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A turquoise table set with various objects: a mirror, potted grass, bouquets of flowers, an apple, dyed eggs, coins, candles, and other foods.

A haft seen table set for Nowruz.

Photo by Roozitaa, Wikimedia Commons

  • Spring with a Haft Seen: Family and Food Traditions for Nowruz

    As a child in Tehran, Iran, Nowruz was my favorite time of the year. For weeks leading up to this holiday, the streets burst with music, color, and parades. The hustle and bustle of the capital city  becomes livelier, and a smile shines on everyone’s faces as they pass by. Crowds of shoppers  purchase clothes for the new year and gifts for their loved ones, haggling for the best deals. The festivities of the private sphere seep into public life.

    Falling this year on March 19, Nowruz marks the overcoming of darkness and sorrow and the triumph of light and joy. It is celebrated across Asia, the Balkans, East Africa, and in diasporic neighborhoods worldwide. It is a secular holiday, though it maintains religious connotations for the Zoroastrian community from which it originates.

    Zoroastrianism was the main religion of the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from present-day Egypt and Greece to the west to Pakistan to the east. There is great ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity within this region, yet all are interconnected through centuries of contact and trade. Nowruz exemplifies this connection. As Christianity and Islam spread in the area and other empires came to power, Zoroastrianism gradually became a minority religion.

    Nowruz, however, had been adopted into the cultural register of people in the region. As such, many communities continue to observe Nowruz despite the political and religious changes to their society. Nowruz’s secularization thus came from its increased cultural significance. Meanwhile the diversity of people who partake in Nowruz is reflected in each community’s varied methods of celebration.

    In Iran, Nowruz signals the start of the new year because the country uses the Solar Hijri calendar. The Persian name Nowruz translates literally to “new day.” While the actual day of Nowruz marking the new year is the spring equinox, the celebrations span two weeks. Among the many traditions, Iranians set a special table called a haft seen and leave it up for the entire duration of the festivities.

    From above, a table set with various food items in glasses, candles, a book, flowers, and goldfish and tiny turtles in a fish bowl.
    Photo by Hamed Saber, Flickr Creative Commons

    Haft seen literally means “seven S’s” because there are seven items on the table, each of which start with the letter that makes the “S” sound in Persian. All items have a symbolic meaning and represent a manifestation of something positive for the new year.  There is  sib (apple) for beauty and health, the dried fruit senjed which represents love, seer (garlic) for health, serekh (vinegar) representing wisdom that comes with age, somaq (sumac) for the sunrise of a new day, and sabzeh (grass) symbolizing rebirth, and samanu,  a sweet paste made from germinated wheat that stands for wealth and fertility. Other items are also included, some of which do not begin with an “S” sound, such as goldfish, which symbolize progress.

    Growing up, I remember seeing shopkeepers and street vendors stock up on decorative plates and other items used for setting the haft seen, and I was always in awe when we would return a couple weeks later to see their mountains of wares sold out. My favorite was a row of small shops at the end of the bazaar closest to our house that exclusively sold goldfish during Nowruz. They had small and fast ones, large and round ones, some with white spots, and others with long tails that reminded me of long and flowy dresses. I would stop and look at each one, utterly fascinated by the little creatures swimming before me. My dad would let me pick out my favorite to buy, and we would run all the way home, carrying it in a plastic bag with some water, so that we could place it into the fishbowl awaiting us on our haft seen.

    I knew exactly which day was the new year not because of the calendar but because that morning I would wake up to the aroma of fresh herbs as my mom prepared the signature Nowruz dish of all Iranians: sabzi polo ba mahi. This meal consists of seasoned fish (store-bought—never the haft seen goldfish) with herbed rice. Every Iranian family has their own variation. The differences depend on where—and, most importantly, from whom—a given recipe originates. In my family, generations of women have passed down a recipe for salmon and kookoo sabzi (a vegetarian, egg-based dish) along with our saffron-infused herbed rice. The delicious smell of sabzi polo ba mahi that would envelop our home was the ultimate bearer of the new year.

    When my family immigrated to the United States, the vibrant Nowruz of my childhood was washed away by rural Oregon’s relentless rains. The parades and bazaars were gone, replaced by tall Douglas fir trees and lonely roads. Yet Nowruz still held a special place in my heart. Although imperfect, we set a haft seen table and “upgraded” the items over the years. (My mom learned that Easter was the best time to find spring-themed décor in stores, and I made ceramic fish in my high school art class so that we would not need to go to PetSmart).

    A square white dish with a square of seasoned rice in the center, pieces of seasoned fish on two opposite sides, and triangles of a dark green patty on the other sides. In the background, a decorated table including a bright turquoise fish figurine.
    A plate with my mom’s sabzi polo ba mahi and kookoo sabzi on our haft seen table, which includes one of my ceramic fish.
    Photo by Elmira Louie

    Our new home means we are no longer able to celebrate every Nowruz tradition from before, but we cherish the ones that we can still enjoy. More than ever, my mom’s sabzi polo ba mahi has come to signify Nowruz for me. As soon as she starts preparing the herbs, the aroma transports me back to my beloved Tehran. After the initial wave of nostalgia, I feel a sense of calm and hope. It is a mixture of emotions that I feel truly mark Nowruz, for it grounds me to my cultural heritage and propels me into the future.

    With my mom’s recipes below, I hope that you too get to experience the smells and flavors of Nowruz, no matter where you are in this wide world of ours. May this dish take you on a journey of your own and mark the start of a prosperous new year.

    Happy Nowruz, or, as we say in Persian, نوروز مبارک (Nowruz mobarak)!

    Sabzi Polo (Herbed Rice)

    2 cups Basmati rice
    1 bunch cilantro
    1 bunch parsley
    1 bunch dill
    1 bunch chives
    1 clove garlic
    1/2 cup olive oil or butter
    2 teaspoons salt (adjust to taste) 
    2 pinches saffron


    Rinse the rice a few times with water. Fill the rice bowl with water, add 1 teaspoon salt, and let it sit for a couple of hours.

    Wash the herbs, chop them, and place in a bowl. Chop the garlic and add it to the same bowl.

     Fill half of a pot with water and bring to a boil.  Drain the rice, then add it to the pot of boiling water. Add the herbs and garlic mixture to the pot, then the other teaspoon of salt. Let it cook for 5 to 10 minutes on high heat.

    Empty the pot into a colander with very fine holes or a sieve so that the water drains but the rice and herbs stay.

    Put the pot back on the stove on low heat with 1/4 cup of oil or butter. Put the herbed rice back into the pot. Pour another ¼ cup oil or butter on top of the rice. Add the saffron. Let it cook, covered, for 30 to 45 minutes.

    Mahi (Fish)

    ~1 pound (or 4 pieces) of your favorite fish (we use salmon)
    1 teaspoon garlic salt (or regular salt)
    1/2 teaspoon black pepper
    1/4 teaspoon turmeric
    2 pinches saffron
    1/4 cup lemon juice
    1/2 cup olive oil


    Slice fish into desired portions. Place the fish in a container that has a lid. Add the rest of the ingredients on the fish. Close the container and let refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours while the fish marinates.

    Place a pan on the stove on medium heat and pour ½ cup oil into it. Cook the fish in the pan, flipping on both sides to make sure that it is fully cooked through.

    Kookoo Sabzi

    1 bunch cilantro
    1 bunch parsley
    1 bunch dill
    1 bunch chives
    1 clove garlic
    3–4 eggs
    1 teaspoon turmeric
    1–2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon black pepper
    1 cup olive oil


    Wash and chop the herbs. Chop the garlic and place in a large bowl with the herbs. Add the eggs. Then add the salt, pepper, turmeric, and flour. Whisk together until everything is fully incorporated.

    Heat up a pan on the stove on medium heat and add 1 cup of olive oil. Once the oil is hot, pour the herb mixture into the pan. Using the back of a wooden spoon, flatten out the mixture so that it is smooth and even. Reduce the heat to low and cover.

    After 8 to 10 minutes, remove the lid and flip the kookoo so that the other side can cook. Let it pan fry, uncovered, for another 8 to 10 minutes or until cooked. You can tell it is cooked when the color turns darker, the ingredients hold together, and it gets a little bit crunchy.


    Take as much rice, fish, and kookoo sabzi as you would like. Enjoy the food with your favorite sides like a salad, yogurt, or pickled vegetables (toorshi).

    Bon appétit, or, as we say in Persian, نوش جان (nooshe jan)!

    Elmira Louie is a PhD candidate and associate instructor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Davis. Although she celebrates two New Years, Nowruz is by far her favorite holiday.

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