)Today is significant for Iranians around the world, most of whom will be celebrating New Year, the start of a 13-day festival of spring called Nowruz.
Predating Islam, it is an ancient Zoroastrian festival that has been celebrated in Iran for more than 2500 years, and, according to the British-Iranian writer and cook Yasmin Khan, is “like our equivalent of Christmas, when we get together with all of our family and enjoy a feast. Even today, 38 years after the Islamic revolution, Nowruz is still the major cultural festival in Iran. These ancient Zoroastrian traditions are central to Iranian society.”
While rituals will vary from house to house, one of these often involves growing sabzeh - spring greens - and placing them on an altar, to represent new growth.
In London, ticketed food celebrations include The Parsee and The Persian, a dinner of Indian-inspired Persian dishes including Parsee-style masala chicken livers and grilled sea bass on herbed rice. Held at Cafe Spice Namaste, it will be hosted by chef Cyrus Todiwala and supper club host Afsaneh Kaviani.
Meanwhile other celebrations will take place at home. Here, three London-based British-Iranian cooks share their favourite New Year dishes.
Kuku-ye Sazbi, chosen by Yasmin Khan
Yasmin Khan is a British-Iranian writer, cultural commentator and public speaker who runs cookery classes and pop-up supper clubs. Her first cookbook, The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen was published by Bloomsbury in 2016, and she is working on her second.
Tell us about your dish: It’s a green fritatta, and it’s a very flexible dish - it’s very much about using what greens (sabzi means greens). The general ratio is always dill, coriander and parsley but I like to bulk it up with spinach, while other people like to add in chives, onions, or leeks. I like it quite simple with a bit of garlic too.
This would be a side dish on the table, because in Iran we don’t differentiate between starters and main courses, and we have a central meal with lots of different small plates. Iranian New Year is all about celebrating spring, and new beginings. The greens on the table represent renewal and rebirth, so we just have lots of these. My mum always makes it for New Year.
What does it mean to you? Nowruz is a festival that goes on for 13 days, and the 13th day is known as nature day, where many Iranians take a holiday and everyone goes off for a picnic with the whole family. During this national picnic, we take the wheatgrass that we’ve been growing and we tie knots in it which symbolise wishes. We then throw these into the river, and watch them float downstream with our wishes and hopes for the year ahead.
And on that day, it’s also very common to have kuku sabsi. We might wrap it in flatbreads, have feta cheese with it, and also cucumbers and tomatoes, and it looks so lovely. My family are farmers from Northern Iran. [It’s a small rice farm], but we grow fruit and vegetables and herbs as well, so when I’m there with them, it’s a case of going down, collecting the spinach, parsley, chives and the garlic from the land, which is about 50 metres from my grandmother’s house, and then coming back and chopping it up. For me that connection with fresh produce and greenery is a huge thing that links me with my family.
Yasmin Khan's Kuku-ye sabzi recipe
This Iranian frittata is a sensational deep green colour and tastes like spring on a plate, bursting with fresh herby flavour. It is incredibly quick to throw together, will keep for a few days in the fridge, and can be enjoyed hot or cold.
Serve as an appetiser or as part of a mezze spread, wrapped up in flatbread with some slices of tomato and a few salty and sour fermented cucumber pickles, or add some crumbled feta and lightly toasted walnuts for a more substantial main.
Ingredients (serves 4 as a main or 8 as a starter)
50g bunch parsley
50g bunch dill
75g bunch coriander
50g bunch chives
5 medium eggs
½ tsp turmeric
2 tbsp plain flour
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp dried fenugreek leaf
2 tsp sunflower oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Wash the spinach, parsley, dill, coriander and chives, then dry well on kitchen paper or in a salad spinner. Try and squeeze as much moisture out as possible; if the greens are wet when they are cooked, they will make the kuku go spongy. Chop finely or blitz in the food processor, in a couple of batches.
Pre-heat the grill to high. Crack the eggs into a large mixing bowl. Add the turmeric, flour, salt, pepper and fenugreek leaf. Stir in the chopped spinach and herbs.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the garlic and gently fry over a low heat for 2 minutes to soften.
Make sure the garlic and spring onions are evenly distributed around the pan, then pour in the egg mixture. Cook over a low heat for about 5–8 minutes, until the kuku is almost cooked through. Finish off under the hot grill.
Leave to cool slightly, then cut into triangular slices to serve.
Sabzi Polo Baa Mahi, chosen by Sabrina Ghayour
Sabrina Ghayour, born in Tehran, is an author, supperclub host and Persian cookery teacher. Her best-selling, award-winning cookbooks, Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East and beyond and Sirocco: Fabulous flavours from the East, are published by Mitchell Beazley.
Tell us about your dish: It’s a fragrant, layered herbed rice dish topped with fish, and it’s a staple dish at the meal of Nowruz. It’s the Persian equivalent of Christmas turkey with all the trimmings, except while people have become bored of turkey here, we never tire of this. It’s always special, and it’s always delicious.
It’s pretty labour-intensive, though, because it basically involves chopping every herb you can imagine - so there’s always coriander, chives, dill, parsley, and spring onion, and lots of them. That’s a bit mad to people in the west but it’s how it’s done in Iran! It’s quite a fixed dish, but some people will do it differently from region to region.
For example I like adding garlic. [because] I think it really gives it something extra, plus it’s how my Dad’s family make it. They are Azeri and they commonly add garlic. There’s dried smoked fish, too - you can use salmon but I really like smoked mackerel because it has such a wonderful flavour, which compliments the delicately aromatic herb rice beautifully. I often used smoked haddock poached in milk, too.
What does it mean to you? This relates to my Grandmother, who always used to make it, and would ensure that we always continued to eat it, as part of the tradition at Iranian New Year. Sadly she passed away six years ago, but Nowruz always reminds us of her as she was instrumental in keeping the tradition alive. We usually have several occasions when we eat this during the two-week New Year period, so after it’s all done, you do tire of it but it’s what every Iranian family will eat for New year.
Samanoo, chosen by Sanaz Zardosht
Sanaz Zardosht, who was born in Dubai to Iranian parents and moved to the UK as a teenager, runs a ‘Persianesque’ catering business Zardosht Kitchen with her sister Soli. The Zardosht sisters also oversee the menus at Cafe OTO, which include a variety of Persian-inspired and Mediterranean dishes.
Tell us about your dish: It’s called Samanoo, and my Grandmother used to make this a week before every Persian New Year. It’s a sweet, thick dark pinky brown pudding made from wheatgerm, and it’s one of the seven symbolic items that you display on the altar, which all begin with ’S’. Everything on the table has a symbolic meaning, and this is traditionally considered a symbol of wealth, prosperity, future and richness.
[When we were little we] used to go to Shiraz, where my Grandmother lived to celebrate with her. It’s a difficult, seven-day process: first, someone would deliver the wheat to her, then she would wash the wheat, rinse it, [dry it] on a cloth, then get the liquid out of it on days four to six.
Once the sprouts turned green, she would start to cook it, and on day seven she would invite friends over, and it became a party. [There would be a] can on a fire in the middle of the garden, and each woman would stir up the liquid from the wheat starting at midnight, and everyone would talk and pray until the colour went dark - meaning it was sweet enough - at around 7am. Once it was ready, they would put it in containers and give it to all the neighbours, and it was like a ritual.
What does it mean to you? [At the time I was] excited because my Grandmother had a huge garden and would put beds there for us. Her friends’ children would come too, and we’d be so excited that we would be allowed stay up until the morning to play with [everyone].
My grandmother died [but having this] memory of her is really important. In fact I still have it because before she passed away she asked my uncle’s wife to continue the ritual every year. Now, every time someone comes over to London from Iran, she gives them this sweet pudding to bring back for us - she might give it to my mum’s friend who then gives it to us to put it on the table. This week I’m going to have it with my mum in Bristol. She’s quite emotional about it, because it’s her mum and [they’re] special memories.