At Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, the elders read alternately from a poetry book by the famous Persian poet Hafez from the 14th century and interpret 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 – of 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 the bright and longer days back.
The Yalda evening festivities begin with dinner, but unlike Nowruz meals, there is no set menu. Families typically enjoy regional 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 Dr. Mehravari traces the origins of Yalda 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, Bay Area-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, Mr. Sadr the classic preparation of kaale (uncooked) seerabeh and serve 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 crimson 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.