12 Dishes To Try For Nowruz, According To A Food Culture Expert

Nowruz feast
Nowruz feast - Static Media / Shutterstock / Getty

Nowruz, which means "new day" in Farsi, is observed as the new year in many Western and Central Asian countries. Iran, Pakistan, and Kurdish regions of Iraq and Turkey celebrate with fire-jumping festivities, family time, and lots of feasts. The origins of Nowruz date back approximately 3,000 years, with roots in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. Today, the holiday remains a guiding force for the view of Persian and Kurdish cultures, to honor the past and look towards the future. Nowruz arrives a couple of months after the new year on the Western calendar, falling over the spring equinox.

A significant part of the holiday is connected to new beginnings found in the new season. As such, feasts during Nowruz are symbolic, featuring dishes that reflect luck for the new year and are full of fresh ingredients blossoming in the spring. In Iran, tables even feature haft-sin, a table setting with seven foods starting with the letter "s," such as seer (garlic) and sabzeh (sprouts). Each of these symbolic tastes of the Persian New Year is thought to bring something important to the new year. Seer, for example, represents good health, while sabzeh represents rebirth.

In addition to learning more about Nowruz traditions and food by interviewing and working with Persian and Kurdish chefs in the past, I've personally experienced new year festivities in Kurdish Iraq. Although dishes are unique from Persian to Kurdish Nowruz celebrations, one thing remains the same: Food is inseparable from Nowruz and the days are filled with feasts.

Read more: 15 Different Ways To Cook Fish

Sabzi Polo (Herbed Rice)

Herbed rice on table
Herbed rice on table - Michael Kraus/Shutterstock

The days leading up to Nowruz are an important part of the preparation for the new year. As an opportunity to sweep out the old and make room for the new, food is naturally part of this preparation process. To symbolize this transition, Persian households ritualistically eat a few dishes on the night before Nowruz. These recipes have been traditions for generations.

Perhaps the most popular of these dishes is sabzi polo, which is a central part of most Persian Nowruz Eve celebrations. This rice dish features many herbs, an important ingredient in many Persian recipes, and a crispy layer of rice known as tahdig. Specifically, sabzi polo includes a healthy amount of cilantro, dill, parsley, chives, and just a pinch of fenugreek leaf. The herbs represent the narrative of renewal and new beginnings for spring and Nowruz.

Cooking sabzi polo is a pretty straightforward process. Layer the herb mixture into the bottom of a pot, add a portion of al dente rice on top, and continue to layer the herbs and rice, ending with rice. The layered herbed rice is cooked on low until the rice is fluffy and the tahdig -- an important part of sabzi polo -- has formed on the bottom. Drizzle with saffron water for a finishing touch. Sabzi polo can be a feature dish or accompanied by various sides like yogurt, meat, or fish.

Mahi Ba Zafferan (Saffron Fish)

Fish with rice and herbs
Fish with rice and herbs - Konstantin Kopachinsky/Shutterstock

Another dish that is ritualistically prepared for a traditional Iranian Nowruz Eve meal is fish, which is considered to symbolize life. In Iran, Caspian kutum, a specific white fish from the Caspian Sea, is a must. In other parts of the world where Caspian kutum is tricky if not impossible to find, another type of white fish like cod or tilapia is a worthy substitute. The fish can be prepared in several ways.

A popular -- and delicious -- way to fix the fish is pan-frying it with saffron and lemon. This recipe is called mahi ba zafferan in Farsi. Season the fish with salt and pepper, dredge it in a flour-turmeric mixture, and pan-fry the fish in a heavy skillet. After browning the first side, flip it over and pour over a mixture of lemon juice and saffron water. This combination is simple, light, and flavorful. If you're feeling fancy, stuff the fish with walnuts, herbs, onion, and pomegranate molasses (a staple in many Persian dishes).

Mahi ba zafferan is a perfect partner with sabzi polo. Together, the pair makes sabzi polo ba mahi, a must-have to commence a traditional Persian Nowruz celebration and bring good luck for the coming year.

Ash Reshteh (Persian Noodle Soup)

Persian noodle soup
Persian noodle soup - bonchan/Shutterstock

If there's a symbolic dish to commence the new year, then it only makes sense that there is also a symbolic dish to wrap up Nowruz celebrations. Iranians traditionally celebrate Nowruz for 13 days. On the final day of the festivities, families typically prepare picnics to eat outside. In addition to cookies, sweets, and snacks, there is one more dish that is a must: ash reshteh.

This Persian noodle soup is quite distinct from the average noodle soup — and, of course, reflecting Iranian tastes, it is rich in herbs. A variety of beans and lentils are cooked with onion, scallions, spinach, mint, and parsley. As the soup is cooking, add cooked noodles to the mixture. If you can't find the traditional noodles at a local Persian food shop, spaghetti or another type of pasta make a fine substitute.

Stir mint oil into the pot to give it a rich green color. Top the hearty soup with a few garnishes: yogurt, mint oil, saffron water, and fried onions. But this is more than just a delicious meal. Ash reshteh is another symbol of good fortune for the year, with the noodles further representing a guide for helping you find the right path in life.

Nan-E-Keshmeshi (Raisin Cookies)

Raisin cookies and tea
Raisin cookies and tea - Alex Veresovich/Shutterstock

The 13 days of Persian Nowruz include lots of visits with family and friends. During this time, many cups of tea, snacks, cookies, and other small bites are consumed. Nan-e-keshmeshi is the perfect treat to bake ahead of time and bring to share during the several days of Nowruz celebrations. These raisin cookies are very popular in Iran -- if there were something that could be considered the Persian equivalent of a chocolate chip cookie, it would be nan-e-keshmeshi.

The trick to a perfect nan-e-keshmeshi is to keep it simple, soft, and buttery. A basic recipe doesn't detract from an utterly delicious product, though. Juicy raisins are the key ingredients in these chewy cookies. Lots of butter is another important element, which makes these cookies almost sinfully soft. However, you can also choose to go a bit fancier. Some recipes add another ingredient to flavor the dough, such as rosewater, brewed black tea, or spiced rum.

Mix the butter, vanilla, salt, and sugar until smooth -- as well as any additional ingredients like rosewater — and then whisk in the eggs. Stir in the flour and then finally the raisins. Bake until golden brown and enjoy these tasty cookies with a cup of Persian tea.

Kayk-E Golabi Ba Zafferan (Persian Love Cake)

Persian love cake
Persian love cake - BBA Photography/Shutterstock

Legend tells it that kayk-e golabi ba zafferan originated when a woman enchanted a Persian prince she'd fallen in love with by baking a decadent cake. Today, this aromatic, citrusy cake that's rich in warm spices is a well-loved dessert enjoyed in Iranian homes on special occasions. Many variations exist, some with saffron and orange juice as the focus, and others with rosewater, cardamom, and citrus as the central flavors. Whichever you choose, Nowruz is a perfect occasion to bake this special cake.

Mix the dry ingredients and set aside. Use almond flour to give the cake a nutty flavor and crumbly texture. Combine sugar, oil, citrus juice and zest, and, if you choose, saffron water. The optional addition of Greek yogurt makes the cake extra fluffy. Now, you can also allow the creative juices to start flowing. Add in rosewater, ground cardamom, and cinnamon for a floral, spiced cake. Incorporate fruit -- such as grated pear -- as well as nuts and other spices to add dimension to this cake of love.

Once the cake is baked, poke holes in it and soak it with a lemon drizzle or a saffron and rosewater honey syrup. Frost it with a light layer of orange blossom-infused frosting. For the finishing touch, sprinkle crushed pistachios and edible dried rose petals on top. Cut a slice and enjoy over a hot cup of Persian tea with friends and family during the 13 days of Nowruz.

Yaprakh (Kurdish Dolma)

Yaprakh on platter
Yaprakh on platter - Alicia Erickson/Tasting Table

Dolmas have an ancient history with disputed origins. While some Greeks claim the food was originally served on Mount Olympus, other stories credit the first dolmas to have been served near the Nile River in the town of Thebes during the time of Alexander the Great. Regardless of its origins, stuffed grape leaves, a perfect addition to your kitchen, have been enjoyed across Eastern Europe and the Middle East for centuries. Traditional dolmas are rice-stuffed grape leaves, although many variations have evolved using different leaves, such as those from fig, hazelnut, and mulberry trees.

In Kurdish homes, a decadent form of dolmas consisting of various rice-stuffed vegetables is a central part of Nowruz feasts. Swiss chard, eggplants, zucchini, and shallots are just a few of the vegetables used in this festive Nowruz dish, which is known as yaprakh in Kurdish cuisine. To make yaprakh, prepare your vegetables by cutting them lengthwise. Scoop out the insides and season them with salt and pepper. Stuff the veggies with seasoned rice, which has been cooked with lemon juice, sumac, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, salt, dill, and parsley. Layer the stuffed vegetables in a big pot, add broth and tomatoes, and simmer for several hours to slowly cook and flavor the ingredients. Meat eaters can add chicken pieces into the pot while cooking, as well.

Turn over the pot on a big platter to create a towering stack of yaprakh. Serve with yogurt and lots of fresh herbs and dig in!

Kuku Sabzi (Herbed Frittata)

Kuku sabzi slices with walnuts
Kuku sabzi slices with walnuts - Velveteye/Shutterstock

Herbs are central to spring cooking, and since Nowruz food is a reflection of spring, Nowruz dishes are naturally heavy on herbs. Kuku sabzi is a perfect embodiment of this. Kuku is a common whipped egg dish that has a variety of ingredients in it. Specifically, kuku sabzi incorporates herbs into the eggs and is similar to an herbed frittata. The difference is that kuku sabzi has only enough egg to hold it together, and the rest is herbs.

This flavorful, festive dish gets its dark green color from cilantro, dill, parsley, and chives. Kuku sabzi is further a natural fit for Nowruz, as the herbs symbolize rebirth, and the eggs symbolize fertility. In addition to being delicious, it is also a perfect way to use up wilting herbs in your kitchen. Blend the herbs and scallions in a food processor with olive oil. Whisk the eggs with cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, salt, pepper, and baking powder. Fold in the herbs. Walnuts and barberries -- or cranberries, if you can't find barberries -- add texture and some nutty and sweet notes that complement the herbs. While kuku is typically cooked on a stovetop, it can also be baked in the oven, which results in a light, fluffy, and herby frittata.

Kuku sabzi can be served warm or at room temperature. Squeeze fresh lemon over the slices of kuku and top it with a dollop of yogurt. Fresh veggies, olives, and pickles make for tasty accompaniments.

Mastaw (Kurdish Yogurt Drink)

Yogurt drink with dill
Yogurt drink with dill - Alicia Erickson/Tasting Table

The non-stop feasting during Nowruz brings lots of delicious homemade delicacies but can also wreak havoc on your body. You might be wondering how you will make room for the next round that is about to be served while your body is still trying to digest the previous meals of the day. A yogurt drink is the answer to keep you feasting throughout Nowruz. Mastaw, meaning yogurt and water in Kurdish (and also called ayran in Turkish), is served alongside many traditional Kurdish Nowruz feasts. No ordinary yogurt drink, mastaw is a natural source of probiotics that boosts digestion and supports a healthy gut.

The base recipe mixes plain yogurt with still or sparkling water and a pinch of salt to taste. Many variations of mastaw exist. You can drink it plain or, during Nowruz in Kurdish homes, the yogurt drink is commonly topped with fresh dill and young qazwan, a wild nut that is also used to make a non-caffeinated form of coffee in Kurdish cuisine.

Pour some in a glass and enjoy alongside your meal. The savory and slightly sour flavors may be surprising to palates new to the drink, but mastaw is a great accompaniment to Nowruz feasts -- and it gives you room to go back for seconds or thirds.


Kebab with bread and vegetables
Kebab with bread and vegetables - Los_angela/Getty Images

Kebabs and grilled skewers of meat have a universal appeal. They have been adapted to culinary traditions around the world, from Iran to Japan. Kebabs are well-loved in Kurdish culture, as well, and are an integral dish for celebrations. While yaprakh is the featured dish on the eve of the new year, kebabs are popular to eat during the days of Nowruz that follow. Families pack picnics and head into the mountains, unfolding elaborate spreads on grassy hillsides. As pots of soup are brewing, fires are lit, and skewers of marinated meat, such as lamb, beef, chicken, and liver, are grilled over the open flame to juicy perfection.

Meat can either be skewered and grilled in pieces or minced, mixed with spices, shaped into a long stick, and then grilled. Enjoy the grilled meat on its own or turn it into a kebab sandwich. Stuff fresh pita or another flatbread with the meat and top it with fresh veggies like lettuce, cucumber, tomato, red onion, and spring onion. Sprinkle a few herbs on top and squeeze some lemon or orange juice for a hint of citrus. Enjoy!

Middle Eastern Flatbread

Hands tearing Persian bread
Hands tearing Persian bread - Angelsimon/Getty Images

From pita to naan, and chapati to tortillas, several types of flatbreads are found in cuisines around the world. While it may not be the star of the show, flatbread is an imperative accompaniment to complete a meal. Nowruz is no exception. From household to household, culture to culture, many different flatbreads are consumed in Kurdish and Persian New Year feasts.

A round, fluffy bread similar to pita or naan is tasty to dip in yogurt or soup, to stuff with kebab and veggies, or to eat with other meat and fish dishes. Another popular flatbread in Kurdish homes is nani tiri, which is a large, thin, crispy bread. Nani tiri is often made ahead of time in large quantities, dried, and freshened up with a sprinkle of water.

For something a bit more creative, try your hands at making kelaneh or nan-e-barbari. Kelaneh is a thin bread stuffed with scallions and fresh herbs like parsley. Nan-e-barbari is a ridged, seeded bread. This soft Persian flatbread is crisp and golden on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and topped with sesame and nigella seeds.

Kubeh (Meat Dumplings)

Meat dumplings
Meat dumplings - Zeid AbuSaad/Shutterstock

Whether it be meat-stuffed pastries or grilled skewers, meat is a popular feature at Kurdish Nowruz picnics. In particular, kubeh is a favorite to prepare for the occasion. The preparation of this dish, which is made from meat stuffed into ground bulgur dumplings, can be a time-consuming affair, but it's a must for festive celebrations.

The dumpling and the meat filling are made in two parts. Slow-cook lamb or beef until it is falling apart, and then mix it with garlic, mint, cilantro, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. The shell is formed from ground bulgar, farina (a type of milled wheat), water, and salt, which is mixed into a soft dough. Form the dough into small balls and flatten them into disks. Fill the centers of the dough with meat, wrap the sides over, and seal each to create the dumplings.

Kubeh can either be fried and eaten on its own or cooked in a soup. The dumplings are delicious when simmered into a broth with pumpkin, beets, Swiss chard, other vegetables of your choosing, and, of course, a handful of fresh herbs.

Sabzi Khordan (Fresh Herbs Platter)

Fresh herbs on platter
Fresh herbs on platter - bonchan/Shutterstock

There doesn't need to be a special occasion for a platter of fresh herbs to appear on the table in Persian and Kurdish homes, where fresh herbs balance dinner any night of the week. In Farsi, sabzi khordan translates to "greens for eating."

No Nowruz feast is complete without sabzi khordan or another version of a towering platter of colorful fresh herbs. Top rice, fish, and meat dishes with fresh mint, cilantro, or dill. Or stuff the fresh greens inside pita bread and kebabs. The herbs add a fresh and flavorful punch to each bite and also symbolize good luck for the new year. Basically, sabzi khordan is yours for the making. Arrange fresh mint, basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chives, tarragon, radish, and maybe a side of fresh white cheese on a plate.

In Kurdistan, Nowruz is the start of foraging season, when wild herbs are freshly growing in the hills. Families go foraging for fresh herbs and vegetables that are commonly featured in Nowruz feasts — and are also the star of the show throughout the spring season. While Kurdish mountain herbs like kangir, rewas, and kardu may not be so readily available, add any type of herb that's in season and experiment with the flavorful burst they add to each dish.

Read the original article on Tasting Table.