing special dishes like smoked fish and herbed rice. Iranian-American actress Nazanin Boniadi, known for her roles in hit TV shows Scandal and Homeland, expressed her fondness for sabzi polo mahi, a traditional dish of fish and herbed rice, during her Nowruz celebrations.

Chef and author Donia Bijan, who was born in Iran, described the laborious task of chopping parsley, cilantro, and dill for this dish as the most challenging part. “It certainly teaches you that good cooking requires a lot of patience,” she remarked. Other dishes include soup with noodles, which symbolize unraveling the difficulties of the upcoming year, and eggs, a universal symbol of fertility. One personal favorite is karaf, a delectable stew made with celery, mint, dried lime, and beef, served over white rice.

Nowruz is also a time for spring cleaning, purchasing new clothes, visiting friends and relatives, and renewing bonds. The jubilations finally culminate on the 13th day of the New Year. Since the number 13 is traditionally regarded as unlucky, families embark on picnics, carrying with them the sprouts (sabzeh) from the haftseen table. These sprouts are joyfully thrown into flowing water, symbolizing a release of misfortunes from the year to come.

In 2010, the United Nations officially recognized International Nowruz Day, acknowledging its celebration in numerous countries worldwide, including Afghanistan, Albania, India, Iran, and Turkey. Here in the U.S., the day is embraced by diaspora communities across various states, from New York to Chicago, Florida to Texas.

Nowruz is a feast for the senses, a celebration that ushers in the vibrant season of spring. So, let’s raise our glasses and toast to new beginnings, fertility, and prosperity. Happy Nowruz!

Visit the BDK Restaurant for an exquisite dining experience.

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