Mehregan, a Persian version of Thanksgiving, is an ancient Iranian holiday that celebrates the fall season and harvest. In New York City, Cafe Nadery in Greenwich Village kicked off its first Mehregan celebration recently with a literary and culinary arts festival. Highlights included storytelling, a pomegranate-peeling contest, readings, music and delicious food. The themes were memory and food.
“Our goal was to encourage audience participation. I was thrilled that so many people shared their childhood memories of comfort foods. Whether these special meals were Iranian or American, they were emblematic of the complexities of cross-cultural upbringings,” said event creator Yvette Perez, a mixed-heritage Iranian and lead singer of the Farsi funk group Mitra Sumara, which closed out the evening’s events.
“The festival was intended to broaden people’s understanding of Iranian-American culture and experience through a fun and eclectic event. We brought a lot of Persian flavor together and the people just kept coming. It was standing room only. We wanted to play up Mehregan, which is usually a softer holiday, compared to our Persian New Year and winter solstice festivities,” Perez said.
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Persian food memories
“I recall endless barbecue summers at Riverside Park, as kabab sizzled on a portable grill, the centerpiece of my father’s family gatherings,” said Leila Darabi, a journalist who participated in Nooshe Jan, the storytelling part of the program.
Guests eagerly shared food memories as a microphone was passed around the cafe.
“Lubia Polo! My mother pulled this dish out of her hat after many years of not cooking it. I was just floored,” said Mona Kayhan of the Persian Arts Festival, a co-producer of the event. “And my grandmother’s kabab! Grandmother lived in a Chicago suburb and no matter how sub-zero it was, she would bundle up and fire up her grill in the snow to cook kabab.”
Nahzi Nikki, one of the 21 co-owners of the cafe, told festival-goers that “when I die, I want to make sure you serve salad olivieh at my memorial. It’s a combination chicken, egg and potato salad that is delicious.”
Pomegranates, a traditional food during Mehregan, were also celebrated with a competition to see who could peel one the quickest — and cleanest — way.
As soon as the timer was set, red juicy seeds flew around as the excited crowd clapped and chanted to a rhythmic beat. The winning time was 3 minutes, 56 seconds.
At the end of the contest, judge Saeed Pourkay of Taste of Persia restaurant demonstrated his pomegranate expertise in less than 2 minutes: squeeze, turn, squeeze, turn the pomegranate to soften the insides; with a short sharp knife, cut a round circle around the top to pull off the stub; make four slits at the top; grab hold tight and pull apart into four pieces. Using the back of the knife, knock and tap, tap, tap. All the red, juicy seeds fell out like magic!
Ash-E Reshteh (Persian Bean Soup)
(Yvette Perez’s family recipe)
Prep time: 15 minutes (or 24 hours, if soaking uncooked beans)
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
½ cup garbanzo beans
½ cup kidney beans
½ cup lentils
1 large bunch fresh, chopped parsley
3 large green onions or scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
6 cups of water
1 pound chopped fresh spinach
1/2 pound Persian Reshteh noodles or linguini
2 large sliced onions
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 cup Persian whey, kashk or plain yogurt
1. Soak, cook each bean type separately until tender and set aside. Rinsed canned organic beans can be substituted.
2. Combine parsley, scallions, turmeric, salt and pepper, and 6 cups water in a large pot. Bring to boil and then simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Add spinach, cook for 10 minutes. Break the noodles into 2-inch pieces and add to the rest of the mixture.
4. Let simmer until noodles are cooked (5 to 10 minutes).
5. Caramelize onions in butter in a separate pan (10 minutes). Stir in the dried mint until fragrant.
6. Add cooked beans to rest of soup mix, let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Keep on warm heat. Stir occasionally.
To serve, place soup in a large serving bowl and decorate the top with some of the fried onions and mint mixture. This makes six to eight smaller servings. Drizzle some yogurt or kashk on the top of each serving. Save extra on the side and add per taste.
Main photo: Juicy pomegranates are a mainstay of the Mehregan celebrations. Credit: Jane Feldman