LOS ANGELES — The scents of Nowruz hit me from the moment I walked in the door of Naz Deravian’s house in Inglewood, California. Wafts of floral hyacinth, pungent vinegar, earthy wheatgrass and perfumey rose water: It’s a particular mingling that comes together every spring during the Persian New Year.
As I stopped to take it all in, Deravian, an Iranian-Canadian actress and food blogger who has lived in the Los Angeles area for the last 20 years, ushered me into the kitchen where new aromas were waiting: browning butter, musky saffron, sharp herbs and smoked fish, all in various stages of preparation for the feast she was cooking.
“Food is at the center of Persian culture,” she said as she lifted the lid on a pot of rice fragrant with herbs. “It’s integral to everything.”
At the bottom of the rice pot were thin pieces of lavash that would, Deravian hoped, crisp into tahdig — the golden, crunchy and buttery crust prized at Persian meals.
Getting a perfect tahdig, which can also be made from yogurt, thinly sliced onions or potatoes (or the rice itself), is one of the most challenging techniques in all of Persian cooking. Deravian was fretting over hers, worried that the flatbread would burn or the rice turn mushy.
Persian cuisine is one of the world’s great gastronomies, flourishing for centuries across an area that, at the height of the ancient Persian Empire (circa 550 to 330 B.C.), included modern-day Iran, along with parts of Iraq, Macedonia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
The repertoire of dishes is fragrant, diverse and highly refined, based on complex culinary techniques. They are imbued with fresh flowers and herbs like rose petals, fenugreek and mint; spices like saffron, sumac and cardamom; fruits like pomegranate and barberry; all kinds of citrus; and nuts, including pistachios and almonds.
If this roster of ingredients sounds familiar, it’s because Persian cooking influenced Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Northern Indian and Turkish cuisines, yet itself remains somewhat below the radar.
Part of the recognition problem in the United States, Deravian said, is that even with a robust Iranian-American population (estimated to be 1 million to 2 million), there’s a stunning lack of Persian restaurants. Southern California — home to the vast majority of Iranian-Americans and the groceries, bakeries and ice cream shops that cater to them — has a handful. But for the most part, they’re not making the exalted, intricate dishes for which the culture is famous.
“Even in Los Angeles, most people’s Persian food experience starts and ends with kebabs,” she said. “The real Persian cooking happens in people’s houses.”
Luckily, hospitality is another hallmark of Persian culture. In late March, Deravian invited me into her home for Nowruz, which signifies the beginning of the 13-day Persian New Year celebration. The holiday, with its menu of classic and symbolic Persian dishes, is an excellent lens through which to explore the rarefied cuisine.
Nowruz, an ancient Zoroastrian festival of the spring equinox, has been celebrated continuously for at least 3,000 years, more than a thousand years before the region’s Muslim conquest. It predates most of the holidays Americans celebrate today yet shares many of the same traditions.
This is particularly the case with Easter and Passover, which fall around the same time in early spring. During Nowruz, a celebration of rebirth and renewal, people color eggs, scrub their houses from top to bottom and eat copious amounts of fresh herbs.
Unlike Easter and Passover, though, Nowruz is not a religious holiday. Persian Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians — in the global diaspora and in Iran — all celebrate it.
Pouria Abbassi, a board member of Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, which has sponsored Nowruz celebrations on Capitol Hill, said that the ancient customs of Nowruz are an important link to Persian heritage.
“Since it is a nonreligious, nonpolitical celebration; it is the single most important event that brings all Iranians together with great pride,” he said. “In our culture, Nowruz is the only powerful common denominator.”
Nilou Motamed, the editor of Food & Wine magazine, who is Iranian, described it as a time when families gather to feast and bond over an overabundant meal.
“Nowruz is like Thanksgiving in that everyone celebrates it, and everyone cooks the same foods, though with their own family spin on it,” she said.
The traditions and meaning of Nowruz run deep in the Iranian psyche, Motamed added.
“Iran has had a complicated political relationship with the West for the last 40 years,” she said. “For us émigrés, Nowruz is a great way for us to share some of the richness of our culture through food.”
Like Thanksgiving, having too much food at a Nowruz meal is part of the deal.
“We are a culture that likes to overfeed,” she said. “We would never have just one main course. Excess is essential to our DNA. It provides a sense of welcoming bounty and joy.”
Evidence of such excess was certainly found in Deravian’s kitchen. There were the symbolic dishes crucial for any Nowruz dinner. There was the sabzi polo mahi, an herbed rice with smoked fish that represents life (fish), renewal and rebirth (fresh green herbs) and prosperity (rice). There was the kuku sabzi, a brilliant green herb-stuffed frittata meant to represent fertility (eggs).
Fresh spring herbs, which can also represent the earth, made another appearance with feta and a homemade paneer cheese, along with juicy radishes from the farmers’ market and tart, fuzzy-skinned fresh green almonds that Deravian picked up at a Persian shop on Westwood Avenue the day before.
And for dessert, there was toot, rose-water-flavored almond paste representing a life full of sweetness and a heart full of love. Deravian’s daughters, Luna, 9, and Soleil, 6, formed the almond paste into both the traditional white mulberry shapes and into cute little bunnies.
“Persians are always looking for meaning in everything we eat,” Deravian said. “It’s never just food. There’s mythology and tradition that goes back thousands of years behind every bite.”
She turned her attention back to the herbed rice, which was ready to serve. First, she scooped the green-flecked grains onto a platter. Next, she mixed saffron butter into a portion of the rice to stain it bright orange.
Then, the moment of truth. It was time to lift the tahdig — that crispy bottom crust — out of the pan. (If it were a rice tahdig, they may have turned it out, but with a lavash tahdig, lifting is easier.) If it burned or stuck, not only would all the guests be disappointed, but it could also cast a symbolic pall over the year to come, whereas a perfect tahdig indicates good things ahead.
Deravian nudged it nervously with her spoon to loosen it, then let out a whoop. The guests cheered as the burnished crust of tahdig slipped out of the pan and onto the rice; it was a perfect golden disk.
“There’s an art to making tahdig,” Deravian said as she and her father hooked arms to do a little dance of joy. “But there’s also a little bit of magic.”
Fresh Herb Kuku
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 50 minutes
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground rose petal (optional)
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves (optional)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup finely chopped romaine lettuce
1/2 cup finely chopped spring onions, white and green parts
2 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
1 tablespoon rice flour
1/3 cup dried barberries or cranberries, soaked in cold water for 15 minutes, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon grape molasses, or substitute sugar
Lavash, for serving (optional)
Yogurt, for serving (optional)
1. Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook until lightly golden all over, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer onions to a medium bowl and cool to room temperature; reserve skillet.
2. Heat oven to 400 degrees and line a 9x12-inch baking dish with parchment paper.
3. In a large bowl, lightly whisk to combine eggs, salt, pepper, baking powder, all of the spices and the rose petal, if using. Add caramelized onions, all of the herbs, walnuts, lettuce, spring onion, garlic and rice flour. Fold just to combine; do not overmix.
4. Brush prepared baking dish with 1/4 cup oil. (It may look like a lot, but it gets absorbed into the batter.) Add batter, smoothing out the top and pushing it to the sides. Bake until center is set, about 20 minutes, and transfer to a cooling rack.
5. Meanwhile, place the skillet used to cook the onion over medium heat. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil, the barberries, grape molasses or sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Simmer, stirring, until liquid is reduced and fragrant, about 4 minutes.
6. Top cooked kuku with caramelized barberries and cut into six equal pieces. Serve hot or room temperature, with lavash and yogurt, if desired.
Persian Herbed Rice
Yield: 8 servings
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus 1 hour soaking
3 cups white basmati rice
Kosher salt, as needed
10 cups packed mixed soft herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, dill, chives, tarragon and ramp greens
1 1/2 cups packed mint leaves
1/2 cup packed basil leaves (preferably lemon basil)
5 stems of fresh fenugreek, leaves only (optional)
8 tablespoons butter or ghee, more if needed
1 teaspoon grapeseed or olive oil
1/4 teaspoon saffron, plus a small pinch, ground with a mortar and pestle
2 to 4 pieces thin lavash or other flatbread
2 tablespoons dried dill
2 stalks spring garlic (optional)
1. In a large strainer, rinse the rice until the water runs clear, mixing it with your fingers as you rinse. Put the rinsed rice in a bowl and add 2 cups cold water and a handful of kosher salt (about 1/4 cup). Let sit for at least 1 hour.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, combine herbs. Process, in batches if necessary, until coarsely chopped. (You should have about 6 cups; set aside 3/4 cup of the chopped herbs to use as garnish.)
3. In a large pot bring 12 cups water and another handful salt (about 1/4 cup) to a boil. Drain rice and add to pot. Stir once very gently; return to a boil and cook until the grains are about halfway cooked (tender but with a firm spine), 3 to 5 minutes, skimming off any foam. Drain rice, give it a quick rinse with cold water, and spread it out on a platter or rimmed baking sheet until needed.
4. In a medium bowl or pot, melt 4 tablespoons butter; reserve.
5. In a large nonstick skillet with a cover, or shallow pot over low heat, melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter and add grapeseed oil. Swirl the pan to make sure the melted butter covers the entire surface and sides of your skillet. If not, add more butter.
6. Add a small pinch saffron and large pinch salt to the butter and swirl around. Place lavash so it covers the bottom and halfway up the sides of the skillet in a single layer, overlapping only slightly where needed. (You can tear the lavash into pieces.)
7. Sprinkle a third of the rice over the lavash. If rice is clumpy, break apart with your fingers. Top with half of the chopped herbs. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon dried dill over fresh herbs. Repeat with another layer each of rice, herbs and dried dill, mounding layers in a pyramid-like shape. Top with final third of rice, and place spring garlic, if using, around the edges of the skillet.
8. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, poke several holes in the rice to allow the steam to escape. Pour reserved melted butter and 2 tablespoons hot water over rice. Cover and raise heat to medium. Cook for 10 minutes, or until steam is visible around the edges of the lid. (Don’t go anywhere! The tahdig can burn very quickly.)
9. Reduce heat to medium-low. Lift lid and cover skillet with a clean kitchen towel. Return lid to skillet and cook for 10 minutes.
10. Reduce heat to very low. If you have a heat diffuser, place it under the skillet and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or until rice is done and tahdig is golden brown. If you don’t have a diffuser, watch the pot carefully so the tahdig doesn’t burn. If you smell burning, turn the heat off and let the pot sit off the heat until rice is done.
11. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine 1/4 teaspoon saffron and 1 tablespoon hot water. When rice is done, set aside spring garlic; reserve. Gently transfer 1 cup rice to the saffron mixture, toss to color the rice yellow, and set aside.
12. Taste rice for doneness. If needed, gently stir in more salt.
13. To serve, spoon half of the green herb rice onto a serving platter, taking care to not disturb the tahdig at the bottom of the skillet. Add half the reserved fresh herbs. Repeat the layers of rice and herbs. Top with saffron rice and garnish with spring garlic. Lift out the tahdig, break into pieces and serve on the side.
Persian Tamarind Fish
Yield: 8 servings
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
3/4 cup dried barberries or cranberries
8 (6- to 8-ounce) striped bass, mackerel or salmon fillets, 1/2- to 3/4-inches thick
Fine sea salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing and drizzling over fish
1 large Spanish onion, halved stem to root, peeled and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced or grated on a Microplane
3/4 cup whole raw almonds, coarsely ground
2 to 3 tablespoons tamarind paste or concentrate
1 cup tightly packed minced soft fresh herbs, plus more for serving (use at least three of the following: cilantro, parsley, tarragon, basil, mint, chives)
Lime wedges, for serving
1. Put the barberries in a bowl and cover with warm water. Let soak for 30 minutes.
2. Rinse fish under cold water and pat dry. Season generously with salt and pepper on both sides, brush all over with oil, and place fillets on a baking sheet. Refrigerate until ready to use, up to 2 hours uncovered, or up to 24 hours covered with plastic wrap.
3. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until they start to darken at the edges, 7 to 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook until dark brown and reduced to half the original volume, about 20 minutes.
4. Add garlic, almonds, drained barberries and 2 tablespoons tamarind to pan. (If using cranberries instead of barberries, add an additional tablespoon of tamarind.) Cook over medium heat until fragrant, 5 minutes. Stir in herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a bowl and cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, heat oven to 375 degrees.
5. Press barberry mixture on top of fillets. Drizzle with more oil and bake until fish is just cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter. Top with any barberry mixture that fell off the fish, sprinkle with more fresh herbs, and serve with lime wedges.