THATn Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, reads elders alternately from a poetry book by the celebrated Persian poet Hafez from the 14th century and interprets the rhyming couplets as a form of divination. Their families listen and tell stories in candlelight, singing, laughing and filling the house with light and warmth as they gather around the cross to graze on hills with finely broken clusters of pomegranates, sparkling bowls with their ruby red seeds and cool, crispy watermelon slices .
A corset is a large, low square table that is heated downstairs – by coal in the old days and electric heaters now. The table is draped with blankets, to hide your legs underneath to keep them warm and cozy, and surrounded by pillows to lean on. While the use of a cross is not common outside of Iran, Iranians in the diaspora create similarly inviting lineups for their own Yalda celebrations. On this longest and darkest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, symbolic foods, including the most important pomegranates, are sent around to welcome back to the light and longer days.
The Yalda evening festivities begin with dinner, but unlike Nowruz meals, there is no set menu. Families typically enjoy regional warming stews, rice dishes, ashes – thick, hearty Iranian soups – and especially pomegranate-based dishes such as khoresh morgh naardooni, khoresh-e fesenjoon and ash-e anar (pomegranate ash).
“Historically, pomegranate – anar – has a special significance in Persian culture,” said Nader Mehravari, a food researcher at San Francisco State University’s Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies. “Pomegranates originate from the region of modern Iran. From a religious aspect, the pomegranate is considered a heavenly fruit and perhaps the original forbidden fruit. It is also a sign of fertility, light and goodness, which is why it is so auspicious on Yalda night as a symbolic opposite of the power of darkness. “
This victory of light and goodness over the forces of darkness has been celebrated by Iranians for more than 5,000 years.
According to Mehravari, the origins of Yalda go back to pre-Zoroastrian mithraism, the worship of the god of the sun. It is said that Mithra was born on this day and “Yalda” comes from the Cyrillic word meaning birth or rebirth.
At Yalda, which falls on December 21 this year, it is customary to seek refuge from the darkness and stay indoors, and to welcome the new light by staying up as long as possible. It is believed that with the triumphant rise of the sun, our days will shine brighter and longer with hope and good will.
For his northern Iranian-inspired dishes at Komaaj, a restaurant and catering company, San Francisco-based chef Hanif Sadr uses pomegranate in all its forms – seeds, juices, molasses. This year, his Yalda menu will include an interpretation of seerabeh, a traditional northern Iranian sauce. Seerabeh is sour, made with walnuts, pomegranate juice (or verjuice), pomegranate seeds, garlic and herbs and is typically served with fish.
The combination of walnuts and pomegranates is a classic combination in Iranian cuisine. In this version, Sadr takes the classic preparation of kaale (uncooked) seerabeh and serves it as a dressing for a crispy salad. Romaine hearts, purple carrots, radishes and orange segments provide the chromatic canvas on which the pink sauce is dripped.
Khoresh morgh naardooni (pomegranate chicken stew), also called anar mosama, is another festive dish served at Yalda. The combination of pomegranate molasses and pomegranate seeds in this deeply flavorful stew shows the different ways pomegranates can be used to achieve layers of flavor. Be aware that the taste and acidity of pomegranate molasses varies by brand. Before cooking, be sure to taste a little of the molasses to get an idea of how sour, bitter or sweet it is.
After dinner, the families snack on symbolic foods placed on corsets. The red hue of pomegranates and watermelon flesh represents the rising blood-red sun, and the melons, traditionally stored in cool cellars in late summer to last for the winter, are thought to keep disease at bay in the coming warmer months. A bowl of ajeel – mixed nuts, watermelon seeds and dried fruits – is also corseted for prosperity, along with hot tea, sweets and fresh seasonal fruits like persimmons.
All the food, especially the pomegranates, serves as a joyful reminder that the resurrection of the sun, light, hope and goodness is only a night away.
Kaale seerabeh salad (pomegranate dressing salad)
To celebrate Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, Sadr takes the classic preparation of kaale, or unprocessed, seerabeh, a sour walnut and pomegranate sauce, and serves it as a dressing on a crispy salad. Stained with garlic and herbs, seerabeh is typically served with fish in the northern Iranian province of Gilan. Here, vegetables provide the chromatic canvas on which the pink sauce is dripped. Sadr recommends that you use a pomegranate juice you like to drink for the sauce, and that the sauce is cooled overnight to allow the flavors to melt together. Any leftover sauce stays in the fridge for five days and is great served with fish, chicken or roasted vegetables or as a dip.
Total time: 10 minutes, plus 24 hours marinating
For the dressing:
240 ml pomegranate juice, plus more as needed
180 g pomegranate seeds
30 g walnut halves
2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon salt
Spoon black pepper
Handful of coriander leaves
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped mint leaves
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped parsley leaves
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sugar to taste (optional)
2 romaine lettuce hearts or 4 to 6 heads small pearl lettuce
2 large radishes (watermelon, red, white or daikon or a mixture), cut into thin slices
1 large carrot (preferably purple), peeled and cut into 0.5 cm thick rounds
1 large orange, segmented
Bread, for serving
1. Prepare the dressing: Put pomegranate juice, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a blender, and blend to a smooth mass. Add coriander, mint and parsley, and blend until smooth. With the blender running on low, drizzle the olive oil in. Taste and adjust spices. If the sauce is too sour, sprinkle a little sugar in; if it is not sour enough, add a little more pomegranate juice or lemon juice, one tablespoon at a time. Be aware that the flavors will melt more together and pop while the sauce is resting. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve, and discard any small pieces of pomegranate seeds. You should have about 400 ml. Transfer the sauce to a container, put the lid on and refrigerate overnight (the sauce can be made up to 5 days in advance). The sauce will thicken a little while resting, but it is not a thick sauce.
2. Assemble the salad: Remove the larger outer leaves of the romaine hearts and set them aside for other uses. Arrange the lettuce leaves neatly on a serving platter or on individual plates, and stack some on top of each other (if you use small gemstones, just halve them lengthwise and place them on the platter; no need to stack them). Or chop the salad if you prefer. Spread radishes, carrots and orange slices on top. Sprinkle it all with a little salt. Stir the sauce together and season with spices and acidity. Drizzle over the salad and serve immediately. Use as much sauce as you want. Serve with a side of bread to soak up any lingering dressing.
Khoresh morgh nardooni (pomegranate chicken stew)
Khoresh morgh nardooni (also called anar mosama) is a deeply flavorful dish from the northern provinces of Iran. It is wonderful for Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, or for any holiday party. Pomegranates on Yalda symbolize a red dawn: the emergence of light and brighter days ahead. Here, the combination of pomegranate molasses and pomegranate seeds shows the different ways the fruit is used in Iranian cuisine. Although not traditional, some preparations, such as this one, use tomato paste for extra depth and liveliness. Serve this with Persian rice, a side of fresh herbs, radishes and spring onions.
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Cut saffron threads (approx. ¾ tsp)
A pinch of sugar, plus more as needed
4 boned chicken thighs with skin (approx. 1.4 kg)
60 ml plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow diced onion
¾ teaspoon crushed turmeric
Teaspoon black pepper, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (see tip)
260 g pomegranate seeds (from 1 large pomegranate)
Lemon juice, as needed
Mint leaves, for decoration (optional)
Steamed rice, fresh herbs, sliced radishes and spring onion segments for serving
Bring 2 tablespoons of water to a boil in a small saucepan, kettle or using the microwave, then let stand for 2 minutes so that the temperature can drop slightly while grinding the saffron. Using a mortar and pestle (or a small bowl with the handle of a wooden spoon), grind the saffron with a small pinch of sugar to a fine powder (approx. ¼ tsp) and add the hot water. Stir gently, cover and let it soak until needed.
Season the chicken thighs with plenty of salt (approx. 3½ tsp). In a large frying pan with a lid, heat 60 ml of oil over medium-high. When the oil is hot but not smoking, reduce the heat to medium and add the chicken thighs with the skin side down. Cook until chicken is golden, 5 to 8 minutes; we are not looking to brown the chicken skin here, just to get a nice golden color. Turn and fry the other side until golden, 5 to 8 minutes. You may need to do this in batches. Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet or large plate.
3. Leave approx. 60 ml of the melted fat in the pan and discard the rest. Add half of the chopped onion and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the onion with a little salt, a teaspoon of turmeric and black pepper, and stir until it smells, about 30 seconds.
4. Move the chicken thighs together with any juice back to the pan with the skin side down. Brush the chicken through the turmeric-stained oil and turn so that the skin side is facing up. Add 350 ml of water and scrape up any pieces stuck to the bottom. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, put the lid on and let the chicken simmer gently for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the pomegranate sauce: In a small saucepan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium. Add the remaining chopped onions and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the onion with a little salt, add the remaining teaspoon of turmeric and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Reduce heat to medium-low, stir in the tomato puree, and cook just to remove the raw flavor and deepen its color, but be careful not to burn it on, approx. 1 minute. Add the pomegranate molasses, give it a quick stir just to incorporate it (the pomegranate molasses burns quickly), then stir in 220 g of pomegranate seeds and save the rest for garnish. Sprinkle with a little salt and remove from the heat.
6. Add the pomegranate sauce and saffron water to the chicken, stirring gently, and simmer without a lid on medium heat until the sauce is reduced to about half and the chicken is tender, about 25 minutes. Occasionally pour a little sauce over the chicken. If the sauce is reduced too quickly, reduce the heat to medium-low or low (you will want enough sauce to pour over the rice and chicken). Taste and add a little sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, if the pomegranate molasses is too sour or bitter. If your sauce is too sweet, then balance it with a little lemon juice, 1 tbsp at a time.
Garnish with reserved pomegranate seeds and mint leaves, and serve over rice with a side of fresh herbs, radishes and spring onions.
Tips: The taste and acidity of pomegranate molasses varies by brand. Before cooking, be sure to taste it to get an idea of how sour, bitter or sweet yours is; you can always balance it with a little sugar, possibly. Sadaf sour pomegranate molasses has a fine balance. If you use Cortas, keep in mind that it is quite strong and a little bitter.
© New York Times