I love Nowruz. Spelled variously as Norooz, Nouruz, Nowroj, Navroj — the list goes on almost as long as the celebrations themselves — Nowruz, seemingly the preferred spelling in Canada, is Persian New Year.
Celebrated by cultures all over the world, most notably Iranians, Nowruz isn't quite as simple as it seems, for people in many countries, from Georgia to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and from various religious and ethnic backgrounds, Sufis, Ismailis and more, also mark Nowruz.
Officially starting on spring equinox, or March 21, depending on the community you're part of, the festivities can go on for two weeks, as the various Nowruz celebrations in North and West Vancouver can attest to, some of them starting as early as March 18 this year, the latest folding at the end of March.
Simply put, Nowruz means "New Day" in Farsi, the Persian language. As in so many cultures, spring is a time of cleansing and new beginnings, but rolling the start of the New Year into this annual celebration really amplifies the concept.
Never mind the dancing and music, the up-beat vibe, the beautiful clothes and colours and the famous "jumping over the bonfire" ritual, held on the night of "Red Wednesday," the last Wednesday before the New Year, to banish the old and the bad and start anew. Food alone is reason enough to celebrate Nowruz and turn a new leaf by introducing yourself to a taste of Persian culture.
At various Nowruz festivities, we've enjoyed bowls of a delicious, thick traditional soup, a "country" soup, it's often called, aash-e reshteh. Loaded with various combinations of chick peas, lentils, red beans, noodles, simple spices and something green, possibly mint, parsley, cilantro, or a green leafy vegetable to reference the greening of spring, it's meant to bring good luck and more. The tangle of noodles refers to the tangles and knots of life. Ideally, yours slip down smoothly.
You can also find fresh hot flatbread, delicious minced-meat and onion kebobs cooked to perfection over an open fire, yogurt and cucumber dips, red beans with green rice, and lovely sweets and pastries, many laced with saffron and rose water, all of them painstakingly prepared.
At home, Nowruz dinners traditionally include seven food dishes that start with the letter "S" in homage to the Zoroastrian religion, which Nowruz stems from, and seven of its divinities. You'll find things like sabzeh — wheat, lentil or barley sprouts growing in a dish that symbolize rebirth; somaq (sumac) berries, which reflect the colour of sunrise; and senjed, the sweet dried fruit of the lotus tree, symbolizing love and affection.
But Nowruz is only the tip of the delectable Persian food landscape, which is synonymous with Iran. (In 1935, the then-Shah, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, changed the name of his country from Persia to Iran.)
Persian recipes are often labour-intensive, but the result — a beautiful layering of complex, subtle, exotic flavours and textures — is so worth it. And when it comes to complex, labour-intensive, time-consuming dishes I say let the experts have their fun and make them. I'll be the expert with bells on to eat them!
With such a large Iranian community living at the foot of the Coastal Mountains in West and North Vancouver, you don't have to wait until next year's Nowruz festival to brighten your dining horizon and enjoy a little something that will pick up your palate. A host of excellent Persian bakeries and restaurants exist throughout, especially in central North Vancouver. And as we welcome more Iranian newcomers, Persian stores are popping up around the Metro Vancouver area. Just turn to your old friends Google and Yelp for locations.
Here, though, I'd like to introduce a host of favourites that might help you map out some initial Persian food territory. First, the sweet and snack department.
"Iranians are inveterate snackers and their cuisine amply supports this habit," writes Sally Butcher, author of Persia in Peckham, a wonderfully accessible cookbook on Persian food that sidesteps the daylong recipes. More, since she runs a Persian shop with her Iranian husband, a venture that gave rise to this delightful and contemporary introduction to Persian food, she's also able to point out a number of useful insights, like the above, and her warning about a common pitfall when learning Farsi: "Chetoree?" means "how are you?"; "Sheturee!" means "you're a camel."
The snack thing, in fact, was my entry into Persian food. Over the years, my husband has worked with a number of Iranians in the fuel-cell industry, who would bring to work all sorts of wonderful snacks. This happened year-round, but especially at Nowruz. Hubby, in turn, would sneak a few home for me — amazing fresh nuts and dried fruits that made the ones we normally eat seem withered and tasteless; some of the best halva I've ever tasted, often flavoured with saffron; Persian baklava made with rose water and cardamom — exquisite and never as sweet as the usual baklava we find.
From there we soon branched out to the Persian sweet shops in North Vancouver, where you can buy amazing little puff pastries and beautiful individual cakes, and ice cream sandwiches flavoured with more of that wonderful saffron and rose water.
In the restaurant department, you'll be able to easily find a khoresh, koresh or khoresht (again, there are so many variations in spellings). These are thick, lush sauces or casseroles made from seasoned fruits — dried plums are a favourite; meats; nuts, often almonds; and vegetables. They're often served over a classic Iranian rice dish called chelo, chilau or chello.
I've tried a dish called geisi polo, a pilaf made from cooked lamb, rice, raisins and apricots that have been dried naturally, not those horrid bright orange ones preserved with sulphur dioxide. Delicious. Kufteh (kufta) is also a favourite — balls of seasoned, minced meat and cooked rice or pulses shaped around a hidden "treasure" like chopped prunes, nuts or hard-boiled eggs.
The most famous kufteh are from Tabrizi in northern Iran, where they're huge, 12 to 15 cm. (4 to 5 in.) in diameter, nothing like the stingy little meatballs we normally find.
But then that's the whole thing about Persian food. It's not quite like anything we're used to, which makes for a perfect breakout to new beginnings.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's in the swing with spring.