Happy New Year!
Today celebrates two important events: Persian New Year (Norooz) and the vernal equinox. All around the world, Iranians, Afghans and Zoroastrians of all nationalities will be ringing in the new year at precisely the same moment, regardless of where they live. Because this moment is calculated according to the sun, it always changes.
Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution “recognizing the cultural and historical significance of Nowruz, expressing appreciation to Iranian-Americans for their contributions to society, and wishing Iranian-Americans and the people of Iran a prosperous new year.” I am so excited about this, I had to share it.
It is said that whatever you are doing when the new year arrives is what you will be doing nonstop for the rest of the year. I suspect it is a way to get sleepyheads to stay up late when the year changes at two in the morning. Who wants to sleep for twelve months? I am not a night person, so the only way I can stay awake is to find a good party. This is usually not a problem, because Iranians like to party – the later, the better.
In Tehran today, the year 1389 arrives at 9:02 in the evening. Halfway around the world in California, we will be celebrating at 10:32 in the morning. So I won’t need to down cup after cup of Turkish coffee to keep from dozing off.
Last night, we had our traditional New Year’s meal: sabzi polo ba mahi (herbed rice with fish). When the year changes in the morning, it’s customary to eat this dish the night before. All day, the house was fragrant with the smells of fresh herbs and saffron: parsley, cilantro, dill, green garlic and fresh fenugreek, which I can get only for a few weeks in the spring.
The first time I watched my mother-in-law prepare this dish, I understood why cooking is such a major effort for Iranian women – and why it is more fun to do it together. She buys her herbs at the meydoon (farmer’s market), where the bundles do not come nicely rinsed and clean. They have clumps of mud clinging to them, and therefore require a good thorough washing.
Then she sits down on the floor with a big metal tray amid piles of herbs for cleaning. For the next couple of hours, she, her daughters – and me, when I’m around – painstakingly pluck leaves from stalks and form fresh new piles of fragrant greens, waiting for another washing. I’m tempted to head to the supermarket and buy the packages of pre-washed, precut herbs and be done with it. But then the sabzi polo wouldn’t taste as good. And who wants to mess with tradition, anyway? That would be bad luck.
In Iran, the fish served with this meal is mahi sefid, or white fish, also known as kutum, which is native to the Caspian Sea. It is a flaky fish with a mild flavor and an overabundance of bones, but with a to-die-for flavor that more than makes up for the effort of picking flesh from the thorn-like bones. I can’t get anything that resembles it here in California, so I substitute grilled salmon. Check back tomorrow for a recipe and pictures of special Norooz dishes.
In the meantime, here is a fish market in Tonekabon, near the Caspian Sea. (The fish is not mahi sefid, which wasn’t in season at the time.)