Spring to life with Persian New Year 

From the mountains of Iran to those of Sea to Sky: A traditional dish that delights

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF GHAZAL TOHIDI - SEVEN SYMBOLS SEEN Ghazal Tohidi with her traditional haft-sin table for Nowruz. It features seven symbolic items whose names all start with sin, the 15th letter of the Persian alphabet (which is pronounced as "seen"), including a mirror and candles (reflecting into the future); goldfish swimming in a bowl (representing life); painted eggs (fertility); and sweets.
  • Photo Courtesy of Ghazal Tohidi
  • SEVEN SYMBOLS SEEN Ghazal Tohidi with her traditional haft-sin table for Nowruz. It features seven symbolic items whose names all start with sin, the 15th letter of the Persian alphabet (which is pronounced as "seen"), including a mirror and candles (reflecting into the future); goldfish swimming in a bowl (representing life); painted eggs (fertility); and sweets.

What?! More sunlight peeking out? Spring break, and daffies popping up!? Sweet spring has definitely sprung, and if there's one thing I look forward to around about now it's Nowruz, or Persian New Year.

I'm even happier this year to get the inside track on Nowruz from someone many of you know from her years volunteering on Whistler Blackcomb and as a village host: Ghazal Tohidi grew up in Iran, primarily the northern part near the beautiful mountains and Caspian Sea, which pretty much explains her love for Sea to Sky.

"Whistler always has a special place in my heart," says Ghazal, a human resources professional.

Nowruz, which has various spellings, means "New Day" in Farsi, the Persian language. It officially starts on Spring Equinox. This year, it's Thursday, March 19, at 8:49 p.m. and 37 seconds—which, amazingly, Ghazal rattles off by heart.

Most cultures mark spring by celebrating new beginnings but, to me, rolling the start of spring in with New Year totally amplifies the concept.

People in Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and from various religious and ethnic backgrounds, including Ismailis, also mark Nowruz. But most of us in Sea to Sky associate it with the Iranian community since we have so many Iranian neighbours living on the North Shore.

It's been a difficult time lately for our Iranian friends, starting with the terrible plane crash in January. More recently, COVID-19 has flared up in Iran. Together, they've meant traditional Persian festivities that attract crowds in Sea to Sky have been cancelled, including the "jumping-over-the-bonfire" Nowruz ritual usually held on a West Vancouver beach to banish the old and start anew.

But you can't keep a good thing down.

"Everybody is still going to celebrate indoors, at their homes, with friends and family," says Ghazal, who'll be setting a traditional haf sid table and cooking up a storm of traditional dishes, like delicious kookoo sabzi.

Join the celebration—Whip up some kookoo sabzi

Kookoo sabzi (also spelled kuku) is a traditional Persian omelette typically served at Nowruz. It symbolizes growth and spring: The herbs represent rebirth; the eggs, fertility.

"Iranians treat herbs not as a seasoning, but as a vegetable. Copious fresh herbs are the foundation of many Persian recipes," notes Ghazal. "This is especially the case in spring, when Nowruz pulls everyone out of their homes to go on picnics." Kookoo sabzi—fresh greens bound by just enough egg to hold it together—is always part of the spread.

"A good kookoo sabzi is a thing of beauty: Fluffy, fragrant and hearty, yet light, filled with nutrition, and absolutely delicious!" she promised. The contrast of the tangy barberries and crunchy, earthy walnuts with the herb-infused egg—all served with some good yogurt and bread—will delight even a persnickety palette.

In celebration of Nowruz, Ghazal is sharing this traditional recipe from her grandmother, who hails from Kermanshah in northwestern Iran near the Zagros mountains—an ancient city with a Mediterranean climate that's known as a "cradle" of prehistoric cultures.

Luckily, Ghazal also shares her grandmother's genes. She doesn't like short cuts, so the results are "the real deal." It's healthy, doesn't cost much to make, and the ingredients are easy to find. Plus it makes an easy, delicious vegetarian dish year-round.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who first learned about Nowruz from her neighbour and her husband's workmates.

Kookoo sabzi

  • 1 bunch each: fresh cilantro, parsley, chives (or scallions)
  • 3-4 stems fresh dill
  • 3-4 leaves of pale green, crispy lettuce (optional)
  • 1 tsp dried fenugreek seeds (you can substitute tarragon)
  • Pinch of dried mint
  • 1/2 cup walnut halves—save a few for garnish then coarsely chop the rest
  • 3 tbsp barberries: 1 tbsp for the garnish, the rest for the batter. (If you can't find them, just leave them out.)
  • 5 eggs 
  • 1 tbsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp baking powder (soak in a bit of water so it bubbles) 
  • 1 tbsp flour

Soak the greens in cold water for up to 30 min. to loosen any dirt. Drain and rinse a few times. Dry completely; trim stem ends. Chop as finely as possible.

Soak the barberries (zereshk in Farsi) in cold water for 10 to 15 min. Rinse several times until clean (use a tea filter as a colander). Drain, dry, and set aside.

Heat 2 to 3 tbsp. of olive oil in a skillet on high. Without waiting for the oil to get hot, add the chopped fresh herbs, stirring constantly for about 5 min. until the mixture reduces in size, and is soft and pliant. Let the mixture cool completely. 

In a big bowl, whip the eggs lightly with a fork. Add the dried mint, fenugreek, chopped walnuts, 2 tbsp. of the barberries, flour, baking powder, turmeric and sautéed herbs. Mix well. 

In a big pot, heat on medium at least 4 tbsp. olive oil. When the oil is hot enough that a test-droplet of batter puffs up, pour in the batter and lightly press it with a spatula to even the surface. Cover. Cook on medium 10 to 12 min., or until the bottom sets.

Using a spatula, cut the kookoo into 4 (or more) wedges. Flip each wedge to cook the other side—uncovered this time—on medium for about 5 to 7 min. until they're evenly cooked. (Add oil as needed.) 

Place the egg wedges on a serving platter. Garnish each with a sprinkling of the sautéed barberries and some walnuts. Serve with bread and yogurt.

Outstanding!

FOR THE BARBERRY GARNISH:

Heat 2 tbsp. of oil in a small skillet on medium till hot. Add 1 tbsp. of barberries and 1/2 tablespoon of sugar (optional). Stir well for no more than a minute.

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