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Culture Guide

Time to feast for the festival of Nowruz

17 March 2022

Honour friends and family with a fantastic feast for Nowruz, the Persian new year festival.

It’s time for Nowruz, the Persian festival signifying the beginning of spring. Celebrated in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and across Central Asia, the festival honours the link between humans and nature to symbolise rebirth and renewal. Nowruz, meaning ‘new day’ in Farsi, spans two weeks of celebrations but the preparations can start weeks in advance.

Encouraging peace amongst families, generations and communities, Nowruz is steeped in traditions and rituals that are honoured year after year. The first day falls on the spring equinox and the festival is said to be over 3000 years old.

During Nowruz, friends and family gather to renew connections, celebrate and most importantly – to eat!

Preparations for the festival of Nowruz

Before the festival, food preparations take place. In Central Asian countries, you’ll find sumalak bubbling away on the stove. This thick pudding is made from wheatgrass and as the pot is stirred, women sing traditional folk songs.

In most regions, they start to get ready by growing sabzeh in a dish – this can include wheat, barley, mung bean or lentils. Once these have sprouted, the dish is placed on the table in observance of Nowruz along with six other sacred objects including seeds, wheat pudding, garlic and vinegar. This is known as the ‘Haft-seen’ (or Haft-Sin) table. It also includes coloured eggs to signify fertility, a goldfish in a bowl for life and a mirror to symbolise reflection. On the 13th and final day of Nowruz, families pack picnics and travel to a natural body of water to let the sabzeh float away, releasing negativity and bad luck from the past.

Bonfire leaping and skies full of colour

The last Tuesday night before Nowruz is called shab-e chahar shanbeh suri which means ‘Eve of Red Wednesday’. In the daytime families will build small bonfires ready to light in the evening. Once lit, people will leap over the bonfires and say “zardi-ye man az toh, sorkhi-ye toh az man!” meaning “give me your beautiful red colour, and take back my sickly pallor”.  This is meant to release any illness for the new year as the fire takes it away.

During this night there’s also fireworks and firecrackers and celebrations in the streets. To keep energy levels high, it’s typical to snack on berries, nuts, and fresh and dried fruits.

The first day feast

Nowruz may last a fortnight, but it begins with a feast on the first night. Homes are spring cleaned ready to welcome to new start and clear out the year before, then family members get together at the house of the eldest family member to show respect. Little ones certainly make themselves known as they approach houses with cooking pots and spoons, banging them together until they’re given sweets or confections. 

Traditionally, the first day feast will feature sabzi polo ba mahi, which is rice mixed with fragrant herbs paired with white fish – this is the centrepiece of the table and for some families, the rice is even more important than the fish.

On the table you’ll also find a rich green soup with noodles, beans and chickpeas called ash reshteh and vegetable frittatas known as kuku sabzi – this is filled with herbs such as parsley, fenugreek, dill, tarragon and coriander. Everything is made with fresh ingredients to fit in with the renewal of the new year.

Celebrations across different regions

Different countries have their own Nowruz traditions, but all centre around inviting in newness and positivity. In Afghanistan it’s common to see picnics featuring seven types of nuts and dried fruits including walnuts, pistachios, almonds in syrup, hazelnuts, raisins, silver berries and prunes.

You’ll often find people in Afghanistan sipping on nauryz kozhe, a thick smoothie type drink, although it is popular all over. This cold and refreshing beverage can be made using seven different ingredients to symbolise the seven virtues of security, intelligence, wealth, health, joy, agility and success. Although recipes differ depending on where it’s served, nauryz kozhe can be made from milk or yoghurt, salt, water, meat, and a type of grain such as wheat, corn or rice.

In Bangladesh, it’s customary to drink plenty of water and spray it around the home to ward off diseases and encourage good health.

Ending on something sweet

It wouldn’t be a celebration without plenty of desserts on the table. Many regions serve up their own local delicacies and pastries but one of the most popular confections on the Nowruz table is Persian baklava. Made with olive oil dough instead of filo, the layers are packed with almonds or pistachios before being sliced into the traditional diamond shape.

Around this time, exotic white mulberries are in season in Iran and they’re often combined with coloured marzipan and coated in sugar, ready for the festivities. Nuts are popular too, and honey cashew caramels are served when friends and family arrive. Pure honey is drizzled on roasted cashews, pistachios or almonds and sometimes hints of rosewater or cardamom are added for extra flavour.

We hope you’re blessed with a wonderful Nowruz wherever you’re celebrating it. Enjoy it as you close one chapter and begin a new happy and prosperous year.

Chef Hami Sharafi: How I celebrate Nowruz

“Nowruz is a special time of the year, a gentle reminder to reflect on the events that have unfolded for the past 12 months, but most importantly welcome the new year filled with good energy and joy. With my family based in Iran, I no longer get to spend this festival with all my loved ones so my wife and I go the extra mile to make this occasion extra special. Spring cleaning our home and decorating our haft seen table are traditions we follow, honouring the teachings our families gave to us. We spend the evening video calling family who gather around the table to exchange well wishes and most importantly enjoying the traditional dish of Sabzi Polo.  Jumping over candles in our apartment to symbolise a small bonfire is a memory I will forever cherish but thankfully we now have a garden to build a real bonfire to celebrate in style.

For all those celebrating across the world, Nowruz Mubarak!”

Read more about Hami


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