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Nowrooz 1393: A Guide to the Persian New Year

Mrs. Shopkeeper is always a tad possessive with her Nowrooz toys

Mrs. Shopkeeper is always a tad possessive with her Nowrooz toys

We’ve just opened a new aisle on the website. It focuses on the Persian New Year, or Nowrooz, so we thought it would be helpful to replicate this guide (which normally lives in our Persopaedia) so you know what it is all about. It will also ex[plain why your Iranian friends start to behave a bit oddly at this time of year.

Nowrooz, or the Persian New Year, falls this year on March 20th at 16:57:07pm. This is also, of course, the time of the spring equinox, the first day of spring. The timing is crucial – it is worked out according to the lunar calendar.

This year will be 1393 – the years are counted from the date of Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina. However, just as with Christmas, Nowrooz is quintessentially a pagan festival. It has its origins in the way back in the mists of time, when the generally practised religion in Iran was Zoroastrianism, and there are strong elements of superstition woven into the customs surrounding it. On the eve of the last Wednesday of the year, for example, Iranians the world over light fires which they then jump over, addressing the flames as they go, shedding their bad deeds/luck and taking strength from the fire, purging themselves for another year.

Iranians decorate for the New Year – they prepare a special spread of items representing the regrowth and prosperity that they hope will come. There is the ‘HAFTSIN’ – the seven ‘S’s – seven items beginning with the letter S – you may choose from: SIB (apple), SIR (garlic), SAMENOU (a sweet paste), SOMBOL (hyacinth), SUMAK (a spice), SENJED (the fruit of the oleander), SIRKEH (vinegar), SABZEH (herbs), and SEKEH (a coin). The ‘sabzeh” is grown from wheat or bean sprouts a couple of weeks before the actual day. They will also have live (gold)fish to represent new life and loadsa sweeties (to bring sweetness into their lives)The NOWROOZ table will be set with painted eggs, mirrors, candles, and a copy of the Koran. It is awfully pretty.

On the actual day it is important to start the New Year as you hope to go on – pink and scrubbed, in new clothes, relaxed and happy, with a clear conscience and surrounded by your very nearest and dearest. As the clock strikes you hug and congratulate everyone, and then eat some of the vast number of sweetmeats in front of you. Gifts and money are given, especially to children, money being distributed by the elders from the pages of the Koran. In Iran there is then a period of great festivity – businesses and schools close for two weeks, and the time is spent visiting friends and feasting.

Finally, on the thirteenth day after the New Year, the sabzeh (which should now have grown quite high) is tied by the members of the family, as each one recites their wishes for the coming year, and then tossed into moving water. Oh, and (in case you were worried) the goldfish are released into ponds or proper aquariums. That’s it. Have a good one.

Eight Things To Do with that Whacking Great Bag of Za’atar You’ve Just Bought

You know how it goes: an ingredient is all the rage, you can’t turn a supplement page without it glaring you in the face, you went to a dinner party last weekend where the (irritatingly talented) hostess used it to great effect, and now you’ve bought some. But there’s, like, loads of it. This week’s ingredient du jour is za’atar: a moreish mix of ground wild thyme with sumac, sesame and salt. Your pet Persian corner shop is so cheap that you get half a kilo of the stuff for just £2.29. You’ve used a bit here and there: what to do with the rest…?

Well first of all you should know that in Arabistan za’atar is a condiment. It is used to season bread and pastries: quite often it is placed on the table (especially at breakfast), the idea being that you take a piece of bread, dip it in olive oil and then roll it in the za’atar. But let’s have a look at what else you can do with it. The list is in reverse order to make it more thrilling:

  • 8) Whisk into an olive oil and lemon based salad dressing with some fresh chopped garlic. Leave half an hour to macerate. Drizzle over Mediterranean style salads.
  • 7) Add to mayonnaise for a fancy dip on party buffet tables – works really well with kibbeh and falafel.
  • 6) Za’atar ‘tea’. Oh yes. All of its ingredients have strongly healing properties. Even the sesame bit works well in tea. Thyme is a famous cold remedy (it is an expectorant and anti bacterial), and the slightly astringent qualities of sumac mean it is full of vitamin C and good for sore throats. Even the salt will help. Now obviously you can’t go adding sugar to this: it is a savoury decoction. But sip it slowly and you’ll find the slightly weird flavour grows on you.
  • 5) Use with fish. Mix a goodly amount with a dash of olive oil and garlic; rub half of it inside the fish, them make a few small incisions in the skin of the fish and poke the rest into these cavities. Grill the fish and serve with a tahini sauce. Really really tasty stuff.
  • 4) Za’atar is practically made for roast chicken. Just rub it on all over and cook as normal. You can add a bit to your roast tatties and all.
  • 3) Make za’atar pancakes: whisk 1 tablespoon plain flour with 1 egg and as much milk (cow, soya, what you will) as it takes to make a thick-but-pourable batter. Mix in 2 heaped teaspoons of za’atar, and cook the pancakes in a little oil one side only. Fry off some chopped mushrooms in garlic butter. Grill the top side of the pancake until it just starts to cook, and then sprinkle with grated halloumi. Grill them a bit more till bubbling and golden, and then tip on to plates, cheese side up. Stripe each one with some mushrooms, and a big handful of fresh herbs (tarragon is especially good here), roll and enjoy.
  • 2) Anyone who has read Veggiestan or Snackistan will know that we have a thing about using up stale bread. Add a bit of za’atar to some fried bread and you get the world’s best croutons for soups and salad.
  • 1) Za’atar Crisps and Nuts. You read it here first. Finely slice potatoes, or turnips, or soaked (drained) chick peas, or raw almonds, or whatever. Dip them in za’atar infused olive oil and bake in the oven until crispy/browned. Awfully good.

And there you go. You’ll get through that bumper bag in no time.

The Return of the Persepolis Cook School

DSCF3079Okey cokey. We’ve got the message. Lots of you want to come along to one of our cookery classes. Presumably to watch Mrs. Shopkeeper mutter a lot and drop stuff, ‘cos she’s very good at both of these things…

We’ve got two sessions coming up, both to be held at our nice new neighbours’ nice new cafe: the Cinnamon Tree Bakery has a lot more facilities than we do, and is just 30 metres along the road from the shop.

The first, on Sunday 23rd February, will be a Veggiestan cooking demo and talk, with nibbles to try and a special recipe leaflet to take away. The price is £35.00 a head, and it will run from 3-5.30pm. Ish. Booking essential: space is limited.

The second is a Persian New Year ‘master-class’ (we use the term ironically as Mr.S. just snorts with laughter when Mrs.S. tries to use it in any other way). This will be on Sunday 9th March, and will run from 11am—3pm. It will offer a mixture of demos, hands-on playtime and talk, and at the end of the session we will sit down and eat what we’ve just cooked. There are just six places for this session, so early booking is recommended. The cost is £85.00 a head, or £100.00 with a signed copy of Persia in Peckham thrown in.

You can book for either event by calling 020 7639 8007, or popping in to the shop.

Spreading the Persepolis Love: A Very Silly Gallery

We’re just ordering some more of our excellent value, washable, eye-catching, unbleached cotton, I Love Peckham/Persepolis shoppers – so we thought we’d whip you into a frenzy of anticipation by showing you how very versatile and international they are. By the time you’ve perused our Baggers’ Gallery, you’ll be desperate to blag one for yourselves. One side features our very distinctive simorgh logo, which was designed for us by the very talented Carlos Calvet, and the other side is all about I Heart Peckham.

It should be pointed out that most of these piccies have been contributed by members of our all-singing, all dancing Facebook group (thank you Jane!) – we would love it if you could add to our collection: we might even offer a prize for the first Persepolis bag to ascend Everest or reach the North Pole.

OK, so I’ve just bought a Persian rice cooker. Now what?

pulaopazFirst thing to do is to pat yourself on the back: this culinary gewgaw will change your (rice-eating) life. In Iran rice cookers are often given as a wedding present – this brand is famous for the longevity of its appliances, and it is not uncommon for them still to be working ten, twenty, thirty years on.

Before you begin to use your new Pars Ghazar gizmo, you will need several things:
• a two pin to three pin adaptor fitted with a 13amp fuse
• some rice: you can cook any sort of rice in your rice cooker, but basmati would be the rice of choice
• some butter, margarine or ghee: choose your poison
• salt

In the box you will find a power cable (affix to aforementioned adaptor plug), a measuring cup, a spongy thing (which is what you are meant to use to clean the liner: never use a scourer on it as you will scratch it and there will be no more lovely tahdik). You will also find some quaintly translated bits of paperwork: I’d bin this if I were you.

Wash your rice quickly (use a fine sieve for this). The idea is that you use one measure of rice per person (NB – this is a Persian measure, and they eat a lot of rice in Persia: half a measure might be nearer the mark for mere mortals), together with one measure of water per measure of rice, and one generously heaped teaspoon butter per measure of rice. Rice varies, not only between brands but from harvest to harvest, and so you may find you need to add a little more or less water. Add salt as required.

Just plug your rice cooker in, and set the colour-graded dial at the bottom to make the required colour of tahdik. Y’all know what tahdik is, right? Because that is surely why you bought this model… Tahdik (literally, ‘to the bottom’) is the sticky golden crust which forms at the bottom of the rice as it cooks (which you then turn out so that the crust is on top, just like a cake). If you don’t want a crust, just set the dial to the palest colour on the dial.

Your rice will take about twenty minutes to cook, thirty minutes if you are to get good tahkik. The cooker has a thermostat, so it will turn itself on and off safely and keep your rice warm: but be under no illusion – if you go out in the morning and leave it on, you will have very dry, dark rice when you get home.

If you are cooking fancy rice, you can add the raw ingredients (things like broad beans, or French beans, or raw garlic) with the rice at the beginning. Spices and herbs should, for the most part, be stirred through at the end, or you can turn your rice out, crack the crust and stripe your extra ingredients artfully across it. Liquid saffron, for example, is usually trickled on to the rice after it has been turned out.

A few other random hints/sticky golden crusty rules:
• brown rice takes a bit longer to cook: add a dash more water to it, and soak it beforehand
• if you are adding a liquid sauce to your rice (tinned tomatoes, or coconut milk, or Bolognese sauce), reduce the amount of water you use accordingly: it will otherwise turn out as katteh – soggy and overcooked
• only ever use wooden utensils when playing with your rice-bot: you will scratch the lining otherwise
• we sell spare non-stick liners, so if you do manage to scratch your lining, don’t panic Captain Mainwaring
• have fun :)

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