Celebrating Persian New Year

By Tina Faiz.

One snowy afternoon in early March, I came home after school itching to check up on the plate of soaking wheat germ in the kitchen. I was 13 at the time, and we had arrived in Canada from Iran only six months earlier. It was dreadfully grey outside, but on that humble glass pie plate I could see spring sprouting with each tiny green blade of wheatgrass.

Growing wheatgrass (Sabzeh) is but one small part of the Persian New Year celebration Norooz, (new day), which takes place on the first day of spring and marks the beginning of the Persian calendar year. Every day I would inspect how high the grass had grown, an Advent calendar of sorts, counting down the days to Norooz when my mother would ask me to wrap a beautiful red silky ribbon around the base of the now five-inch-tall grass. The sabzeh is the centrepiece of a splendid table setting, around which we’d gather hours before the new year to eat, visit, read poetry and welcome the new year together.

For over three thousand years, Persians have embraced such rituals to celebrate the spring equinox — the moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator and night and day are equal for the first time since the fall equinox in September. This year, that exact moment will be on March 20, at 10:57am.

Looking outside my icicle-encrusted window that first year in Canada, it was wistfully clear to me that spring in Edmonton would not arrive for another couple of months, but in Tehran the grass is bright green by mid-March. The sweet fragrance of pastel-hued hyacinths fill the air, delicate white jasmine flowers greet you with their perfume, and grand cherry blossoms line neighbourhood boulevards — all childhood memories of new years past, forever imprinted on my senses.

It’s as if nature itself is urging us to celebrate as it awakens from its winter slumber. There is a deep sense of hope and optimism for the new year when it’s so inextricably linked to nature’s own cycle of renewal that, each year, I question why the rest of the world celebrates on December 31.

In keeping with this spirit of renewal, it’s also customary for Persians to clean their homes, wear new clothing and settle past disputes for a truly fresh start to the new year. Growing up, my brothers and I particularly loved the tradition of receiving Eid-y, crisp new bills that relatives gave us as gifts, similar to cash-filled red envelopes bestowed on Chinese New Year. It’s a festive time of the year, decorating, cooking, baking and entertaining visitors over a two-week period.

An elaborate ceremonial table called sofreh (spread) is decorated with candles, fresh flowers, goldfish, painted eggs, a mirror and an orange — all ancient Zoroastrian symbols of hope, enlightenment and prosperity.

Also set on the table is a book of wisdom, typically Hafez poetry, or the Quran if you’re Muslim, and seven symbolic elements that begin with the letter ‘s’ in Persian, each serving a distinct role in bringing good things for the year ahead. Centre stage is the wheatgrass (sabzeh), which represents rebirth; garlic (seer), symbolizes medicine; sumac (somagh), reflects the colour of sunrise and the victory of light and goodness over dark; vinegar (serkeh) is for patience and longevity; coins (sekeh), to bring wealth and prosperity; apples (seeb) represents beauty and health; and the sweet, dried fruit of the lotus tree (senjed) symbolizes love.

Symbolism also extends to the Norooz menu, which features plenty of herbs, the green colour emphasizing nature’s revival. Always present is roasted or pan-fried fish served with herbed rice and glorious pan-crust Tah-dig (instructions follow) an herb frittata, and an herby bean and noodle soup called Ash-e reshteh, eaten to help unravel life’s knotty problems, represented by the long noodles. Soup, commonly called ash, is more than a course in Persian food; it plays a symbolic role in social traditions, often conveying sentiments of charity, community and well wishes. In fact, the word cook is ash-paz in Farsi, which literally means soup maker, and kitchen is ash-paz khaneh or the soup maker’s room. Most are made with pulses, grains and fruits, with little meat, and are hearty enough to be a complete meal in a bowl.

Herb-dominant holiday menu aside, Persian cuisine is a vast and rich tapestry of exotic flavours, woven like an intricate Persian rug over three millennia of imperial conquest and surrender. As the Persian Empire reached at various centuries from Egypt and Greece to Russia and India, its cuisine has maintained its unique characteristics: exotically seasoned, highly fragrant with a distinctly sweet-and-sour flavour, thanks to lavish use of barberries (think a tart currant), verjuice, pomegranate molasses, dried limes and sumac.

Alluring scents of rose water, cardamom and saffron infuse many Iranian dishes. Braised lamb, beef and poultry dishes called Khoresh are often paired with nuts and fruits native to Iran, such as pistachios, pomegranates, sour cherries, mulberries, peaches and plums. It’s served with saffron rice and sides of spiced yogurts, pickles of all sorts and fresh naan.

Persian cuisine is unlike Indian, Arab, Turkish or Greek food, though it has contributed to each of those culinary traditions and beyond, through trade routes. Persian khoresh became tagine in Morocco; saffron rice polo and meat became paella in Spain; preserved quinces and bitter oranges became English marmalades, while Persian kebabs have become the ubiquitous meat-on-a-stick in many cultures and Persian flatbread baked in a tandoor became the beloved Indian naan.

Chances are that as you’re reading this, it’s still snowy outside and spring feels like an eternity away. Why not grow some wheatgrass, set the table, and cook a Persian feast to celebrate nature’s rebirth — and before you know it, spring will be here.

Tina Faiz, co-owner of Big Pixel Creative, loves to ask questions, and she loves to eat. She’s contemplating a graphic novel about tah-dig. It’s that good!


  • Sabzi polo ba mahi (pan-fried fish with herbed saffron rice)
  • Fesenjan (pomegranate and walnut sauce)
  • Toot (almond sweets made to look like white mulberries)

Where to find

  • Anatolia Food Market: 15920 Stony Plain Road, 587-521-4005
  • Italian Centre Shops: 10878 95 Street, 780-424-4869, 5028 104A Street, 780-989-4869, 17010 90 Avenue, 780-454-4869
  • King of Dates (formerly Mini Super Pars): 9312 34 Avenue, 780 481-2974
  • Omonia Foods: 10605 101 Street, 780-426-6210