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Nowruz mobarak y’all! Translation: Happy New Year…y’all! This year, Nowruz (pronounced NO-rooz), or the Persian New Year, lands on Sunday March 20, 2022 (the spring equinox). Every year, pandemic permitting, I trek from Chicago to California to celebrate the holiday with my family. The moment I set foot into my parent’s home, I’m overwhelmed with the smells of Nowruz: hyacinth flowers, wheatgrass, and rosewater sweets. *Sigh*. 

Nowruz isn’t just celebrated by Iranians or folks with Persian roots. Actually, roughly 300 million people across the globe celebrate the holiday. Rituals, traditions, and cultural details can vary from country to country—for example, a traditional Nowruz feast in Afghanistan may be a little different from one in Iran—but the essence of Nowruz and what it represents remains the same wherever you are. I am here as your resident Iranian-American (salaam!) to share a few ways my family celebrates, and a few ways you can celebrate, too. 

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First of all, what is Nowruz?

Nowruz, translating to “new day” in Persian, is a 13-day secular celebration that marks the first day of spring, and, when using the solar calendar, the beginning of a new year. Nowruz is one of the world's oldest holidays, dating back approximately 5,000 years. Although it has roots in Zoroastrianism—an ancient religion that predates both Islam and Christianity—Nowruz is not considered a religious holiday. Instead, it’s observed as an ancestral celebration of spring, renewal, and nature. The new year arrives not at the stroke of midnight, but at the exact moment of the astronomical vernal equinox (this year it occurs precisely at 11:33 AM Eastern time in the northern hemisphere). 

How can I celebrate?

1. Do a Little Spring Cleaning! 

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Nowruz is all about rebirth, rejuvenation, and cleansing. It is tradition to deep clean our homes, cars, office spaces, and even ourselves (my dad is getting his “Nowruz haircut” as I type this). Cleaning is a wonderful way to reset, refresh, and realign. Take this opportunity to declutter and rid your space of unwanted things. This is a good time to use Marie Kondo’s method—if an item doesn’t bring you joy, don’t bring it into the new year!

2. Create a Haft-seen Table

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My sister's beautiful haft-seen.

Nowruz has a rich history filled with layered traditions that have meaningful details. One of those traditions is the haft-seen— a festive tableau of seven items whose names begin with the Persian letter ‘s’. Each item is a symbol for a different aspiration for the new year. Everyone’s haft-seen varies slightly and is decorated with items that are personal for them or their families. For example, on my haft-seen, I always put a framed picture of my late dog, Chuckie. Even if you don’t have all the items listed below, you can still make a haft-seen! The point is to be intentional with your hopes for the new year, and adorn your table with items that represent them. 

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You’ll need: 

1. Somagh (sumac, a Persian spice made from crushed sour red berries), for the color of dawn before sunrise, and the beginning of a newday.

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2. Seer (garlic), for medicine and good health

3. Serkeh (vinegar), for longevity, patience, and wisdom

4. Seeb (apple), for beauty and health

5. Samanoo (sweet pudding made from wheat sprouts), for prosperity
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6. Sabzeh (growing sprouts or wheat grass), for rebirth

7. Senjed (dried lotus fruit), for love

After you have the seven essentials set, the haft-seen is yours to customize. Many families, including mine, add the following:

Sonbol (hyacinth), spring 

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Sekeh (coins), for wealth 

Maheeh (a live goldfish), for new life

Tokhmemorgh (eggs, painted or dyed in different colors), for fertility

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Ayeeneh (mirror), for reflection

Sham (candle), for enlightenment

Text, like a beloved volume of poetry, stories, or a holy book that is meaningful to you. 

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3. Eat a Nowruz Feast

Omg…Persian foooooood. It’s not all kabobs, folks! Rich, flavorful stews with slow-cooked meats, legumes, onions, turmeric, and saffron; fragrant basmati rice with the coveted tahdig (crispy crust of rice from the bottom of the pot); thick and creamy yogurt with mint, dill, and thirst-quenching cucumber…BRB–gotta go raid my parent's fridge now.

Okay I'm back. Look, you can’t have a proper celebration without some delicious grub. The food surrounding Nowruz emphasizes the essence of the new year: freshness, health, wellness, etc. therefore the dishes include lots of greens and fresh herbs. Below is a recipe from my family for a traditional Nowruz dish called Kuku Sabzi. (And yes, that is a pic from the one we just made, and YES I already took a bite of it—sorry not sorry!!!) 

Kuku Sabzi 

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World, meet my dear friend Kuku Sabzi—she’s the less eggy, herb-forward Persian sister of an Italian frittata. Salaam sis! This brilliant green dish has leafy greens (we use spinach and romaine, but you can use what you have on hand too, like kale), is chockful of herbs (I mean really full, it’s got bunches and bunches of parsley, dill, cilantro, fenugreek, tarragon–a food processor is helpful here), and a few eggs to bind it all together. 

Yield: 6-8-ish servings 

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Time: 1 ½ hours or so…

Ingredients

1-2 large bunches fresh cilantro 

1-2 large bunches fresh Italian parsley

1 large bunch fresh dill

2 cups finely chopped green onions (green parts only)

4 crisp leaves from a romaine heart

1 large bunch spinach

1 tbsp dried fenugreek 

1 tbsp chopped tarragon

Kosher salt and pepper

1-2 tbsp turmeric

1 tsp baking soda

1 tbsp all-purpose flour

1 tsp liquid saffron (1 pinch of saffron pistils, grind to fine powder using a mortar and pestle, put in a heat-proof jar or bowl, add 2 tbsp hot–not boiling–water and let it brew like tea for 15 mins)

6-7 Eggs

Extra virgin olive oil (¼ cup or so)

Optional: 

Some chopped walnuts…amt. to your liking (I add a ¼ ish cups)

¼ cup barberries, rinse and dried

Some crumbled feta (sheep’s milk feta is the best IMO)

Warmed flat bread such as lavash, sangak, or pita, for serving. 

Preparation

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. 
  2. Wash produce and dry very well. Trim woody ends from parsley, dill, and cilantro so only tender stems remain. Using only the green portions, finely chop the green onions–you can set aside the white parts and use it for a different Nowruz recipe which I’ll get to later!
  3. In a food processor, pulse the cilantro, parsley, dill, spinach, and romaine heart so that it all gets very finely chopped by not mealy. If you don’t have a food processor, you can chop by hand but just a warning it can be little time consuming. Combine all the herbs, spinach, and romaine in a very large bowl. 
  4. Add the flour, turmeric, baking soda, 1.5 tsp salt, ½ tsp pepper, liquid saffron, and optional chopped walnuts, barberries, and/or feta (walnuts give it a nice nutty texture, barberries add tang, feta adds saltiness).
  5. Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition. You only want enough to bind the mix.
  6. Heat a 10-inch oven-proof skillet or cast iron over medium high heat. Coat the pan with olive oil, making sure to grease the edges (this ensures a nice fried crust, and that the kuku won’t stick to the pan when you remove it after baking). Add a tiny bit of the kuku mixture to the pan to make sure it’s hot enough. When the bit of kuku sizzles, pour the rest of the mixture into the pan. With a rubber spatula, spread the mixture out evenly and level it. The oil should bubble up the sides of the kuku, you can use the spatula to run around the edge to make sure the mixture isn’t sticking. Fry on medium-high for approx. 10 mins. Don’t worry about the crust turning really dark, that’s what we want! 
  7. Cover the pan with a lid or with tinfoil, and slide into the middle rack of your oven. Bake for 40 mins. Remove the lid/foil and let it bake for an additional 10 minutes, the top gets nice and brown. Take out and test doneness by inserting a toothpick and the center and making sure it comes out clean.
  8. Let it cool in the pan, and when cool enough to handle, flip the kuku gently(!) onto a platter or cutting board. 
  9. Serve with warm flatbread, yogurt or labneh, cornichons, and/or radishes. Kuku sabzi can be served warm, room temp, or even cold straight out of the fridge!

 

Another one of my favorites is the traditional Nowruz dish Sabzi Polo Mahi—fried or baked fish served with fluffy aromatic Persian basmati rice filled with…you guessed it: green herbs!

 

4. Ring in the New Year!

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Before the equinox strikes, gather around the haft-seen and take this as an opportunity to pause and reflect. Some families, like mine, will play a little music. A few minutes before the new year, I like to get quiet and be really present. I offer gratitude to my past, and focus on my intentions for the year to come. When Nowruz arrives, I welcome the new day with open arms. 

 

5. Visit Loved Ones 

Once the Nowruz arrives, the celebrations continue for 13 days. The days after the new year are for Eid didanee, or new year visits, meant to renew relationships and bonds with loved ones. It is common to expect company at a moment's notice (good thing you deep cleaned earlier) and there is often a full spread of sweets and fruits and tea in case an old friend pops by. Okay, the idea of surprise visits are truly nightmarish to me—and yeah I will say this is where I am more American than Iranian—so I think a planned visit is perfectly fine if not preferred. The 13th and final day is called Sizdah Be-dar, and it is one final push to rid the new year of any bad luck (the number 13 is thought of as bad omen). On this day, it is customary to get out of the house and get into nature, which often includes a big potluck picnic at a park. A ritual performed at the end of the picnic is to throw the sabzeh (sprouts) growing on your haft-seen back into nature. If you can find a natural flowing body of water to toss it into, even better. The intention behind this ritual is to release the old, and make room for the new. Now go create your haft-seen and usher in the new day.

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Photo credits, in order of appearance:

Header photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Cleaning photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Woman Holding Coins photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Shadee Vossoughi is an Iranian-American writer, actor, and improviser based in Chicago, IL. Follow her on Twitter @shadee_v and Instagram @shadeev. A deep dive of the internet may also lead to her Xanga.

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