A Persian feast for spring equinox

A Zororastrian celebration of this often-overlooked cuisine is the perfect antidote to Lenten guilt

Close-up of rice pudding and halva in bowls

By Alex Renton

Tonight we’re going to eat Persian: herbed and spiced rice, smoked fish, baklava and wine. For it is the spring equinox, and party time for many people in Iran and across western Asia. They mark the moment in the calendar when day at last balances night with the ancient feast of Nowruz, first celebrated by what may be the oldest religion, Zoroastrianism. At this time of new lambs and first buds, with the shoots of wild garlic (and there’s nothing better than those for dressing lamb), a party to celebrate the return of all good things makes a lot of sense. Zoroastrians make it a six-day blowout.

For a foodie, there is no more attractive religion. Zoroastrians worship the sun and fire. They prohibit no foods at all and they frown on vegetarianism. Cleanliness is a prized virtue. In one of their holy books, the Vendidad, it’s said: “The person who abstains from food, or takes insufficient food, has neither enough strength to practise active virtues, nor can he till the earth, nor beget children, nor is he able to withstand hardship and pain.” So fasting and dieting are forbidden.

For Christians, this is seductive talk. Our relationship with food is driven by guilt and overindulgence, 40 days of Lent and then a gut-buster weekend: it isn’t good for our health or our pleasure.

And if Zoroastrianism needs any further sell, it is in its active encouragement of the drinking of wine, within reason. The most famous British Zoroastrian was Freddie Mercury of the band Queen, not noted for his abstinence in many areas of pleasure. But I can’t discover much more about his food tastes than that he greatly loved bananas and halva.

Celebrating the arrival of spring, for fire worshippers, starts with germinating seeds in the sunlight to grow the shoots, just as children here used to put mustard and cress on to an old flannel (and there’s an idea). The seeds become wheatgrass, one of those unfathomable oddities that you stumble across in health-food shops here, but across Asia is baked into bread to give it new texture and flavour.

There’s so much delight in Persian food, which becomes Parsee food in India. With its herbs and dried fruits, delicately spiced meat and grain and nut salads, it’s amazing how little we see of it here.

There’s a black hole in British understanding of foreign food – after the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, we’re ignorant of everything people eat until you arrive at the plains of the Punjab, in Pakistan.

Given how much time we’ve spent messing in the internal affairs of the countries in between, it’s surprising that we haven’t absorbed more of their food culture. There are a few unremarkable restaurants in London, but around West Kensington there are some glorious Iranian supermarkets, full of sacks of lemon-glossed pistachios and thrillingly alien spices.

The thing that Persian cuisine also does wonderfully, and better than south and eastern Asia, is puddings and sweets. I love halva, the hard, sesame-flour fudge that comes in myriad forms across the Middle East. You can flavour it with rosewater or saffron, with pistachio, honey and lemon. It’s easy to make, I’m told by a Lebanese friend, so after the Nowruz feast I’m going to go to work with a jar of tahini and the help of my four-year-old, sweet-loving kitchen assistant.

I will report back.

alex.renton@thetimes.co.uk

  • Arzoo Irani

    This was a good article by Alex Renton. However, he has forgotten one mention. The Zoroastrian religion which allows followers complete freedom and holds one responsible for the intentional choices made, also emphasises on moderation, humbleness and a respect for all life and nature. While we have no bars on eating various foods, no fasting or living in self denial, we do show respect to animals by not eating non vegatarian food at all, on certain days of the month, and in fact for a whole month too! Also, indulging in moderation implies not taking more than we need, and eating non vegetarian foods in complete balance with other options available. Soldiers and travellers then had to carry dried meats to survive, but where people cultivated, they did stick to respect for life and took old animals which would suffer and die anyways.

  • cyrus rupa

    Well we parsi mixed well with others, be it culture, feast, food, festivals, celibrations etc. unfortunately off late, such nice small community, wasted talents, skill,money & v. purpose of charity , due to parsi panchayat’s ego, legal cases & orthodoxy. pray!!wisdom prevails.tamasha ends soon, judgements observed, complaid with