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The flavours of Nawruz—the first day of spring

A festival that marks the arrival of a new season is celebrated by several communities in India with foods that signify love, beauty and rebirth

Festive specialties in an Afghan home. (Photo: Bruijn and Saumya Gupta)
Festive specialties in an Afghan home. (Photo: Bruijn and Saumya Gupta)

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The arrival of spring is a reason for celebrations across several communities in India. The first day, which is the spring equinox, falls on March 21. It marks the Iranian or Persian New Year, Nawruz, which combines the Persian words naw (new) and roz(day). It falls in the Persian month of Farvardin, the first month of the ancient Solar Hijri calendar, the official calendar of Iran, and corresponds with the zodiac sign Aries.

On this auspicious day, the Irani community that lives in Mumbai and Pune cooks up a storm with festive delicacies, like zereshk polo (rice cooked with barberries), chelo kebab koobideh (minced meat kebabs) and sholeh zard (rice pudding infused with rose water).

It is also celebrated with equal joy by Afghans in the lanes of Delhi and Lucknow, and the Shia Muslim community.

Many Afghan families have rituals that signify a fresh beginning. These include cleaning the house, buying new clothes and preparing dishes rich in dry fruits. In Old Delhi, Afghanis visit Khari Baoli, believed to be Asia’s biggest supermarket. Jahida Sahar, an Afghan settled in Delhi, shares Khari Baoli has stores that sell dry fruits sourced from her home country. For Sahar, the most tedious work is to crack open nuts like pistachios and walnuts, which go into haft mewa, an indulgent mixture of seven fruits. Seven is believed to be an auspicious number. Two of the most common dried fruits are senjid, the dried fruit of the oleaster tree, regarded as a sign of love; and full, dried sour apricots with seeds. The meal also features dried apricots, two varieties of raisins, and nuts such as almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts. In the days leading up to Nawruz, women prepare samanak, a sweet Afghan wheat pudding. Kolcheh Nowrozi, rose-scented rice flour cookies wrapped in colourful tissue paper, and haft mewa are sold in Afghan stores, although some prefer to make them at home.

For Muslims in India and the subcontinent, Nawruz celebrations are limited to the Shia community. Religious leaders from their community declare the year's colour, and this time it’s red. It is reflected in the dastarkhwan with dishes such as red qorma, red sweets and fruits like red grapes, pomegranates and plums. In some families, sprouts and eggs are put on the table as symbols of growth and fertility.

Traditionally, on this day, Shia Muslims gather around a Haft-Seen (translated as ‘the seven s’), which is a table setting to bring in the new year. Anyone from any community is welcome to be part of this meal. The seven foods on the table include:

1. Sabzeh (lentil sprouts that grow in a dish, symbolising rebirth)
2. Samanak (a sweet pudding made from wheat, symbolising affluence)
3. Senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree, symbolising love)
4. Seer (garlic, symbolising medicine)
5. Seb (apple, symbolising health and beauty)
6. Somaq (sumac berries, symbolising the color of the sunrise)
7. Serkeh (vinegar, symbolising age and patience)

This year, the auspicious time (known as tahweel in Urdu) is at 2.55 am on Tuesday, March 21. In Shia tradition, at this time, families gather to perform rites related to health and prosperity by listening to recitations from the Quran. On the dastarkhwan, foods like kababs and pulao are placed. The centrepiece, however, is a red rose floating in water in a crystal bowl. People say that if you put a rose in water at the exact moment of the equinox or when the sun moves into Aries, it will make a circle in the water.

Sadaf Hussain is a chef and author of the book Daastan-E-Dastarkhan.

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