Iranian food is complex, flavorful and delicious, redolent with the flavors of floral rosewater, pungent vinegar and musky saffron. And yet it often flies under the radar, including here in Wine Country.
There are no Persian restaurants here, but there is an experienced chef from Iran — Shari Sarabi, owner of Baci Cafe & Wine Bar in Healdsburg. Every spring, Sarabi honors his heritage by cooking a traditional feast for the Persian New Year celebration known as Nowruz in late March, inviting the community to partake over the course of two nights.
The holiday is like three of our major holidays rolled into one, combining the gift-giving of Christmas, the painted eggs of Easter and the two-week vacation of summer.
“We celebrate for 13 days,” Sarabi said. “People take weeks to clean the house beforehand, and then people visit and go to each other’s houses.”
The holiday, which originated with Zoroastrian traditions dating back to the 6th century, is celebrated by many countries along the Silk Road, from Afghanistan and Azerbajian to Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. For the Zoroastrians, the celebration of the return of spring was one of the holiest days on the ancient calendar, symbolizing the spiritual triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow.
“The tradition is at least 3,000 years old,” Sarabi said. “There are millions of people across the world who are celebrating.”
Like the Chinese New Year, the rituals revolve around new beginnings and a desire to ensure health and wealth for the family in the coming year. In advance of the spring equinox, families fill their houses with spring flowers, children plant trays of edible seeds for the New Year’s table and the cooks prepare sweet treats and procure fruit and nuts to serve to guests or to bring to other family members.
The climax of the holiday is the arrival of the spring equinox itself — Nowruz means “New Day” — at the exact moment when the day and night are equal over the equator.
This year, that celestial occurrence fell on March 20, and Sarabi marked the occasion by creating a symbolic “haft sin” table to preside over two multicourse feasts at Baci.
“The haft sin is very important,” he said. “It’s all about culture and nature and history.”
The table includes seven items beginning with the letter “s” to symbolize the seven elements of life. Items may include apples (seeb), garlic (seer), vinegar (serkey), sumac (somagh), hyacinth (sonbol), sprouts (sebzeh) and coins (sekey.)
Families also customize the table with a symbolic book, candles, painted eggs and a mirror.
“I put out a book of poetry by Ferdowsi,” Sarabi said. “He wrote a mythological book that teaches about life.”
Of course, the feast itself also carries symbolic weight, with green garlic, green herbs and green vegetables playing a starring role as harbingers of spring and the earth’s renewal.
At Baci, as in many Persian homes, Sarabi starts the feast by placing a variety of condiments and appetizers out for his guests.
The “sabzi” plate includes rehydrated walnuts and almonds, feta cheese, radishes and green herbs such as basil and tarragon.
He also serves several dips: a yogurt and garlic dip; a yogurt, cucumber and dill dip; a chopped tomato and cucumber salad; and “torshi,” an assortment of spicy, pickled vegetables, including radishes, cauliflower, carrots and sunchokes.