Happy Persian New Year! Nowrooz (which goes by many other spellings) technically means “New Day” and is the time for spring cleaning and celebrations in the areas, most notably Iran, where people of Persian descent now reside.
It’s the opposite time of year here in the Southern Hemisphere, where nature is shutting down for winter, but I was intrigued to notice some similarities between Nowrooz and some of the other holidays with which I am more familiar.
A key component of the Nowrooz celebration is the setting of a table with numerous symbolic items to usher in a prosperous and joyous year. This table, the “Haft Sin” varies slightly from Albania to Uzbekistan, but usually contains seven items that start with the “s” sound in the Persian language. While this set-up reminded me of the Jewish Seder plate and its symbolic contents (used at Passsover, which takes places in a few weeks), Nowrooz may in fact have influenced the Purim holiday which takes place around the same time each year.
Plus, the essential items on the Nowrooz include a mirror, vinegar, garlic and… painted eggs! The egg as a symbol of new life and renewal predates Easter, of course, but I find it reassuring to find these similarities across cultures.
I was reminded of how challenging it must sometimes be for migrant groups to uphold their own traditions in new countries, because it’s not always easy to get hold of special cultural items when you’re on the wrong side of the world. It took some effort to gather the items required to set an approximation of a Haft Sin.
We visited some Middle Eastern food stores in search of ingredients and were very distracted by the date biscuits, herbal teas and attractive packaging. The children were especially keen on the dried fruit sold in bulk. We purchased numerous sweet treats that did not last long enough to be photographed.
I tried to grow some sprouts, to symbolise rebirth and growth on my table, but my seeds didn’t germinate in time so I displayed some sprouting mint instead. For the wheat germ pudding called samanu, which takes up to a week to prepare, I substituted a Persian rice pudding that I adapted from Louisa Shafia‘s lovely book: “the new Persian kitchen.” I used quinoa instead of amaranth and I ground cardamom pods in my coffee grinder, which smelt divine. I acquired some rare and incredible Persian Blue salt from the wonderful Gewurzhaus (which is full of travel-at-home culinary possibilities) to add regional authenticity to my recipe. The result was a seriously sweet and aromatic pudding.
As for the live goldfish that is considered an essential component of the Haft Sen spread: it is now a somewhat controversial choice. Millions of fish are sold in Iran in the lead-up to this spring celebration, but the whereabouts of the goldfish after the Nowrooz holiday are not so certain. Many are released into local waterways or kept in backyard ponds, but most probably perish in their bowls. I chose to paint some fish onto some sheet music containing appropriate lyrics by the iconic Persian poet, Hafiz. (There’s a film called “The White Balloon” about a child’s search for the perfect Nowrooz goldfish that I would like to see to understand more about this tradition.)
The days are getting shorter here in Australia and spring is a long way off, but I really enjoyed creating a small shrine to growth and rebirth, and learning more about the rich and ancient Persian culture. How interesting to see some familiar symbols, and be reminded that people across the world are keen to celebrate the changing of the seasons in similar ways.