Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We Jumped Over Fire

I celebrate new years three times every year: our western one, in the middle of freezing cold winter, Rosh Hashana, which lands in fall, and the one that has always seemed the most right to me, Norouz, Persian New Year, celebrated on the first day of spring.  It's a celebration redolent of sweet rebirth:  painted eggs, sweets on the table, fresh fruit everywhere.  The scent of fresh herbs and hyacinth waft through the day's traditions.  And on the eve of the last Wednesday before Norouz, you light a fire, then you jump over it.

Somehow this particular tradition -- a holiday known as Chaharshanbe Soori --  had escaped me until now.  I mean, my family doesn't even go camping, so I suspect getting a fire lit outside, let alone the grave dangers involved in jumping over it, were just too much for us.  But tonight, a sweet coworker named Saba invited me to her home to share in a tradition she holds on to from her own days in Iran.  I had no idea what to expect, but I'm so glad to have experienced the warmth of the fire and of Saba's hospitality.

 For me, tonight was a whole new way of doing Persian.  In my head, the associations with Persian events are words like overdone, super-fancy, formal, and stuffy.  But, tonight, the setting was Saba's cozy-artsy apartment in Franklin Hills, and the event was much more personal.  Not that the spread was not impressive:  Saba's home is peppered with accents from the old country, all with a unique touch.  Her gorgeous old silver tea set was a find at an antique shop in Tehran, and the beautiful but quirky miniature painting of a dainty Persian dancer in traditional baggy pants standing on her head?  Saba painted it herself, natch.  There are bits of beauty in every corner of this home.  Little dishes of dried fruits, nuts, and Persian sweets covered the coffee table, and she whipped us together a homey version of the traditional Norouz dish of sabzi polo mahi, which sat in my heart much more comfortably than the giant mounds of rice I'm used to at Persian parties.  An avocado and cucumber salad, and a bowl of some of the freshest leaves of basil, tarragon, and mint I've ever seen completed the spread. 

 sabzi polo with perfect tahdig, lemons from Saba's tree

And, oh the company!  As we sat on Saba's deck watching the fire burn, she and her friend Asal (Persian for honey) -- a San-Francisco-based artist in town preparing for an opening in Tehran -- fed my endless hunger for stories of current life in that city: this world of thrift store shopping, daily protests in the streets, conversations with cabbies, tea made from leaves freshly picked, pimps decked out in their finest standing on street corners in the middle of the night, and a youth population perfectly well versed in sex, drugs, and rock and roll -- all the delicious details CNN does not cover.  I got to speak Persian (nothing new, but lately it's been especially fun), and these lovely women even complimented me!   All the while, Asal's husband Bijan kept the vibe going as our DJ for the night.

Like any good Iranian hostess, Saba would not let us leave without tea and a little dessert.  I'll tell you this: I might never again eat ice cream without a sprinkle of rosewater on top.  But before we got dessert, we had to do the jump.  You start with a mantra you direct at the fire:  "my yellow is yours, your red is mine".  It's a pledge that as a one year comes to a close and spring pops up all around us, we'll feed the fire all our sickliness and cowardice, and leap into the new year with all the heat and glowing life of the fire.  The world seems rife with challenges right now.  Sometimes it seems like they're too overwhelming to even begin to know how to deal.  Tonight, a declaration of the fire within us all is a good place to start.

Oh, and since the sabzi polo page on this blog has now surpassed the homepage in hits, let me give you people what you want:  Here is my detailed sabzi polo recipe, and here are a couple photos of the delicious finished product.  Let me know if you have any questions!

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