Iranian Zoroastrians celebrate the seasons and harvests of each year with feasts and ceremonies and social interactions. My religious and cultural community in Southern California has kept our traditions alive since emigrating from Iran. We celebrate six seasonal harvest festivals known as Gahambars and additional holidays to help mark the darkest and lightest days of the year. These celebrations generally help to mark time and culminate in the start of our new year—NoRuz.
NoRuz—the phonetic spelling of “new day” in the Persian language— is celebrated in most of the Farsi-speaking world. It is held at the exact same second for everyone on the planet—at the very moment of the Spring Equinox when the sun’s direct rays strike the Earth’s equator before crossing into the Northern Hemisphere. In the tradition of poetry that permeates the core of Persian culture, we celebrate the rebirth that is springtime.
This year, NoRuz falls on Monday, March 20th at 5:24pm EST—a convenient time for dinner. I remember many years when it fell at a more inconvenient hour, where we would drag ourselves out of bed to ring in the new year or where the holiday coincided with a final exam in college. For a long time I was jealous of the static and predictable midnight celebrations on December 31st, but now I so deeply appreciate moving and celebrating the earth at her own cycle and rhythm of nature.
The first day of NoRuz is a feast of traditional foods: Sabzi Polo (herb-rice), whole white fish, Kookoo-sabzi (herb frittata). But the real celebration of NoRuz lasts for weeks in a tradition called deed-o-baz deed (literal translation is “see and be seen”— yes, dude! We invented this saying! Along with math, poetry, and lamb). Just as new shoots emerge after the cold, dark, winter ground, we also come out of our homes, visiting each other in a flurry of social activity. And everything is new. We buy new outfits to celebrate our bodies as they exist and move through this earth. We clean our homes from top to bottom to welcome an unrelenting and beautiful culture of Iranian hospitality. And then it’s time for deed-o-baz-deed, where we act as both guest and host during this magical time.
"In the tradition of poetry that permeates the core of Persian culture, we celebrate the rebirth that is springtime."
The practice comes with its own set of rules and etiquette: always look your best, never come empty handed, don’t skip anyone’s house. In the hierarchy of respect, we must first visit the homes of those who have had deaths in their families. It’s to prioritize those grieving, to let them know they are not alone during this festive time. We hold and see the hardest feelings in our community first. Next, we visit the elders—from the grandparents, to the parents, to uncles and aunts.
Later, we visit the younger community members, and everyone has an opportunity to open their homes to the blessing that is having guests. We even visit our frenemies. The culture of spring necessitates acknowledging all that grows in our collective community. I have some close family that most of the year I avoid, but for NoRuz, I fling my doors wide open for their footsteps to grace my home. And with equal zeal, I take a box of personally curated chocolates when I go and visit them, because the spirit of NoRuz is that powerful and delicious.
The food for deed-o-baz-deed is as elaborate or as simple as your budget and your patience allows. Generally, we visit a few houses in one day so it’s more finger-food and snacks than a full meal. There is always tea when a guest first walks in the door, presented in tiny cups for just enough sips to get settled. The snacks can be little sandwiches, rehydrated dried fruits, cookies, and cakes.
This year I have had a heartbreaking loss and will keep it very simple. I’m sharing the recipes for tea and cake Yazdi because I intend on throwing my doors open for the full month to welcome the comfort of anyone who will visit. The cake is traditional to the part of Iran that my family is from, with the comforting taste of rose water and cardamom. And the yogurt in this recipe, an ingredient close to my heart, is the secret to making this cake Yazdi both magically tender and dense. It took seven years to perfect this recipe and to have it taste just like it does in the warm desert air of Yazd.
The tea, the soulmate to this cake, requires a two-step process that encompasses the ceremony of hospitality we Iranians pride ourselves on. The samovar, or makeshift samovar, will live on your stove all day long with minimal effort. The art of pouring a cup of tea is like presenting each of your guests with a small gift to bask in and feel special.
The combination of the bitter tea and the sweet cake is an homage to the hard winter that we have had and the reminder that altogether, good things await us. One fabulous visit at a time.