March 20th marks the first day of spring — a celebration of flowers, sunshine and most importantly, avoiding frostbite while social distancing outdoors. But for me, the start of spring brings about a long-awaited holiday: Nowruz, otherwise known as the Persian New Year.
“Now-ruz” directly translates to “new day,” embracing the new start spring brings with all its grace and glory. The celebration recognizes spring in its entirety, with one of its main features being the “haft-seen” table that consists of seven items that start with the letter “seen.” These items all symbolize different hopes for the year, such as love, patience and growth. The table is also decorated with flowers, mirrors (to represent self-reflection), sweets (to represent sweetness), goldfish (to symbolize life) and candles (to symbolize enlightenment). Young children are also encouraged to paint eggs and are placed on the table to symbolize fertility and abundance.
While Nowruz embraces nature in one day, Persian culture embraces nature on a daily basis. The culture thrives on foods filled with herbs, vegetables and spices that bring uniqueness and embrace the earth’s natural gifts. If that doesn’t intrigue you enough, then perhaps knowing that delicious Persian food can also help your body and mind thrive will.
Recently, as I’ve browsed through social media or found myself fascinated in the aisles of Whole Foods, I’ve come across turmeric supplements that swear to reduce inflammation (they do) and fenugreek capsules that will make your sweat smell like maple syrup (which I can’t say holds truth). Regardless, the sudden “discovery” of these supplements leaves me in awe when Persian culture has been using these foods naturally for centuries. Put down those capsules, and pour yourself some Earl Grey because I’m about to spill the tea (literally).
You know those pounding headaches that feel like a little elf is banging on your brain? Or those colds that leave your throat feeling like sandpaper? Or those times when you decided to exercise after two months of neglect and your legs burn? Well, according to any Persian mother out there, tea is the cure. You may ask why tea would help your sore legs, and the truth is, I really don’t know; but Persian mothers swear it’s the cure for any issue. No, really, any issue — don’t tell your mom you’ve broken your arm until you’ve tried drinking tea first. Particularly, tea with rock candy (infused with saffron) is the cure-all. From my understanding, the antioxidants in the tea, as well as the natural benefits saffron brings, can be beneficial for stomach aches, sore throats and any other pain.
Saffron, due to its harvesting methods, is the most expensive spice in the world — it is more expensive than gold. While it may be difficult to obtain in certain parts of the country, it is used in almost every Persian dish ranging from stews to rice. Not only does it have a beautiful orange hue and floral scent, but those little threads have extensive health benefits. Saffron can protect an individual against cancer, can help with menstrual disorders and can improve learning and memory. Additionally, many studies have found that saffron has mood-boosting properties that can fight against depression and anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, it seems like even the natural forms of antidepressant medication/therapy are expensive.
If you want to spice up your tea even more, stir in a spoon or two of rose water. For those of you who have been bombarded by TikToks that go on and on about the benefits of rose water for your skin, try using it orally as well. Rose water contains vitamins and other antioxidants that can help lead to clear skin. It can also reduce inflammation and help balance emotions. Its floral notes can naturally bring a subtle sweetness to any dish, which is why it’s often used in many Persian desserts like my favorite pistachio saffron ice cream.
If you’ve been taking turmeric supplements (or have considered taking them), here’s a money-saving tip for you — you can purchase turmeric at many grocery stores in the spice aisle, and trust me, it’s probably half the price of your supplements. Adding turmeric into your dishes not only creates a beautiful sunshine yellow color, but it also adds earthy flavors that will open a door into cultural flavors. Turmeric is widely known for its anti-inflammatory properties (which is why many Persians create a turmeric paste and apple it to sore body parts), and it can help with digestion, weight loss and sleep.
If you want a way to incorporate all of these cultural ingredients into a superb Persian dish, I suggest an attempt at “zereshk polo,” also known as barberry rice. Barberries are kind of like the craisin’s sour cousin: red and angry and tart. Barberry rice is often made with saffron, rose water and turmeric, and making a Persian rice dish will also give you an excuse to make tahdig (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, search “tahdig” on TikTok, you’ll thank me). Barberries have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that can help control and prevent issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, thyroid disorders and liver disease.
Last but not least, as winter comes to an end, we can wave the cold weather goodbye, while Persians will say farewell to their beloved winter-crop staple: turnips. Hopefully, we won’t be needing this purple and white crop for any colds or other illnesses (cough cough, the one taking over the world right now), but perhaps, Persians will still seek them out to add to their pickled vegetable collection. Turnips are a Persian mom’s best friend. While most have chicken noodle soup when they’re sick, us Persians have turnip soup, known as “ash shalgham.” While I’ve never been able to find a liking for turnips, the root vegetable helps relieve intestinal problems, lowers blood sugar and can protect against harmful bacteria and inflammation.
While Nowruz celebrates what our beloved earth grants us, this time of the year also reminds us that we can strengthen and care for our bodies and minds with the rainbow of fruits, vegetables and other plants that are used by cultures all over the world. With a cup of tea and a drop of rose water, we can all embrace the first day of spring and hope that the year ahead will bring growth and positivity into our world.