Persian dishes rooted in antiquity celebrate a new year

4For Mahin Mofazeli, celebrating Norooz, the Persian New Year, takes her back to her childhood in Tehran, surrounded by family, with a table, or haft-sin, decorated with the “Seven S’s,” the traditional seven symbolic items that all begin with “seen” in the Persian alphabet.

They are sib (apples, symbolizing health and beauty), sabzeh (lentil, barley or wheat sprouts, symbolizing rebirth), serkeh (vinegar, symbolizing age and patience), samanu (a sweet wheat germ pudding, symbolizing affluence), senjed (dried lotus fruit, symbolizing love), somaq (sumac berries, symbolizing light and the color of the sunrise), and sir (garlic, symbolizing medicine). A traditional table would also have goldfish in a bowl (new beginnings), painted eggs (good luck and fertility), and a mirror (to always look at your reflection).

Mofazeli came to New York in 1988 from Tehran with her two daughters. Sixteen years ago, after retiring from the New York school system, she moved to San Diego, where she owns University Heights restaurant Soltan Banoo on Park Boulevard. Her original eatery, Café Caspian, was also on Park Boulevard. With only two burners, she was allowed to prepare only soup and sandwiches — but she started making hummus and baba ghanoush, tabouli and pomegranate soup. Then she began making Zereshk Polo, a rice dish with barberries and cranberries, cooking the accompanying chicken at night.

After five years, she purchased her current spot across the street and launched Soltan Banoo with the help of her daughters. Today, she owns the restaurant with daughter Sanam Govari. Running the restaurant reminds her of her life in Tehran, where cooking up large meals for friends and family was simply typical Persian hospitality.

Celebrating Norooz, which means “new day,” brings that all back. “Norooz is a very old celebration that has nothing to do with religion,” Mofazeli explained. “It marks the transition from winter to spring and is filled with feasting.”

In fact, the holiday, celebrating the vernal equinox, has been a part of the culture of the people of Iran and Mesopotamia since antiquity and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of the Zoroastrian, the religion of ancient Persia before Islam. This year it begins on March 20. Weeks before, people put seeds of grass or lentils or wheat — or in Mofazeli’s case, mung beans — in water in a decorative pot so that they will sprout by the first day of Norooz, bringing to life the concept of growth and the arrival of spring. Then the house gets a thorough spring cleaning.

Norooz is celebrated for 12 days, but Mofazeli explained that on the 13th day, Sizdeh Bedar is celebrated. In Iran, she said, the tradition was to leave the city and go for a picnic to “get rid of the thirteenth.” They’d bring the sabzeh that had grown tall in the pot and tie knots in the young growth, then make wishes on the knots. Then they’d leave them behind, throwing them in the river, before returning to the city because after that, having the sabzeh would be bad luck.

In the kitchen of Soltan Banoo, named as a tribute to Mofazeli’s grandmother (soltan means ruler, and banoo means lady), she prepared a few dishes that her family would enjoy on the new year.

5The first thing to know about Persian food is that everything starts with basmati rice. Know how to make this well and you have the foundation for numerous dishes. The rice requires rinsing a couple of times to remove the starch and then soaking to reduce cooking time. When you’re ready to cook it, you’ll drain the water and transfer the rice to a large pot of boiling water containing a little olive oil, where it will cook, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.

Perhaps the most traditional Norooz dish is Sabzi Polo, or Rice With Fresh Herbs. The herbs usually include cilantro and parsley but could also include dill weed and fenugreek. At the bottom of the pot is really the best part — the tahdig, a crunchy layer formed by rice or bread or sliced potatoes, or even tortillas.

Mofazeli prefers potatoes. She slices russets with the skin on and makes a single layer on the bottom of the pot, which already has a little olive oil and saffron water (she always has a mixture of that in her kitchen), then starts layering with rice, then herbs, then more rice, then more herbs until she’s used all the ingredients. She’ll add a little saffron water, then put it on the stovetop over fairly high heat to cook uncovered for about five minutes. Then she puts on the lid, lowers the heat, and lets it cook for about 30 minutes.

The dish is traditionally served with Mahi, or fish, since it represents abundance. In Persia, it’s white fish from the Caspian Sea. Here, she makes marinated salmon skewers with onions, green peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and corn on the cob as well as steamed mahi mahi fillets.

Another traditional rice dish is Albaloo Polo — Rice with Sour Cherries. Lucky for us, Costco sells bags of organic frozen sour cherries already pitted. The dish is fragrant with cinnamon. The preparation is similar to Sabzi Polo, but the cherries are briefly sautéed with sugar in butter, then mixed with the rice before being layered with cinnamon. Serve this dish with lamb or chicken.

For a true feast, these dishes can be accompanied by dolmehs, or stuffed grape leaves; kookoo sabzi, an herbaceous omeletlike dish; Baghali Ghatogh, lima beans with egg and dill; and pastries like honey-soaked baklavah.

Norooz Pirooz! Wishing you a prosperous New Year!

Published on San Diego Union Tribune