Though (Mostly) Indoors, Persian New Year Celebrations Endure

Platter with ingredients for: Dish name: Ghalieh Mahi From Persian gulf region (south of Iran) Sauce base is vegan With king trumpet mushroom, sea bass, Mussels, lobster and prawns
Platter with ingredients for Ghalieh Mahi / Photo by Chef Hoss Zaré

There’s an old saying in Iran, a land quite fond of ancient sayings. The gist of it is: You’d think that the most opportune time to rob a house is during the Persian New Year, when Iranians vacate their homes, sometimes for days at a time. There’s only one problem. All the thieves are out celebrating as well.

The Persian New Year, or Norooz (also spelled Nowruz, “new day” in Farsi), marks the coming of spring. Traditionally, during the 13-day festivities, many celebrants hit the outdoors to mark the end of the long winter that kept them inside. Kids partake in pranks. Their parents and grandparents jump over bonfires in public spaces as a purification ritual.

The final day of the holiday is Iran’s national getaway day. Families swarm parks, mountains and waterways to take in the fresh air and feast on crunchy herbs, fruits and other spring vittles.

“In the Persian calendar, following nature is really important,” says Moe Momtazi, founder, Maysara Winery.

This year, the holiday falls on March 20, more than 365 days since the novel coronavirus pandemic required nonessential workers to stay at home. For the second straight spring, most Norooz revelers the world over will be celebrating and reconciling virtually, with the simulacrum of Zoom backdrops having to fill in for actual parks, lakes and family gatherings.

“Last year, Nowruz began just as the pandemic took hold, and it was the first time in many years that we celebrated without our family. Thankfully we were able to connect with our kids and grandkids over FaceTime,” says Shahpar Khaledi, proprietor of Darioush winery in Napa. She and her husband, Darioush Khaledi, ate their favorite New Year dishes at a two-person table, she says.

Shahpar and Darioush Khaledi of Darioush winery / Photo by Alexander Rubin
Shahpar and Darioush Khaledi of Darioush winery / Photo by Alexander Rubin

“This year, we are grateful to be vaccinated and plan to prepare an intimate lunch in our garden with just three of our close family members,” says Khaledi. “We look forward to hosting a larger family gathering next year.”

Norooz is a pre-Islamic ritual that dates back thousands of years, when Persia’s prevailing faith was Zoroastrianism. With the diaspora of the Persian Empire having since fanned across Asia and Africa, and into and out of subsequent empires, Norooz is now celebrated across the world by Iranians and non-Iranians alike.

Bay Area chef Hoss Zaré recalls his childhood in Iran, where his neighbors included Armenian Christians and Baha’is, all of whom celebrated Norooz with his Muslim family.

“After being at home, in the cold and darkness of winter, the world would breathe again,” he says. “Nature was opening its arms to us.”

On Norooz, Zaré’s parents would leave new shoes, socks and shirts right next to his bed. Presents awaited as his mother cleaned out the house and prepared a lush table setting displaying symbols of the holiday, including green sprouts, gold coins and a swimming goldfish.

He says that hospitality and reconciliation were in the air, in addition to the aromas of his mother’s Norooz lentil porridge and stuffed grape leaves. The latter, he says, were “jewel boxes holding Mother Nature’s best ingredients. You’d eat them to maximize your blessings.”

Ghalieh Mahi with lobster and saffron tahdig / Photo by Chef Hoss Zaré
Ghalieh Mahi with lobster and saffron tahdig / Photo by Chef Hoss Zaré

“It was the time of the year people put their differences aside,” he says. “You’d invite anyone you had a problem with that previous year to your gathering and pile on the hugs, kisses and food, and it’d be over. A new start. That was beautiful for me. That’s the biggest message I took from Norooz.”

Of course, like with so much else, a global pandemic and the era of social distancing put so much of that on hold. Still, Zaré says, there are ways to celebrate.

“Show your kitchen,” says Zaré. “Toast one another. Why not? We’re still at home. But hope is in the air.”

In Iran, Shiraz is the city renowned for its gardens and poets. For much of the rest of the world, Shiraz is synonymous with dynamic, luscious red wine. Zaré has traditionally wowed Norooz diners by pairing a leg of lamb with a Darioush Shiraz, an ode to winery founders’ Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi’s home city.

The chef is also partial to Cabernet Sauvignon with Norooz dishes. Darioush’s 2018 Darius II contains 92% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Cabernet Franc, and is itself a metaphor for renewal: the grapes were the product of the growing season following 2017’s wildfires.

Darioush winery's Signature Shiraz, made from the grape that takes it's name from the city in Iran, known for its gardens and literature / Photo courtesy Darioush
Darioush winery’s Signature Shiraz, made from the grape that takes it’s name from the city in Iran, known for its gardens and literature / Photo courtesy Darioush

For fish, often served with herbed rice during the Persian New Year, Zaré swears by a good white wine. He says his trout dill appetizer and halibut and cod main dishes pair ideally with aromatic Viognier.

Khaledi agrees. On the first day of Nooruz, her family drinks Viognier with their fried white fish and sabzi polo, or Persian herbed rice. As the week progresses, she serves Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon with heartier fare like brown noodle rice with raisins and dates plus herbed kuku, or Persian frittata, and braised chicken; as well as lamb stew with lemon, parsley, chives, fenugreek and black-eyed peas.

Wine is crucial to the Nooruz table, Momtazi says.

“Wine in Persian culture was liquid embodiment of the sun’s radiance, and the sun was very respected,” he says. “Wine was considered the result of the marriage of the sun with the earth, and it was a gift from heaven.”

Zaré hopes his upcoming virtual New Year will be the last Zoom celebration for a while.

“We had a harsh winter, and it was a yearlong winter,” he says. “Yes, we’re not as open as we wish we were. Not yet. But you can truly feel this as a spring. It is in the truest sense a ‘new day.’”

Published on March 18, 2021
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