Editor's note: This article by journalist and historian Ramin Ganeshram was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of Sift magazine, and with Nowruz (Persian New Year) coming up we're sharing it once again here on our blog.
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Being the child of a mixed-race family, I was often on the outside of my parents’ cultural traditions. My father was from Trinidad and didn’t speak Farsi, the language of my Iranian mother. His holidays and traditions revolved around his hybridized Indian, African, and English colonial culture; while my mother’s were a unique mix of ancient Persian and Islamic traditions.
I wasn’t immersed in either culture. My parents’ native traditions were more like familiar old friends we met from time to time. I could only picture my mother’s homeland of Iran hazily in my mind. What I knew of it came from American pop culture: Persian cats, Persian rugs. My concept of my father’s island culture came from our black velvet scroll map of Trinidad, its points of interest outlined in puffy neon-colored paint.
Meanwhile, food was the dependable bridge across the great divide of my multiple identities.
Our everyday meals consisted of fare native to my parents’ backgrounds, served with fusion flair. Trinidadian curries shared table space with the superior Persian rice, while Persian stews (koreshte) were enjoyed alongside roti, the traditional Trinidadian griddled flat bread.
As it is for many immigrants, holiday recipes served as an essential way to maintain ties to old traditions, especially the unusual desserts that only make an appearance during Nowruz — the Persian New Year. Nowruz is an ecumenical holiday of utmost importance to all Iranians, comparable to American Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Nowruz translates to “New Day,” and begins on the spring equinox, symbolizing the rebirth of the land after winter. The original religion of the Persian empire is Zoroastrianism, in which the deity is represented by fire, and the earth’s equinoxes and solstices are the basis of major holidays. Though Zoroastrianism is rarely practiced in modern times, Nowruz remains one of the most important national holidays.
During the holiday season, bakeries in Iran put staff to work around the clock making delicate sweets redolent with cardamom, saffron, and rosewater. Each has a unique texture and many happen to be gluten-free, because they rely on locally abundant nuts, legumes, and their flours.
In the early 1980s in the United States, there were few Iranians and even fewer stores that catered to our tastes. Sometimes Arab bakeries and grocers would offer packages of factory-made Nowruz treats imported from Iran, like nan-e gerdui, made from ground walnuts (pictured at the top of this post), which are reminiscent of Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cookies scented with cardamom. You could sometimes find zoolbia, a crispy, lacy fritter coated in saffron and rosewater-flavored sugar syrup. We loved sampling tar halva, a paste-like pudding with a delightfully unique consistency made from rice flour, saffron, rosewater, and sugar.
Enjoyed abundantly with spiced black tea over the course of the 13-day-long holiday, these desserts serve an important role as the centerpiece of the sofreh haft seen (the Table of the Seven S’s). Families gather in front of it at the precise moment of the equinox to see in the New Year. Each item on the table is invested with meaning — both magical and mundane — and each begins with the letter “s.”
The objects vary by household, but there are always sprouted greens to symbolize rebirth, and a goldfish in a bowl to represent life within life. The total number must be seven, or “haft” (a mystical number to Zoroastrians). In ancient times, Persians welcomed Nowruz by growing seven varieties of seeds on top of seven pillars, and laying a table with branches or vines bearing seven kinds of fruits, vegetables, or grains.
The Nowruz shirini (sweets) represent the longing for sweetness in the year to come. Today, there are vibrant Iranian communities around the United States, and the Nowruz shirini aren’t as hard to find as they once were. But nothing compares to making these unique treats at home and enjoying them warm from the oven. You can smell the same scents as you would from a bakery in Tehran, where rosewater and cardamom perfume the street, promising a sweet new year ahead.
Cover photo by Mark Weinberg