persian new year & tabrizi bakery

Although I already posted a rambling, springtime soliloquy last week, the first day of Spring holds a little more meaning. The vernal equinox marks the Persian New Year, Nowruz, which translates to “the new day.” There’s something very beautiful about that, no? I’m very much accustomed to our calendar and will always associate the official new year — you know, the changing of the date — with January 1st. But I love the idea that every year, out of the frost and out of the dark comes a rebirth of sorts. After winter winds have adequately cleansed the earth (ok, maybe not so much this year), a new year, and more importantly, a new life can begin.

Nowruz is celebrated with fanfare and all of its traditions revolve around food, family, and a little abstract mythology as well. I’m especially fond of Persian families’ emphasis on cleaning in the days preceding Spring. The compulsion to start fresh, to start with a clean slate, to start on the right foot is universal. We all want that, we all need that sometimes. It’s that mentality that contributed to the pure optimism of my last post.

My family’s American adaptation of the celebration of Nowruz, while well-meaning, is almost comical in how makeshift it always is. I usually make something Persian vaguely Middle Eastern for dinner. We always set up a Haft Sīn Table. It’s a setting of seven key “S/Sīn” items, each symbolizing a sentiment that you hope to carry with you into the New Year. We typically flub them:

1. Barley or lentil sprouts (sabzeh) for rebirth: We’ve put dried lentils in a bowl. NOT the same thing.
2. A wheat pudding (samanu) for affluence: We never include this. I guess that explains my financial state.
3. A dried fruit native to the region called senjed for love: um, wha?
4. Garlic (sīr) for medicine: Easy.
5. Apples (sīb) for health: Gotcha.
6. Sumac (somaq) for sunrise: We always have it but forget to put it out.
7. Vinegar (serkeh) for patience: We can’t stand the smell of an unopened container of vinegar.

This year, for whatever reason, I felt the need to do it right. I set up five of the seven symbols and made up for the other two by adding some additional items that can grace the Haft Sīn table. Bonus points, if you will. I put out coins for wealth (granted, they were American pennies, nickels, and dimes). I alternated plating and eating dried fruits and nuts, one by one. I found a candle for enlightenment; it was the most inelegant Glade bathroom candle. I put goldfish in a bowl of water for life. Goldfish crackers, that is. They disintegrated after a few hours. I made up for the lack of cleansing rosewater by floating petals from a random bunch of pink flowers in a bowl of still water. Oh, and Hyacinth. It symbolizes blossoming spring, but it bothers my allergies and smells like a flowery mule so it was relegated to the back door.

It’s the thought that counts.

The food was also in keeping with tradition. I went on intuition, not recipe, to make the traditional Sabzi Mahi Polo, a dish of herbed rice and fish that I flavored with saffron, lime, turmeric, and coriander. The day before, I ventured to Tabrizi Bakery in Watertown to stock up on goodies. After dinner, we snacked on a lemon-scented mix of melon seeds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, almonds, and charred chickpeas. Its biting saltiness makes it wickedly addicting. We tempered that by slowly savoring plush bites of the most wonderful dates. Chubbier and pulpier than the norm, they were bursting with molasses-like sweetness.

clockwise from the upper left: zoolbia, bamieh, papion, nokodi, baghlava (persian baklava), gerduei (walnut macaroon), badami (almond macaroon)

The sticky sweetness of the dates resembled that of some of the pastries I bought from Tabrizi. Tabrizi is a charming little Iranian bakery and shop on Mt. Auburn Street, or, as I like to call it, ethnic market row. Its owner is a baker named Mohammad — a somewhat shifty personality who has rightfully been compared to the Soup Nazi. I know of nowhere else in the area that makes traditional Persian cookies and sweets such as his, and he sells his goods across the country.

My childhood favorite was zoolbia, a crisp funnel cake shaped sweet made of a cornstarch-yogurt dough that’s dipped after frying in a sticky honey syrup. I vividly remember bringing this very version from Tabrizi to a 7th grade cultural festival and watching with amazement as the unfamiliar pastry vanished long before the cannoli, éclairs, and Irish Soda bread that dominated the table. Similar is the more donut-like Bamieh, which squishes with floral syrup when you bite into it. Now that my tastes have matured, my favorite is the tiny Nokodi meltaways made of chickpea flour and flavored with cardamom.

Rumblings of the New Year continue for thirteen days, and today is that important 13th day. Families go out and have picnics (preferably near rivers…long story) on the 13th day of the New Year to stomp out its inherent unluckiness. I have good (read: delicious) things planned for today, on which I’ll surely report back. Any holiday I can stretch out for thirteen days is a good one!

7 responses

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