It's 'Nowrouz' (meaning new day) 1390 and every Persian should be preparing for the new year. Yes, I know what you're thinking... "1390? How did we get from 2011 to 1390?" Well the Persian calendar is a solar calendar and therefore the current year will be just a tad different to yours. This year, the 'tahveel' or precise time of the New Year falls on Sunday 20th March at 11:21pm Universal Time (Formerly know as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT) which is when every family embraces their loved ones wishing them a wonderful year ahead and saying "Ayd-e-shoma Mobarak" - Meaning "May your new year, be a prosperous one". Tradition dictates that you spend the 'tahveel' with your family and for about a week or more after New Year, everyone visits each other, customarily with the elders of the family hosting 'open house' for guests to visit them. Most people exchange gifts and everyone wears a new outfit... this has always been a big deal for us; but it is kids who get the most gifts and lots of money to boot. When I was a kid, I could easily make several hundreds of pounds from just one event! I wish the same generosity applied these days because I'm pretty sure I didn't even need the money back then whereas we all have bills to pay now, I'm sure.
The main tradition to be embraced at home is the 'haft-seen' this literally means 'Seven S's' which is a special table you lay out for Nowrouz consisting of various key components each of which have a different meaning or representation and seven of which MUST start with the letter 'S'. For example Hyacinth flowers are very popular and in Persian we call them 'Sombol' - so that's a TICK! Also the wheat grass we use, which signifies re-birth and renewal, is called 'Sabzeh'; another 'S' and usually the first 'S' to go on the table. Other things added to the table included red apples, a whole garlic bulb, vinegar, gold coins, 'Samanoo' (a brown wheat pudding) and live goldfish, both a symbol of life and the end of the astral year also associated with the constellation Pisces. People take the 'haft-seen' table very seriously and above you will see my own bijoux version as well as my Mother's pimped-up, deluxe model which includes 10 times the quantity of effort, time, spending and energy that my own one does, but her haft-seens are kind of famous now and they are completely different in colour and design from one year to the next.
Part of the fun of Persian new year is kids get the chance to involve themselves in the preparations, which heightens the actual celebration itself. I remember my Grandma would put several different 'Sabzeh' to grow in the house and I would be roped in to help water them, cover them with a damp cloth and then ensure they sprout. I would also get to decorate eggs (just like Easter) that would also have their place on the haft-seen and generally help my parents with the laying of the table before the big day arrived. It was a fun time and I thought if I ever have children, I would want to ensure they understand the traditions and symbolic gestures of what is a wonderful part of their heritage. But I was born in Iran and although I left when I was two, I still feel very Iranian and want to celebrate my heritage at every opportunity.
But the traditional meal for Nowrouz is really what I adore. 'Sabzi Polow Mahi' simply means 'Herbs, Rice and Fish' and that is pretty much all it is. The fish is dried smoked fish which very few people use these days and the rice is perfectly cooked basmati rice (cooked the Persian way of first soaking, then par-boiling, then rinsing and gently steaming it until fluffy) BUT when you par-boil the rice, a myriad of herbs in a large quantity are added to the boiling water and once drained, your rice is flecked with emerald strands made from coriander, dill, parsley, chives and the like. I like to serve this simple rice with salty smoked mackerel fillets; a perfectly heavenly way to enjoy this special dish.
Food is a big part of the life of any Iranian/Persian but never more so than at new year. The fridge(s) will always be full to the brim with food, fruit for guests and an enormous array of sweet treats to welcome your guests with, is an absolute must! You must always prepare for unannounced guests at this time of year, so stocking up is crucial. Most Iranians in central London go to one man for all the good stuff.. His name is Agha Reza. 'Agha' simply means 'Mister' and Reza, being his name. There isn't an Iranian in London who doesn't know who Agha Reza is. The man is a legend in his own right and most of us look to him for all our provisions, especially for Nowrouz and he puts on a big show every single day in the week-long run up to Nowrouz and I seriously recommend you stop by one evening or on Saturday this weekend. This way you can see just how nutty, generous, fun-loving and friendly we Iranians really are! Reza's shop is the first in a mini-parade of shops and a Persian restaurant on High Street Kensington (between the Odeon cinema and Olympia)
So "Ayd-e-Shoma Mobarak" everyone... Whether you're Persian or Iranian or black, white or green, I wish the coming year of the lunar calendar be filled with health, wealth and happiness for you all.
And if you want to visit a Persian restaurant to get some good eats soon, here are my recommendations for authentic Persian food in order of preference:
Alounak Restaurant - 10 Russell Gardens, London, W14 8EZ (Nearest tube Olympia)
Tel: 020 7371 2350
Mohsen Restaurant - 152 Warwick Road, London, W14 8PS (Nearest tube Olympia/Earls Court)
Tel: 020 7602 9888