Happy Norouz! Persian New Year means a springy, special spread

Shukuh Ghaznavi is an exceptional teacher of Farsi. I was able to understand the language within minutes during a recent visit to her Indiana Township home, when she exhorted about 20 family members, friends, students and other guests in her native tongue:

Come! Eat! EAT!

That's the rough translation, at least, of her motherly call of "Befarmayid!" to the lavish table that she, with the help of some friends, had prepared and set to demonstrate Persian New Year, or Norouz. The word (spellings vary) translates as "new day," and the holiday will be celebrated tomorrow, the first day of spring, the world over by people who hail from the region that is now Iran, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. On the Persian calendar, adapted and adopted in 1925, it will be the year 1388.

Mrs. Ghaznavi, who is one of the relatively few Iranians in Pittsburgh, made Norouz the project for the 10 students in her Persian 2 class that is part of the University of Pittsburgh's Less-Commonly-Taught Languages Center.

She invited them to this mock new year dinner two Saturdays ago, and also invited us. Her rationale: Americans read and talk about Iran and Iranians all the time, but most know almost nothing about their traditions. The local community is small -- maybe 350 families, those at this gathering guessed -- and low-key; we don't even have a Persian restaurant. But Persian student groups at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University are planning a public party later this month to which the Farsi class plans to go (see below).

Persian New Year isn't hard to grasp. A new day on the first day of spring makes sense and so, too, do the bowls of sprouting green wheat on the table.

"This is our Christmas tree," Mrs. Ghaznavi said with a smile as she found room for more food on the table, beautifully decorated with fresh hyacinths and burning candles.

A springish green pervaded many of the dishes, from the centerpiece herb-stuffed salmon and herb-garnished plates of fried fish fillets to the huge mound of herbed rice. The green wedges are Koko Sabzi, a sort of omelet rich with herbs.

That fish is the traditional holiday dish might surprise you if you think of Iran as a vast desert. But Mrs. Ghaznavi hails from the north, only a few miles from the Caspian Sea. So she grew up having fresh whitefish for New Year's. People deeper in the interior may have smoked fish.

The rice and the eggy Koko Sabzi are all-important dishes for the holiday, but her table held many more, from a marigold-orange saffron rice pudding -- painstakingly decorated with flowers made from cinnamon and crushed nuts -- to Persian-style baklava, made not with walnuts but finely ground almonds.

(Baklava is Persian, not Greek, Mrs. Ghaznavi declares.)

It all was delicious.

This traditional New Year meal is shared by celebrants who are Zoroastrian, Muslim, even Jewish. "I think the beautiful thing about Persian New Year is it's not a religious holiday at all," said Massy Paul, who smilingly described herself as the gathering's "token Jewish person." In fact, like Mrs. Ghaznavi, she was born and raised in northern Iran. She came to Pitt to study engineering, stayed once Iran was hit by revolution, and got married and had a family. She keeps her Persian New Year food traditions, though this year, she plans to feast at another friend's house.

Like Mrs. Ghaznavi, Mrs. Paul can explain the symbolism of the bowl of sprouts, live goldfish, apple, garlic and other items on another haft sin table, and how on the 13th day of the new year, the sprouts traditionally get tossed into a flowing body of water.

But much of what matters about the holiday you can see and feel as Mrs. Ghaznavi zips around her home, feeding people and hugging them and kissing them and feeding them some more.

"I liken it to the Italian culture I grew up with," said Heather Marino, a Pitt senior in this second semester of the class in Farsi, which she believes will be integral to her master's degree in biomedical ethics and career as a lawyer. But she started the class on a whim, having gotten to know and love two Iranian students and their families. Spending time with them, she said, just adds to the written and spoken language she's learning in the class. She plans to spend time with both families on tomorrow's holiday.

For now, she took a sip of wine and said, "I'm really in awe of this spread."

She and the other students will have to give their presentations on Persian New Year as the semester ends next month. Second-year linguistics student Ben Mericli admitted that he hadn't started his research on the holiday, but, "I have to see what it's like first."

And so he dug into the food, and that made his professor beam almost as much as when he spoke to her in Farsi:

"Nush-e jan," or, "To your health!"

The University of Pittsburgh Iranian Cultural Association, aka Persian Panthers, and Carnegie Mellon University's Persian Student Organization join forces to present a "Norouz: Persian New Year Party" from 6 to 11 p.m. March 29 in the Assembly Room at the William Pitt Union, Forbes Avenue, University of Pittsburgh campus. The evening will include traditional Persian cuisine, a presentation about Norouz and Iran, and Persian music and dancing. Admission is $5 for students and $15 for others; reserve by this Sunday by e-mailing pso@andrew.cmu.edu.

Sabzi Polo (Rice with Green Herbs)

  • 4 cups long-grain rice
  • 10 cups water
  • 3 tablespoons salt
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 bunches dill, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped or whole (optional
  • 6 tablespoons margarine, melted

Rinse rice in cold water several times, then soak in warm water for 30 minutes.

Fill 3/4 of a large stock pot with 10 cups water. Boil over high heat and add 3 tablespoons salt. Drain water from soaked rice and place rice in salted water and return to boil, stirring once or twice.

Cook rice 5 to 10 minutes or until grain is no longer crunchy but still al dente. Before removing from heat add all of chopped herbs and garlic to rice and stir once.

Drain rice mixture. Pour half the melted margarine and 1/4 cup of water in bottom of a large nonstick pot, then add the cooked rice.

Cover pot with several layers of paper towels and then lid, so towels are trapped on top, and steam for 3 minutes on high heat, then reduce to low heat for 20 to 30 minutes.

Before serving, add remaining margarine. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

-- Shukuh Ghaznavi

Mahi-ye sorkh Kardeh (Fried Fish)

  • 2 pounds white fish fillets (such as whitefish or mahi-mahi or salmon)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice

Cut fish into 3- to 4-inch pieces, pat dry with paper towel, then season with salt and pepper.

Set a saute pan over medium-high heat and add oil.

Place the fish in the pan and fry for 3 minutes per side.

Pour lemon juice over fish just before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Shukuh Ghaznavi

Koko Sabzi (Green Vegetable and Herbs with Egg)

  • 1 cup finely chopped parsley
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped scallion
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped dill
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine all ingredients except oil in mixing bowl and mix well with electric mixer.

Pour oil into a square or round baking dish and pour mixture in it.

Cover and bake for 30 minutes on one side and then flip the eggs and herbs over in their dish and bake for 10 more minutes.

Cut into wedges.

-- Shukuh Ghaznavi

Mahi-ye Tupor (Stuffed Fish)

Barberries are hard to find locally, but can be found online; dried cranberries may be substituted.

  • 4- to 5-pound whole fish (such as whitefish or salmon, deboned but with head and tail intact)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
  • 1 bunch of parsley, chopped (roughly 1/2 cup)
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped (roughly 1 cup)
  • 1/8 cup fresh mint, chopped (or 3 teaspoons dried mint)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon or 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1/4 cup barberries (or substitute dried cranberries)
  • 10 pitted prunes
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pat and dry fish with paper towel, then season with 1 teaspoon of the salt and a little pepper.

Mix remaining ingredients except for oil.

Stuff fish with herb mixture.

Add 2 tablespoons oil to the bottom of a flat baking dish. Pourremaining olive oil over fish.

Bakefor 45 minutes.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

-- Shukuh Ghaznavi

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930. First Published March 19, 2009 4:00 AM


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