It’s not altogether uncommon for people celebrating Nowruz, or Persian New Year, to spy a live goldfish (or two) on the festive table. The gilled creatures otherwise known as low-maintenance pets are symbols of new life and rebirth for Iranians and anyone else noting the most significant holiday on the Persian calendar; plus, they make for spectacular table decorations – provided the cat stays off the table.
Nowruz translates to English as “new day” and coincides exactly with the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a time of rejuvenation, celebration and abundance, serious spring house-cleans and even more serious table spreads – the goldfish are just the beginning.
For Russoul Sajadi of Bahar Supermarket in Sydney's Ryde, it’s the busiest time of the year by far – and not just because he’s planning festivities of his own.
“We’ll be very busy today, but tomorrow is the celebration,” he tells SBS. “Bahar sells Persian artefacts and books, it’s a general store for the Persian community. Around this time of year, though, we mainly sell elements of the seven symbolic foods that families put on the table for Nowruz.”
These foods are known as the seven ‘S’ foods, each one symbolising a different teaching in the ancient Zoroastrian religion of Iran. “They’re like old Persian values,” Sajadi says. “All the foods are arranged to make what’s called a haft sin [a Farsi term that translates into English literally as “seven s’s”] table, typically displayed at Nowruz.”
If you’re planning on creating your own haft sin table this year, here’s Sajadi’s guide to making sure it ticks all the boxes.
“Sabzeh is something green – whatever seed that might germinate or grow for Nowruz. Usually, this is wheatgrass. It represents rebirth and rejuvenation."
“This is a sort of sweet wheatgrass pudding to symbolise food, affluence and wealth, but it’s sweetened by itself without any added sugar. The family usually prepares this the day before Nowruz.”
“Dried leaves from the oleaster shrub, or silver berry if you’re in the US. Some might call it mountain ash. It is believed if you sit and pray beneath the silver berry tree, all your wishes will come true in the new year. Senjed symbolises love.
“Seer means garlic in English, and it symbolises medicine and taking good care of yourself in the new year.”
“Apples – usually red. Apples are symbols of health and beauty of people and place.”
Most people have probably seen sumac in the spice aisle of their supermarket, but Sajadi is referring to the spice’s original form – sour red berries. “Somaq is commonly used in Persian cuisine,” he says. “It’s a symbol of sunrise on a new day.”
“Serkeh is vinegar, it represents growing older, maturing and developing more patience.”
At this point, you may be wondering why they all start with the letter 's'. The answer, according to Sajadi, may be lost to history. “There are some myths floating around, but most mythologists believe it’s just always been 's' foods,” he says.
Families prepare the haft sin table about two weeks in advance, and at the precise moment the sun crosses the celestial equator (marking the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere), the feast begins.
A dish such as sabzi polo ba mahi (herbed rice served with fish) is a Nowruz mainstay, as is kuku sabzi, a brilliantly green herb frittata. Other favourites include mixtures of raw nuts like pistachios, almonds and walnuts, and ash-e reshteh (Iranian noodle soup).
For Sajadi, Nowruz is more than simply an opportunity to gorge on home-cooked Persian food (although it definitely is that). It’s also a chance to create an intergenerational exchange about Iran’s rich culinary history.
“Iran is one of the oldest multicultural societies in the world, with many ethnicities living there,” he says. “Different areas have different climates: the Caspian coast is cool and moist, but the closer you get to the Persian Gulf, the dryer and hotter it gets. In the East towards Afghanistan, it’s cold and dry. The vegetation growing in these parts makes Persian cuisine generally rich because there are very different ethnicities and sources of food.”
Sharing food and cooking traditions on Nowruz is a way of connecting Iranian diasporas across the world, and a near-perfect excuse to place your pet goldfish on the dining table. Happy Persian New Year!
For more recipes, explore our collection of Iranian recipes.
What an eye-opener this dish is - read the recipe and you’re thinking herb frittata - assemble it and you realise that herbs are the supreme stars and eggs simply bind it all together.
Think those golden baklava-ish flavours, but in a moist cake with sticky, dark caramelised sides.
This is a riff on the traditional Persian rice dish called tahdig, which is tinged golden from saffron and cooked on the stovetop to develop a crusty rice base.
Kuku is an Iranian egg dish popular served as a side or main meal. This kuku is as good hot as it is served cold for a picnic or light lunch. For a family-friendly option omit the chilli.
Some versions of this insanely easy-to-make Iranian classic feature yoghurt and ground, dried chilli in the marinade, so add these if you like. Don't skimp on the marinating time - it tenderises the chicken and infuses it with an unforgettably tangy, aromatic flavour.
When in season, baghali – fava (broad) beans – have many uses in Iranian cuisine. Baghali polo is one of our favourites. Cooked with rice and dill, the bean dish makes the perfect accompaniment to stews and sauces. The list of ingredients can be found almost anywhere and as far as Iranian dishes go, it is one of the simplest we've learnt to cook.