If you were to peek into the kitchen of any Iranian household right now, you would probably find sprouts growing on the windowsill. Known as sabzeh, these wheat or lentil sprouts are part of many preparations taking place to ring in the year 1396 on March 21.
Though commonly referred to as Persian New Year, Nowruz is celebrated beyond Iran’s borders, and crosses national, religious and ethnic divides. It is an ancient spring festival with Zoroastrian roots, spanning back some 3000 years to a time when the Persian Empire was much larger than modern-day Iran.
Meaning ‘new day’, Nowruz is observed at the exact second of the northern hemisphere’s spring equinox. Except it won’t be spring in Australia.
Sahar Khajani was born in Iran, but now lives in Adelaide. Like many in Australia, she will be celebrating a spring festival in autumn, and the Iranian calendar year 1396 in 2017. Still, traditions remain strong.
“You have to do any unfinished work before that exact time, and resolve any problems. Everyone’s home is spotless, there is no dust, no dirt, and everything is new. It’s about starting a new life,” says Sahar.
The festivities include jumping over small bonfires in the street, spring cleaning, wearing new outfits, and – like any good festival – many days of eating.
At the centre of it all is the haft-seen or haft sin, the table of seven S’s.
The seven 'S'
Sprouts are one of seven items traditionally set on the new year table for good luck. Each begins with the letter S, or sin in Farsi.
The exact items can vary between households and cultures, and there might be more than seven. They often include the sabzeh (sprouts), as a symbol of nature and renewal, an apple (sib) for health and beauty, the dried fruit of the oleaster tree (senjed) for wisdom and love, garlic (seer) for medicine, vinegar (serkeh) for age and patience, a sweet wheat-based pudding (samanu), representing fertility, and the spice sumac for its brilliant colour reminiscent of sunrise.
The table is also decorated with a mirror, candles, flowers, painted eggs, and a live goldfish.
Time for a feast
At the precise moment the sun crosses the celestial equator, families gather around the haft-seen.
“It is so exciting,” says Sahar. “It’s the exact same time all around the world, some of my family are in Iran, some are in other places, but we all share in that moment.”
The seven S foods are generally left untouched for 13 days, but a feast soon follows.
There are handfuls of fresh green herbs, mountains of fruit and nuts, sweet, sugar-soaked pastries and fragrant dishes that taste of spring.
Sabzi polo ba mahi, a herbed rice served with fried marinated fish, is a Nowruz favourite. Fish is often served because it represents abundance and the herbs, new life and health. Egg dishes are common too, such as kuku sabzi, a bright-green herb frittata.
Noodles symbolise taking hold of the path ahead, so ash-e-reshteh, a noodle soup, and reshteh polow, a buttery pilaf of rice and noodles, are commonly served, while dolmeh bargeh, grape leaves stuffed with rice, beef and herbs, are eaten to make wishes come true.
With noodles, lentils and vegetables topped with a refreshing burst of mint, our ash-e-reshteh recipe makes a hearty meal at any time of year.
Eat some more
In the days that follow, it is customary to visit family and friends. Guests are offered tea, fruit, pastries, sweets, sherbets and ajil, a wonderful fruit and nut mixture that is a world away from trail mix.
On the 13th day, the festivities culminate in Sizdah Be-dar. The day is spent outdoors beside a river, listening to music, dancing and grilling kababs.
In Adelaide, Sahar and others will go to the River Torrens and the sabzeh plants are brought along.
“We tie seven knots in the grass, and before each knot we wish for something good to happen,” says Sahar.
The sabzeh are tossed into the river along with any bad luck and tomorrow life will return to normal.
But first, there’s a feast of kababs to be shared.
A popular feature on many Persian New Year tables, these honey, almond and saffron caramels are a speciality from Iran’s Isfahan region, known for its honey production. Often used to add an aromatic sweetness to Perisan confectionery, there are many local honey varieties, including orange blossom, thyme and clover, some of which is still collected using traditional beekeeping methods - a combination of log hives, pottery hives and woven cylinders.
This simple yet addictive deep-fried Persian dessert works equally well with any kind of sugar syrup. I use saffron, but you could try rosewater, orange blossom or your own blend of flavours. The saffron syrup will continue to develop flavour and colour over a period of seven days, so begin this step up to a week in advance.
Baked with a fragrant spice mix, honey and ghee, this is a wonderfully flavoured meal.