British-Iranian chef, food writer and author Sabrina Ghayour explains the cultural significance behind Persian New Year, how it's celebrated and important food traditions. Discover more about this much-celebrated holiday and try the delicious recipe ideas for yourself.
Celebrate in style with our favourite Persian New Year recipes and create a stunning family feast.
What is Persian New Year and when is it celebrated?
For us Iranians, Persian New Year, which we call ‘Nowruz’ (meaning ‘new day’) is the most colourful, fun and celebratory time of the year. Nowruz marks the beginning of spring and tahveel (the exact time of the Spring equinox) takes place on Sunday 20 March at 15:32.
Persians, Parsees, Kurds, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and many more cultures celebrate this special occasion and have their own traditions surrounding it.
How is Persian New Year celebrated?
For Iranians, spring really is the main focus of the 13-day celebrations. We spend much time laying and decorating a special table called ‘Haft sin’ (which means seven 'S’s) featuring many things symbolising something unique. The essential basics on the table must represent at least seven of these ‘s’ items, all of which begin with ‘s’ in the Persian language. Some of the key ones are:
- Sabzeh (wheat/lentil grass) – symbolising rejuvenation and new life
- Sonbol (hyacinths) - symbolising spring
- Seeb (red apples) – symbolising beauty
- Seer (a whole garlic bulb) – symbolising good health
- Sekkeh (gold coins) – symbolising prosperity
- Somagh (sumac) – symbolising the sunrise
- Senjed (fruit of the oleaster tree) – symbolising love
- Samanoo (a sweet, germinated wheat pudding) – symbolising fertility, power and strength
- Serkeh (vinegar) – symbolising age and patience
The table must also include a mirror symbolising self-reflection, lit candles symbolising enlightenment, coloured eggs which are a symbol of fertility, a book of wisdom such as a poetry book or holy book, and a goldfish swimming in a bowl symbolising life (these days many use goldfish-shaped pottery instead of real fish).
What foods are eaten at Persian New Year celebrations?
If you are hosting, you must always be ready to feed people at every hour of the day. The main traditional Nowruz meal consists of sabzi polo (an aromatic herb rice), mahi (fish, sometimes smoked but these days, anything goes), plus kuku sabzi, kotlet, salad shirazi, reshteh polo and plenty of fresh sabzi (fresh herbs, usually mint, basil and tarragon), paneer (feta), naan (Persian lavash flatbread), torobcheh (radishes), gerdoo (fresh walnuts) and peeyazcheh (spring onions) all arranged on a plate.
If you are just stopping by before or after a main meal, then don’t expect anything less than a myriad of fresh fruits, baby cucumbers (which we eat like fruit), mixed dried fruit and nuts (especially giant pistachios, which for us are the king of nuts). And then come the traditional Nowruz sweets called naan nokhodchi (little saffron and chickpea cookies that melt in your mouth) naan berenji (white rice cookies, delicately perfumed with rose water and sprinkled with poppy seeds) and also sohan assali, which is a Persian honey brittle studded with pistachio nut slivers. There's also shireeni e toot, little marzipan balls, rolled in sugar and studded with a pistachio sliver to resemble a white mulberry and, of course, Iranian pistachio baklava.
On the final day of celebrations, day 13 (which we call ‘Seezdeh bedar’) the sabzeh (wheat/lentil grass) from the haftsin table is taken with you on an outdoor picnic nearby a body of water and you throw the sabzeh grass into the water to symbolise ‘letting go’ of misfortunes and going forward in good fortune. The day is devoted to feasting together on lots of different dishes with music, laughter, dancing, games, and family and friends all spending the day outdoors. It ends with one last quirky tradition which was for unmarried girls to make a wish and tie a knot in a reed of grass in the hopes of marrying soon.
Overall, it is just the most joyous, wonderfully vibrant, food- and love-filled time and we look forward to it much in the way Christmas is anticipated and looked forward to. It really is special, and I always try and host gatherings where non-Iranians can come and experience the celebrations and see what Nowruz is all about.
What's your favourite aspect of the Persian New Year celebrations? Leave a comment below...