World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Iran

The Baker’s Passport – Iran

        Nowruz_2

Aide shoma mobarak

 

Persian New Year, or Nowruz dates back over a thousand years and is a family event to celebrate the coming of spring. The two-week holiday begins the instant the sun crosses the celestial equator. This year it begins at  4:07 and 26 seconds PM-PST.

Norouz means "new day" in Farsi, the language of Iran, which is present day Persia. It begins on the first day of spring and is a two-week celebration of rebirth and renewal. Dating to pre-Islamic times, when much of the vast Persian Empire followed the religion of Zoroastrianism, Norouz today is the biggest holiday of the year in Iran. Schools and businesses are closed, and the well-to-do take vacations or retreat to the countryside.

Foods served during Norouz communicate spring themes. Sweet and sour flavors are meant to represent the duality of good and evil. Eggs represent fertility, and are served in dishes like the popular kuku (somewhat similar to an Italian frittata). Ash reshfte  a warm noodle soup, typically begins the new year meal. The symbolism of the noodles it is said represent wishes for the unraveling of life’s knotty problems. The main course for a typical Iranian New Year’s meal is sabzi polo hami, or green herbs and rice, served with a white fish sauteed with chopped onion, lemon juice, turmeric, salt and fresh garlic.

The number seven has been sacred in Iran for thousands of years. Significance of number seven historically was to represent the "Seven Eternal Laws", which embodied the teachings of Zarathushtra. The teachings included having a good mind, good guidance, and discovering the ultimate truth among other things.  At this time Iranians prepare a table or sofreh (a plastic sheet used as a tablecloth on the ground) on a rug with a variety of foods. Traditionally, these seven symbolic items are displayed for haft sin, the ceremonial table set for the Persian New Year.   Sofreh-ye haft-sinn or "seven dishes’ setting,"  each standing for the seven angelic heralds of life: rebirth;  health; happiness; prosperity; joy, patience, and beauty. The holiday dishes — each of which starts with the Persian letter sinn — represent the keys to a happy life. The symbolic dishes consist of sabzeh, or sprouts, usually wheat or lentil, representing rebirth. Samanu is a pudding in which common wheat sprouts are transformed and given new life as a sweet, creamy pudding, and represents the ultimate sophistication of Persian cooking. Sib means apple and represents health and beauty. Senjed, the sweet, dry fruit of the wild olive, represents love. It has been said that when the wild olive is in full bloom, its fragrance and its fruit make people fall in love and become oblivious to all else. Seer, which is garlic in Persian, represents medicine. Somaq, sumac berries, represent the color of sunrise; with the appearance of the sun Good conquers Evil. Serkeh , or vinegar, represents age and patience.  In addition seven sweets are often included:

"On the same table many people place seven special sweets because, according to a three-thousand-year-old legend, King Jamshid discovered sugar on Nowruz (the word candy comes from the Persian word for sugar, qand). These seven sweets are noghls (sugar-coated almonds); Persian baklava, a sweet, flaky pastry filled with chopped almonds and pistachios soaked in honey-flavored rose water; nan-e berenji (rice cookies), made of rice flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with poppy seeds; nan-e badami (almond cookies), made of almond flour flavored with cardamom and rose water; nan-e nokhodchi (chick-pea cookies), made of chick-pea flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with pistachios; sohan asali (honey almonds), cooked with honey and saffron and garnished with pistachios; and nan-e gerdui (walnut cookies), made of walnut flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with pistachio slivers."

                                  ~~excerpted from New Food of Life, Najimieh Batmanglij

A traditional menu includes ash-e reshteh, a hearty noodle soup; sabzi polow ba mahi, fresh herb rice and fish; and kuku ye sabzi, a lighter-than-air herb souffle. As with everything at Nowruz, many foods have meaning as an example: eating the noodles symbolically representing the Gordian knot of unraveling life’s knotty problems. Before we wander too deeply into the vast waters of Iranian food culture this needs to work itself back to desserts in the Persian new year with this recipe for the traditional walnut flour cookie enjoyed at this time.

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Fertile Fruit

Pomegranate

Buy the pomegranate when it laughs —
its laughter reveals the secret of its seeds.
The garden answers the laughing pomegranate with bloom;
In companionship with the friends of God
you will bloom as they do.

–Rumi

Rich garnet-colored pomegranate juice is seductive. Some might even say it’s not worth the trouble due to the work involved breaking through the leathery skin and then tearing through the bitter membrane to find your reward—pockets of seeds containing juice. With patience and effort reward is close. But we are as a culture don’t have a lot of experience with this particular fruit so maybe this is why most pomegranates wind up as decorative accents in wreaths and holiday centerpieces. Today, with freshly bottled pomegranate juices readily available we can easily endeavor to experiment with the cooking of Armenia, Georgia, Morocco and Iran where the practice of pairing meat and fruit in a meal is common.

The tree and it’s fruit is Native to Iran and popular throughout the Middle East and as far as Northern India. Since ancient times it has been widely cultivated in the drier parts of Southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and tropical Africa. Spanish settlers introduced the tree into California in 1769. Up until recently it has been grown in the U.S. primarily for the Latin population particularly for chiles en nogada, a stuffed poblano chiles with walnut sauce that is served on September 16th to commemorate Mexican independence from Spain. The pomegranate seeds are used to symbolize the red in the Mexican flag.

Pomegranates, the name comes from the French “pomme garnete” or “seeded apple” have a wide cultural history. In Greek mythology, Hades, the god of the Underworld, kidnapped Zeus’s daughter, Persephone carrying her into the underworld. He offered her a pomegranate of which she ate a 6 pieces of the seeds. This action condemned her to spending half of the year with Pluto (winter) and half with the world of the living (summer). Religious scholars also now believe that it was a pomegranate, not an apple, which Eve was offered in the Garden of Eden. In Judaism, the pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and prosperity, relating to the first commandment of the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply. Pomegranates decorated the pillars of the Temple of King Solomon, and they still decorate the handles of Torah scrolls today. In Christian art they symbolize hope. In Arabic folklore and poetry, it is a symbol for the female breast. In modern Greece, they embody agatha, the good things of life. The red color, the resemblance of its juice to blood, and its many seeds link pomegranate to fertility in many cultures.

Many cultures such as the Middle and Near East, Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America have many uses for all parts of this fruit tree. The rind is used to produce an indelible dye, and the root, bark and flower, produce tannins for curing leather and medicines.

Pomegranate fruits are typically presented as a juice. If you can’t find the nifty new bottled juice called “Pom” you’ll need to work on your technique for prying one open. This is done by first cutting off the crown end; score the skin in quarters from top to bottom and break the sections apart; gently scoop the seed clusters into a bowl; remove any pith.

Alice Waters has a technique where you can break open the pomegranate underwater; the plump seeds will then sink to the bottom while the membrane and pith floats to the top. This also helps to prevent stains.

Photo: Purdue Horticultural Department

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