Persian New Year foods bring respite and hope after another pandemic winter
An aromatic cloud of dill, curly parsley and garlic wafts from the pot when electrical designer Shirin Nezafati lifts the lid to check on her sabzi polo ba tahdig, a Persian herbed rice with a crispy golden brown crust on the bottom. The pot is lined with potato slices as she opted for a potato crust.
In one swift move she flips the pot onto a cake stand, allowing the rice to plop down like a cake.
It’s stunning: the flecks of finely chopped herbs and slices of caramelized potatoes being illuminated by the afternoon sun shining through the kitchen window of Nezafati’s home.
Still, Nezafati, who also works as a recipe tester, laments this crust isn’t at the level of golden brown she wanted.
She takes out her phone to show the dozens of tahdigs she’s made over the years: some topped with barberries resembling little red rubies and others with a smooth, uniform plain rice crust.
Regardless, the sabzi polo she’s just made tastes fantastic: pillowy basmati rice with a hint of garlic and bursting with a herbal zip.
She serves the rice with baked salmon, as it’s typically served with fish (mahi) during Nowruz, the upcoming Persian New Year that coincides with the arrival of spring. It runs for two weeks and this year it starts on March 20.
It’s an eagerly anticipated holiday following a long winter, and offers a hint of optimism even during bad times.
“Food is at the centre of Persian culture and during Nowruz especially, people get together and as Persians we love to overfeed people,” said Nezafati, who grew up in Tabriz, a large city in northwestern Iran. “We would never have just one main course … we present a sense of bounty and joy.”
This year will be extra special for Nezafati as it’ll be the first Nowruz that she’ll be able to see her sister and aunts since the pandemic started.
Family chats are well underway about who will be making what.
Nezafati will be making the sabzi polo along with kuku sabzi (a herb frittata) and sweets such as toot (or tut), which are little bits of marzipan shaped like mulberry fruits.
Her mother will be making stuffed fish.
Fish is widely eaten during the holiday as a symbol of life. Fish are also a feature of the haft-sin, a table display of seven items that represent renewal, prosperity and start with the letter “sin” in the Persian alphabet.
“For Persian New Year, the go-to is sabzi polo ba mahi,” said Sam Fayaz, who runs Khorak Supermarket, popular in Toronto for its large selection of Persian groceries.
“The type of fish is usually a rainbow trout, lake trout or the classic one: smoked white fish or regular white fish. We sell the white fish. Every Persian family will have fish in their house, whether it’s live, smoked or baked. For vegetarians it’s the kuku sabzi.”
Herbs have always been another essential in Persian cooking, giving everything a vibrant hue and a flavour contrast to rice, stews and meats. There’s also a side dish akin to a salad called sabzi khordan, which is a platter of fresh herbs and raw vegetables such as radishes.
For her sabzi polo, Nezafati also adds a bit of dried chochaq, which is found in northern Iran and she describes as a cross between oregano and mint.