"More saffron please, Nilou jan,” my mother asks, passing me the mortar and pestle. I’ve heard this welcome refrain my whole life, starting as a child in Tehran, carrying me through successive family kitchens and, now, in my own New York City apartment. Those precious vermillion threads are essential to Persian cooking, and never more so than for the annual celebration of Norooz.
Preparations start early. A new year must be greeted with a clean home, so the weeks ahead are devoted to a flurry of khaneh takani, literally “shaking the house.” (Marie Kondo has nothing on my mother when it comes to spring cleaning.) Orders are called in to butchers, fishmongers, florists, caviar purveyors; the best silver is polished and the biggest platters brought out, along with crystal bowls to be overfilled with tangy roasted pistachios and ajil shirin (nuts and dried fruits such as sweet mulberries, tangy apricots and musky figs). All this frenzied preparation leads up to an extravagant, house-shaking dinner party on the first night of spring.
Norooz, which means “new day” in Farsi, has been celebrated in Iran for more than 3,000 years and is still the most important holiday on the calendar. This month, all over Iran and in Persian households around the globe—from Mumbai to Manhattan, London to Los Angeles—families will welcome the new year in much the same way as did the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia.
It’s these quasi-pagan elements of Norooz that resonate most for me: the traditional haft sin table, so full of poignancy and promise; the universal message of renewal; and the simple fact that Norooz happens when it does. Is there any better time to turn the page of a new year than on the first day of spring, as crocuses and hyacinths poke up from the cold winter ground? Far more hopeful, I’ve always thought, than in the gloomy depths of January.
But what I love most about Persian New Year is how rooted it is in food and family. Norooz’s imagery is all about the garden, the farm, the kitchen; its rituals imbue natural ingredients with almost supernatural significance. Two straight weeks are devoted to social visits, punctuated by strong black tea, delicate pastries, heaping platters of fruit and elemental meals served family-style. Imagine all the pageantry—and over-the-top feasting—of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one 13-day, rosewater-scented holiday, and you’ll begin to grasp the importance of Norooz.
And so as puffs of steam rise from pots of rice and the air fills with the heady scent of parsley, cilantro and spring onion, my kitchen comes to life. This year, I have decided on a classic menu, featuring my mother’s exquisite, time-tested recipes. Our dining table overflows with holiday essentials: nigella-flecked barbari bread, sabzi khordan (a tangle of fresh herbs paired with spicy radishes and creamy feta) and kuku (Iran’s answer to the frittata, and a favorite after-school snack for me growing up). While the veal shanks simmer in their onion-and-turmeric-laced broth and delicate poussins brown in the oven, fragrant with apples and shallots, I brew one last batch of saffron water. First I grind the garnet threads in the mortar and pestle—a movement I could do with my eyes closed, after all these years, yet never tire of—until only a bright- orange dune of powder remains. Next comes a splash of boiling water, just enough to steep the saffron, and suddenly I have a bowlful of liquid the color of Caspian sunsets.
The saffron will flavor such Norooz favorites as sabzi polo, rice layered with herbs, which symbolize renewal. A platter of reshteh polo tells a story, too: The noodles stand for good fortune, while the raisins and dates portend sweetness in the coming year. Vitality is represented by two types of fish: The smoked whitefish arrived in my parents’ luggage on their last visit from Iran, while the pomegranate-and-walnut-stuffed sea bass, topped with tangy barberries, is a nod to my maternal grandfather’s home in the verdant north of Iran.
No celebration is complete without dessert, and all the sweets on the Norooz table riff on seminal Persian ingredients—rice, pomegranate, rosewater, cardamom and, of course, saffron. Spooning up silky homemade rosewater-saffron ice cream transports me to my first visit back to Iran, in 2004, with my then-new husband. I remember the look on his face as he tasted his first bite of true Iranian bastani, in this same flavor, sold from a cart on Isfahan’s main square. I hadn’t seen a smile that broad since our wedding day. Sometimes ice cream isn’t just ice cream, and a meal is more than just a meal.