The ancients really knew how to celebrate a change of seasons. And the transition from winter to spring was cause for serious celebration.
Most cultures in the ancient Mediterranean region had big celebrations at the spring equinox. People of Persian descent have kept the party going for 3,000 years or so.
Nowruz, the Persian New Year, begins at the exact moment of the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator and winter ends. The festivities continue for 13 days.
Nowruz is not a religious holiday. It celebrates fertility and renewal with singing and dancing, visiting friends and relatives, and lots of feasting. It's got it all: myth and symbolism, fragrant hyacinth and Persian poetry, magic numbers and magic puddings.
Najmieh Batmanglij lives in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Iran. She has written several Persian cookbooks including her latest, Happy Nowruz: Cooking with Children to Celebrate the Persian New Year.
Batmanglij prepares the same spring foods for Nowruz every year. Everything is cooked with loads of fresh, spring herbs. She begins and ends the holiday with a soup with noodles that symbolize unraveling the difficulties in the year to come. Cooked with fresh dill, parsley and four pounds of spinach, it tastes like a bowl of spring.
Eggs, of course, represent fertility. So herb kuku with its dozen eggs and six cups of herbs covers all bases. Batmanglij also makes green rice, loaded with herbs and prepared with fresh fava beans. And there is always fish. "It is very important," she says. "It represents abundance."
Throughout the holiday, there are plenty of pastries — baklava soaked with rosewater and honey, tiny marzipan berries with a sliver of pistachio for stems, honey almond crunch with saffron, rice cookies with poppy seeds and cloverleaf-shaped chickpea cookies with cardamom.
Preparation for the New Year begins weeks in advance with serious spring cleaning, haircuts and new clothes. Debts are paid and sprouts are planted. Everything gets a fresh start.
Contemporary religious holidays still have holdover symbols from pagan seasonal festivals. Think Easter eggs. The Jewish feast of Passover, commemorating the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt, takes place in the early spring. Probably not a coincidence.
Nowruz is full of symbols of spring and fertility. The number seven has been regarded as magical by Persians for centuries. So seven items, called haft-sinn, are placed on the special cloth Persians spread out for the holiday. Apples represent beauty; garlic is health and fertility; wild olives, fertility and love, and so on.
The holiday starts the last Tuesday night before the vernal equinox with chahar shanbeh suri, a festival of fire and festivity. In Iran, and some places in the U.S., a character in red called Hadji Firouz goes through the streets singing, beating a tambourine and announcing the arrival of the New Year.
Children dressed as ghosts go door-to-door banging on pots with spoons looking for treats. Sound familiar? The idea is to drive away evil spirits and be ready to start fresh.
Noodle soup and a bowl filled with, yes, seven kinds of nuts and dried fruits is set out after the "transition," when winter turns to spring.
The big meal the next day is a family feast, similar to the Passover seder or Easter brunch. Then for nearly two weeks, there are visits — and meals — with family and friends.
The holiday ends with an outdoor picnic on what is called Outdoor 13. Families head to a grassy spot, play games and eat kabobs, green rice and maybe more noodle soup. They bring with them the sprouts that have grown in their homes and toss them into the water of a pond or stream, throwing out any evil spirits and thoughts, starting the year fresh.
Bonny Wolf is author of Talking With My Mouth Full and host of "Kitchen Window," NPR's food podcast.
Fresh Herb Kuku and BarberriesFrom Happy Nowruz: Cooking with Children to Celebrate the New Year by Najmieh Batmanglij.
This recipe makes one baking sheet of kuku with a preparation time of 40 minutes and cooking time of 30 minutes.
2 cups finely chopped fresh parsley 2 cups finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves 2 cups chopped fresh dill 2 cups finely chopped scallions 12 eggs 1 teaspoon baking powder 2 teaspoons advieh (Persian spice mix) 2 teaspoons coarse salt 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper 4 cloves peeled and grated garlic 1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup barberries 2 tablespoons oil 2 tablespoons sugar
Fine-mesh colander Mezzaluna for chopping herbs Parchment paper (enough to cover a baking sheet) Rubber spatula Flat metal spatula
Before You Start
Gather all the ingredients and tools. Ask for adult help, especially for cutting and chopping vegetables and herbs, and using the oven and stove top.
Preparing the Herbs
Soak the parsley, cilantro, dill, and scallions for 15 minutes in a large container of cold water. Drain and rinse three times to remove any grit or sand. Dry thoroughly (the herbs shouldn't have even a drop of water on them). Chop the herbs finely (with adult help) using a mezzaluna.
Cooking the Kuku
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).
Break the eggs into a large, shallow mixing bowl. Add the baking powder, advieh, salt, pepper, garlic, chopped herbs, fenugreek, flour, and 1/4 cup of olive oil. Mix lightly with a large spoon. Do not over-mix.
Oil a baking sheet and line it with parchment paper. Oil the parchment paper with 1/4 cup of oil. Pour in the egg mixture and bake uncovered for 20 minutes.
Using oven mitts, remove the baking sheet from the oven. Allow to cool.
Cut the kuku into 3-inch-by-3-inch squares. To make the garnish: in a fine-mesh colander, rinse the barberries well with cold water. Use oven mitts. Heat a skillet over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of sugar.
Add the barberries and stir well for 20 seconds (be careful; barberries burn easily). Set aside.
When ready to serve, use a spatula to sprinkle the barberries over the top of the kuku. Cut the kuku into squares and serve with yogurt, or yogurt and cucumber dip on the side. Herb kuku is also good served with green rice and fish.
From Happy Nowruz: Cooking with Children to Celebrate the Persian New Year, by Najmieh Batmanglij, courtesy of Mage Publishers.