For most of the United States it’s been a long, hard winter. And for those of us living in the Northeast, these past few months have felt like being an unwilling crew member on the Shackleton expedition, pounded by snow and locked in by ice and subzero temperatures.
The bitter winter has made it more important than ever to give spring a rousing good welcome. Through blizzard after blizzard, I’ve come to understand how ancient people shivering their way through the long dark months rejoiced with the coming of spring, celebrating its arrival with feasts, music and dance.
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Certainly, all spring festivals — Easter and Passover among them — are rich with tradition, but Nowruz, the Persian New Year (on March 20 most years) with its lush tapestry of color, ceremonial table and profusion of food, can be particularly exuberant.
Among the must-have foods on the Persian New Year table are ash reshteh, a vegetarian noodle soup meant to offer longevity, and a plethora of sweets and cookies.
In traditional homes, the cookies and sweets are made by hand — think of this in the vein of holiday cookie baking in America. Today, they can be store bought and share the table with Western cakes and French delicacies, but during Nowruz in Iran, bakeries dedicate staff to making the two most notable cookies in the holiday repertoire: nan-e berenji (rice flour cookies) and nan-e nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies).
From cookies to main courses, Persian cuisine is elegantly nuanced and seasonally based, following a principle called garme o sarde (hot and cold). The foods of the New Year are symbolic to the time of year and the ethos of the holiday, promoting ancient notions of prosperity and long life.
Sprouts with ancient roots
The Persian New Year falls each year exactly at the spring equinox and is among the longest continually celebrated spring-welcoming rituals.
Long before modern Iran and the sociopolitical climate of tension between it and the West, the ancient empire was influenced by Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that invested the natural world with the powers of the deity. Zoroastrianism is tied to the seasons, the worship of fire and water as purifying symbols and a profound sense of ethics governing the way man must interact with nature.
Nowruz — which translates to “new day” — is the most important of the Zoroastrian holidays symbolizing the rebirth of the land after winter, which effectively started a new year. Today, Zoroastrianism is practiced in few parts of the world, least of all its founding nation of Iran, but it still remains an important national holiday there — one so beloved that the freedom to celebrate it was one of the few open acts of defiance undertaken by Iranians after the 1979 revolution.
Noelle Newell, an interior designer in Easton, Conn., remembers two very different types of Nowruz celebrations. First, celebrated as the 9-year-old daughter of a Persian father and American mother, she was asked to present a Nowruz bouquet to the Iranian ambassador to the United States at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was 1973. Six years later, she says, to be Iranian was to be persona non grata.
Today, Nowruz continues to be widely celebrated in Iran as a national holiday; in 2010, the United Nations formalized the International Day of Nowruz. Parades and other celebrations commemorate the holiday in New York, Los Angeles and other American cities with sizable Iranian populations.
Because Nowruz has essentially become a nonreligious observance and instead simply a joyous welcome to the warming vernal sun, everyone can enjoy the delights of this two-week-long merrymaking.
The Table of the Seven S’s for Nowruz
Those celebrating Nowruz begin the holiday by cleaning their homes thoroughly — think of it as spring cleaning on steroids. Next, a ceremonial table called Sofreh Haft Sin, or Table of Seven S’s, is set up in the home.
Seven items beginning with the letter “sin” — “s” in Farsi — that symbolize the cycle of life and wishes for the next year are placed on the table. They include sabzeh (sprouts symbolizing new life); samanu (a sweet wheat-germ pudding); sir (garlic, representing medicine); sib (apple, representing beauty); senjed (jujubes, which symbolize love); sumac (sumac berry powder, symbolizing the color of the newly risen sun); and serkeh (vinegar, which symbolizes longevity).
There can also be sekkeh, or coins for wealth; the spring flower sonbol (hyacinth); a mirror to reflect back or “double” the wishes on the table; a book of poems from Persian poets Rumi or Hafez; and a goldfish in a bowl to symbolize new life.
The table stays in place for 13 days, at which time the all-important sprouts are carried out of the house, usually as a centerpiece at an elaborate picnic. After the picnic, the sprouts are flung into running water, symbolizing carrying away your troubles as they go.
Jumping over fire, feasting the night away
After the house is clean and the table is set, there are two exciting things about Nowruz. The first occurs the Wednesday before the holiday (March 19 this year), when folks light small fires and take running leaps over them, chanting in Farsi, “Take from me my pallor, give to me your warmth.”
The second and arguably most anticipated is the food. After the initial New Year countdown to the exact time the earth tilts on its axis toward the sun, a huge dinner is served featuring ash reshteh, the vegetarian noodle soup, the long noodles of which symbolize long life; fish with herbed rice; and plate after plate of sweets. The meal is followed by the distribution of envelopes filled with brand-new dollar bills or other money to children of the house.
Of all these traditions, it’s the cookies that seem closest to the Iranian heart. Although widely available commercially today even in the United States, once upon a time they were a rare delicacy.
The complexity of these Persian cookies lies not in the ingredient list but in the texture of the dough and the resulting cookie. Because they are wheat free and more delicate in texture than Western confections, they can easily fall apart. But once mastered, they can become part of any holiday table — particularly for gluten-free eaters.
Persian Rice Cookies (nan-e berenji)
Gluten-free rice flour cookies are incredibly light, crumbly and aromatic with the scent and delicate floral notes of rosewater.
Makes 30 to 40 cookies
1 cup canola oil, softened vegetable shortening or melted ghee (clarified butter)*
1½ cups powdered sugar
2 eggs, separated
¼ cup rosewater
3¼ cups rice flour*
½ cup poppy seeds
1. Combine the oil, shortening or ghee with the sugar and egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer and mix on low until all the ingredients come together, about 30 seconds.
2. Add the rosewater. Increase speed to medium high and mix until the mixture is light and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes.
3. Add the rice flour in three batches, mixing on low after each addition until just combined. Scrape down the bowl as necessary before each addition of flour.
4. In a separate bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, whip the egg whites on medium high until they form stiff peaks, about 5 to 6 minutes.
5. Fold in the egg whites using a rubber spatula until totally combined. The dough should be smooth and supple like clay, but not sticky.
6. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
7. Preheat the oven to 300 F.
8. Pinch off gumball sized pieces of chilled dough and roll into an even ball. Gently flatten the ball with your forefinger and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat until all the dough is used up, placing the cookies 2 inches apart on all sides.
9. Using the edge of a spoon or sharp knife, press a light design into the cookies and sprinkle with poppy seeds.
10. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are firm and light colored. Do not let the cookies brown; they should remain very white.
11. Allow the cookies to cool completely before moving them to a platter or a sealed container. The cookies are extremely crumbly, so take care when moving them. Serve with hot tea. Nan-e berenji will keep up to 1 week in a sealed container.
Persian Chickpea Cookies (nan-e nokhodchi)
Like its gluten-free cousin, these wheat-free cookies are great for those with a gluten intolerance or allergies. They can be made dairy free by using oil instead of butter. The end result is a fine, extremely soft cookie that melts in the mouth to be washed down with a cup of hot tea.
Makes 30 to 40 cookies
1½ cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons cardamom
¼ teaspoon fine salt
1 cup canola oil, softened vegetable shortening or melted ghee (clarified butter)*
2 teaspoons rosewater
4 cups chickpea flour, or more as needed*
5 tablespoons ground pistachios for garnish
1. In a large bowl, combine the powdered sugar, cardamom and salt and whisk together well. Set aside.
2. Combine the oil, shortening or ghee with the rosewater in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer. Mix well.
3. Add the sugar mixture to the butter and rosewater mixture and mix together on low until all the ingredients come together, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium high and mix until the mixture is light and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes.
4. Add the chickpea flour in three parts, mixing on low until each addition is well combined. The final mixture should be supple but not sticky. Add more chickpea flour as needed to achieve this consistency.
5. Wrap the finished dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.
6. Preheat the oven to 300 F.
7. Roll out the dough into a rectangle about a half-inch thick, and use a small cloverleaf or flower-shaped cutter to cut out the cookies. The cutter should be roughly 1 to 1½ inches wide to yield about 30 to 40 cookies.
8. Sprinkle the top of each cookie lightly with the ground pistachio.
9. Bake for 20 minutes or until the cookies are firm and light colored. Do not let the cookies brown.
10. Allow the cookies to cool completely before moving them to a platter or a container container that can be well sealed. The cookies are extremely crumbly, so take care when moving them. Serve with hot tea. Nan-e nokhodchi will keep up to 1 week in a sealed container.
*Available in Indian or Middle Eastern markets
Top photo: The Persian cookies nan-e berenji (rice flour cookies) and nan-e nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies) are traditionally included in Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram