Items on the Haft-Seen table at Marjan Fine Persian Grill in Morristown to celebrate the upcoming Persian New Year.
Growing up, I so looked forward to springtime. Not just because of the first flower buds popping up through the frosty ground or summer vacation around the corner – no, springtime meant attending a lavish Persian New Year meal at the home of my father’s best friend, who is from Iran.
And who could blame me? Delicately crisped saffron rice. Juicy lamb shank. An entire roasted white fish. A green herb frittata. Flaky rose-water-flavored baklava. Persian New Year foods make up an enviable spread.
The holiday, called Nowruz (pronounced NO-rooz), starts on the spring equinox and lasts for 13 days (this year, that was March 20 at 6:29 a.m. Eastern time, though the U.N. has declared today as International Day of Nowruz). It’s an ancient Zoroastrian holiday, predating Islam, celebrated in Iran and in neighboring countries for at least 3,000 years.
Nowruz, which means “new day” in Persian, is all about spring, rebirth and the promise of a fresh new year ahead. It’s observed by scrubbing the home top to bottom, gathering with friends and family and setting up a decorative table arrangement called a Haft-Seen, among other customs.
EDGEWATER: Hudson Mediterranean Grill
But it was the Persian New Year feast, filled with lamb, fish, fresh herbs, pomegranate sauce and stuffed grape leaves, that always captivated me most — and still does today.
“It’s a pure holiday,” says Gökhan Çakmak, owner of Hudson Mediterranean Grill in Edgewater, referring to the fresh foods eaten in honor of spring, especially the greens and herbs that are so essential to traditional Nowruz dishes.
Green herbs, central to Persian gastronomy and symbolic of springtime, take center stage in the classic Nowruz dish sabzi polo ba mahi, a rice pilaf with green herbs such as dill, cilantro, parsley and fenugreek served with a whole white fish.
Both the green herbs and the fish, says Reza Manesh, owner of Marjan Persian Grill in Morristown, symbolize life. Herbs are also essential to kookoo sabzi, a Persian frittata packed so tightly with herbs it’s colored a rich, dark green. A platter of these same fresh herbs, along with radishes, walnuts and feta cheese, is commonly eaten in place of a salad; handfuls of all of these ingredients get wrapped in crisp lavash flatbreads.
Çakmak won’t have time to enjoy a big Nowruz meal like the one he enjoyed growing up in Turkey – he will be too busy at his restaurant, which will be booked solid during the holiday, with North Jerseyans from diverse ethnic backgrounds, from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan to Afghanistan, enjoying traditional New Year’s foods.
But he cherishes childhood memories of visiting family and friends during the weeks-long holiday, which culminates in a big outdoor picnic with “simple family-style” dishes, such as lamb meatballs and a white bean salad.
“It’s a really nice time of year in the Persian community,” says Keivan Tayeb, co-owner of Zendiggi Kebab House in Closter. “Everybody gets together and just stuffs each other with food,” whether that’s at a big family meal or when dropping by for tea and sweets.
Tayeb, who owns Zendiggi with his father, Ebby, favors ghormeh sabzi, an aromatic Persian herb and meat stew, though ground lamb and beef kubideh kebabs are a close second – and a staple at his family’s Nowruz picnics.
Though far less well-known than Easter and Passover, other holidays that celebrate the arrival of spring, Nowruz has been getting more attention of late from non-Persian Americans, says Payman Nejad, a manager at Kabob on the Cliff in Ridgewood.
At Marjan Persian Grill, owner Reza Manesh and his wife, Marjan Javaherian, for whom the restaurant is named, set up the Haft-Seen table every year. Customers, Manesh says, love it, which the Iran native considers a “great, great thing.”
A great thing, indeed.
The Haft-Seen Table
The Haft-Seen tabletop is at the center of Nowruz celebrations. It’s set with seven symbolic foods and items, each of which begins with the letter “s” or the letter “Seen” in the Persian alphabet, according to Nina Manesh, Reza Manesh’s daughter. They include:
Some families also add coins for prosperity, a goldfish for life, eggs for fertility, sweets, and sometimes a Quran or a book of classic Persian poems.
Persian white fish
Courtesy of my father’s friend, Bigan Saliani, who lives in Irvington, N.Y. This simple white fish, prepared in a Northern Iranian style, is served with green rice pilaf (sabzi polo, recipe below).
3-pound white fish (have the store split and debone it as much as possible)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons herbs (a mix of parsley, dill, oregano, tarragon, celery seeds, sumac or whatever combination of dry green herbs you prefer).
Rub 2 tablespoons of olive oil on each side of the fish.
Cut the lemon in half and squeeze half on each side of the fish. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Rub the fish with the dry herbs, one teaspoon on each side.
Place the fish in a baking tray in a very hot oven (around 500 degrees) with the fish skin-side down.
Bake in the center of the oven for 10 minutes. Check the fish – the top should be golden brown and crusty when done. If not, broil for two or 3 minutes more.
Sabzi polo (Green herb rice pilaf)
Courtesy of Reza Manesh, owner of Marjan Persian Grill, 84 Speedwell Ave., Morristown, 973-889-8884, marjanpersiangrill.com
3 cups basmati rice
1 teaspoon salt
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch dill
1 bunch chives
Pinch of saffron
½ cup vegetable oil
Rinse rice in cold water five times until the water looks more clear and less cloudy and starchy. Soak rice in four cups of water with teaspoon of salt for at least an hour.
Fill another pot with water and bring it to a boil. Add the rice and cook it for 5 to 10 minutes, until rice is halfway cooked, or hard in the center and soft on the outside.
Drain the rice in a colander and rinse it with cold water to stop it from cooking.
Finely chop herbs by hand. Add herbs to the cooled rice and mix well.
Take pinch of saffron and add it to two cups of warm water, turning it a bright golden/orange color.
Heat ½ cup of oil in a large pot for two minutes. Layer the bottom of the pot with rice (should be around ¼ of an inch thick). This bottom layer will get crispy and golden and is the most prized part of the dish, called tahdig.
Add the saffron water, then the rest of the herb and rice mixture. Cover and cook for 10 minutes on high heat, putting a dish towel underneath the lid of the pot so rice stays fluffy and steams better. Reduce heat to low and cook for another 10 minutes.
Grilled lamb and beef kubideh kebabs
Courtesy of Keivan Tayeb, co-owner of Zendiggi Kebab House, 226 Closter Dock Road, Closter, 201-768-0644, zendiggi.com. “Kubideh is a Persian favorite,” says Tayeb. “No outdoor Nowruz celebration would be complete without it.”
1 large onion
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon baking soda (optional, helps the meat rise)
8 metal skewers for grilling
Put onion, salt, pepper and paprika into food processor and finely puree.
Mix the onions and spice puree with the ground meat and baking soda, if using, by hand until a sticky, paste-like texture emerges.
Cool in the fridge for about 1 hour.
Scoop eight, five-ounce meatballs, pressing any air pockets out.
Skewer a meatball with a wide, flat metal skewer. Repeat.
Form the kebabs into 9- to 10-inch-long and 1.5-inch-wide shapes, pressing the meat between your thumb and index fingers about an inch apart to help it stick to the skewer and make it easier for eating.
Grill kubideh kebabs over open fire to your taste, turning often, taking care not to burn them.
Serve with basmati rice, a grilled tomato and yogurt or tuck into a flatbread.
Yogurt soup, yayla çorbası
Courtesy of Gökhan Çakmak, owner of Hudson Mediterranean Grill, 725 River Road #21, Edgewater, 201-699-0192, hudsonmediterraneangrill.com. Çakmak says this yogurt soup is perfect for a spring picnic, like the Nowruz picnics of his childhood in Turkey.
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¼ cup rice
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
2 bay leaves
2½ cups chicken stock
1½ cups Greek yogurt, thick, unsweetened and at room temperature
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
½ lemon, juiced
Heat butter and oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft, around 4-5 minutes, then add rice, spices and bay leaves and cook for one more minute.
Add the chicken stock and bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes or until rice is tender.
Place yogurt in a bowl. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the boiling hot stock to the yogurt and mix together well. Slowly keep adding and mixing stock to yogurt until you have added almost 1 cup of the stock. (This is done slowly to avoid curdling the yogurt, which would happen if you dumped all the stock in at once.) Add the mixture of yogurt and 1 cup of stock to the rest of the hot stock, stir well and season with salt and pepper.
Mix chopped mint, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice.
Ladle hot soup into bowls, drizzle with mint oil and garnish with a pinch of chili flakes, dukkah or sumac if you like.
Serve with warmed Turkish bread or garlic bread.
Turkish white bean Piyaz salad
Courtesy of Gökhan Çakmak, owner of Hudson Mediterranean Grill, 725 River Road #21, Edgewater, 201-699-0192, hudsonmediterraneangrill.com.
Another staple for a Turkish Nowruz picnic.
1½ cups precooked, canned cannellini beans
2 green peppers, chopped
½ cup chopped tomatoes
½ cup chopped cucumber
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
¼ cup chopped green onions
2 tablespoons good quality olive oil
4 hardboiled eggs, peeled and halved
For the quick pickled red onions:
2 cups hot water
2 red onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sumac
Combine all salad ingredients except the hardboiled eggs in a large bowl.
Place red onions in very hot water, blanch for a minute and transfer to very cold water to stop them from cooking further. Keep them in the cold water for a few minutes and then drain.
Mix the lemon juice, vinegar, salt and sumac.
Pour the lemon and spice mixture over the drained onions. Let it soak in for at least 5 to 10 minutes; the longer you let it sit, the brighter the onions become.
Add most of the red onions into the salad mixture and stir well, leaving some to garnish the salad.
Split the salad into individual bowls and garnish with the extra red onions and halved eggs.