MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today is the first day of spring. Where we are, that means longer days outside, getting out the garden tools and the beginning of barbecue season.
For Iranian-Americans and others from the Middle East, Central and South Asia, today is the beginning of a new year. In Persian, the holiday is called Norouz, which literally means a new day. It's seen as a time of rebirth and renewal and, like most holidays, Norouz is all about spending time with family and eating lots of great food.
To get a sense of just some of the tasty dishes served for Norouz, we decided to call upon Iranian-American chef and author, Donia Bijan. Her memoir, "Maman's Homesick Pie," came out last fall. In it, she describes her mother's elaborate garden parties in Iran with amazing meals and classical Persian musicians playing in the background.
So let's set the mood and queue the tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Donia Bijan, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
DONIA BIJAN: Thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: And what's the proper greeting?
BIJAN: (Foreign Language Spoken).
MARTIN: Ada shomo barack(ph). Pretty good?
BIJAN: Mo barack.
MARTIN: Mo barack. Mo barack, better than that. OK. Thank you. OK. So before we get to the actual food, I do want to talk a little bit about your story. Your memoir is in homage to your mom, who's passed away. I'm sorry for your loss.
For people who haven't read your book, how did you find your love of cooking and what role did your mom have to play in that?
BIJAN: Well, the book is so much a love letter to my mom, because she nurtured that love and passion that I have for cooking, from when I was a little girl. I was an awkward little girl who found grace in the kitchen. She never shooed me away, you know, didn't say, oh, go outside and play. She always gave me a task and expected me to follow through.
And I think I knew from when I was very little that I wanted to be a cook, but it wasn't a - you know, a profession, so to speak, that one would send their daughter to university for. But I knew that the seed was planted and that, some day, it would blossom.
And it's America's fault, really, because it was here where I found my voice and realized that I can make my own choices and make my own life.
MARTIN: And you were trained. You are, in fact, a trained chef. You were trained at the Cordon Bleu, the premier French culinary school. You owned your own French bistro in California. Forgive me, did your mom live to see you kind of embrace this love in this way?
BIJAN: She did. And she forced me to go to France. She insisted that I go to the source if I wanted to learn to do something well and she took on a graveyard shift at the hospital where she was a nurse so that she could pay for my tuition and send me to France. And she saw my restaurant open. She would come and bring her friends and boast about her daughter and clip all the little reviews and she had a scrapbook. So she was very proud of me.
MARTIN: Do your culinary - your two culinary heritages ever collide? I mean, you're classically trained in the French tradition, but you grew up with this heritage of amazing Persian cooking. Do the two ever collide or do you keep them separate?
BIJAN: They collide every day and all the time, because I'm constant about food. And when I'm making Persian food, I bring the French technique to that process. So it's been tremendously helpful. I've been told that I'm a little bossy, also, in the kitchen, which I must have picked up from my mentors and French chefs I worked with.
You can't help but draw from all that information that's in your pantry. And I think, very much, that food is the perfect vessel to travel back and forth between those cultures.
MARTIN: You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's the first day of spring. Happy Spring and Happy Norouz. We're speaking with chef and author, Donia Bijan, about the Persian food she indulges in for the new year.
Ah, food. Let's talk about food. The new year calls for two particular mainstays, as I understand it: herb rice and fish. And you, as the chef, are responsible for that part of the meal. Why is that? Is that the hardest thing to get right?
BIJAN: You know, the hardest thing about that herb rice is chopping the herbs because they have to be done just right and it takes forever, so you have to be patient and it certainly teaches you that good cooking does require a lot of patience.
But - yes. Those are the two mainstays. That spring herb rice, which is fresh herbs - like cilantro, parsley and dill - that are folded into the rice and along with brand new shoots of garlic and leeks. And all that green represents rebirth, which is the central theme of Norouz.
And, also, it's served with fish and fish represents life, which, you know, is not complicated to make the fish part, but it's the rice part that the new generation of Iranian-Americans, myself being part of that - we should have paid closer attention to when our mothers and grandmothers were making that dish.
MARTIN: Well, I don't want to call any names here, but our producer, Sanaz Meshkinpour, had quite a few words about how long it took to make this dish. It was, I believe, three hours, although it may have gotten longer in the retailing, but it turned out quite beautifully, I must say. And, if you don't mind, Donia, I'm going to have just a teeny little bite here. It's a beautiful - crust isn't quite right.
BIJAN: That's the tadig(ph) and that's the prize of your meal that, you know, you've worked so hard. But that is the best part. Families fight over that part of the dish.
MARTIN: Oh, do they, really? Oh, OK. Well, this is interesting. Well, I'm fending off all comers in here. Forgive me. I'm going to have a little bite.
BIJAN: (Foreign Language Spoken).
MARTIN: It's delicious. Mmm. How do you - you don't live in Iran now, obviously, but people are preparing for the holiday for quite some time. How do you translate that here? Do you feel sort of sad, in a way, when - because people around you aren't as engaged with it as you would be? Does it, kind of, bum you out a little bit? Or what do you do to kind of get the excitement level up?
BIJAN: You know, it's bittersweet. As far as for those of us who live in exile, I myself, for too long, relied on my mother to carry the tradition of Norouz. Like I said earlier, I didn't pay close enough attention. But being that we are the sons and daughters of that generation and it's up to us to continue to teach the rituals and the smells of Norouz to our children, to the next generation. And I fumble through a lot of it, but you know, there is a determination to get it right and to pass along those traditions.
MARTIN: Donia Bijan is a chef and an author. She is author of the memoir, "Maman's Homesick Pie." To get the recipes for her spring rice and salmon dishes, go to NPR.org/TellMeMore.
And Happy Spring and Happy Norouz. And, once again, it is...
BIJAN: Ada shomo barack
MARTIN: Ada shomo barack
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)