ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Thursday is the first day of spring, which means the crocuses are up, the kites are out and the sabzi polo is ready for the oven. That's the rice served during Nowruz. The new years holiday originated in Persia. Today, it's celebrated in many countries from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan. It starts at the exact minute of the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator and the seasons change.
WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf sees the megawatt celebration as the spring festival that sets the standard.
BONNY WOLF: For the last 3,000 years or so, Persians have welcomed spring with a 13-day party honoring new life and the new year.
Nowruz has it all. There's myths and symbolism, there's fragrant hyacinth and Persian poetry. There are magic numbers and magic puddings. The traditional Nowruz table is covered with a special cloth on which sits seven symbols of renewal. Everything comes in sevens - it's a magic number.
Wild olives are love, apples stand for beauty and sumac means fertility. Preparations for Nowruz start weeks in advance with a thorough house cleaning, new clothes and the germinating of seeds to represent rebirth.
What a beautiful house.
Ms. NAJMIEH BATMANGLIJ (Author, "Happy Nowruz: Cooking with Children to Celebrate the Persian New Year"): Thank you, thank you very much.
WOLF: Just lovely.
Ms. BATMANGLIJ: Should I offer you some tea?
WOLF: I would love some tea, thank you.
For a peak at the real thing, I visited Najmieh Batmanglij at her home in Washington, D.C. Najmieh grew up Iran and has written many Persian cookbooks. The latest is called, "Happy Nowruz: Cooking with Children to Celebrate the Persian New Year."
I knew I was at the right house because on her door hangs a wreath decorated with tulips and daffodils and egg shells with sprouts coming out of them. Her airy home is filled with more flowers, more sprouts and the scent of hyacinth and baklava. I love this holiday.
During the Islamic revolution in 1979, when she was pregnant with the first of her two sons, Najmieh and her husband fled Iran. But she did not leave behind her passion for Persian culture. As she cooks in her large sunny kitchen, she talks about why it is so important for Persians to celebrate Nowruz wherever they are.
Ms. BATMANGLIJ: I wanted my children to respect their heritage - their ancient heritage. I think it's very important. Even though they were born or raised here and never been in Iran, and I want Iran be associated with good things, with saffron, rosewater, orange peel rather than other things.
WOLF: Najmieh says a spring new year makes perfect sense.
Ms. BATMANGLIJ: It's a natural new year. You know that. The first of all it's springtime, all this smell of flowers, everybody's happy, there's a lot of light and sunshine, there's no snow and everything's clean. One of the ritual of the Nowruz actually is, beside housecleaning physically, you houseclean mentally. Cleansing your spirit is very good. You forgive one says and others for wrongdoing. I think that's a very good idea.
WOLF: The holiday this year begins Thursday at exactly 1:48 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Najmieh says Persians believe the mood you set at this transition continues throughout the year. So a few hours before, family and friends gather around the Nowruz table, make wishes, read poems and meditate.
Then there's hugging and kissing and they start to eat. First, a soup with noodles that symbolize unraveling the difficulties in the year to come. It's cooked with fresh dill, parsley and four pounds of spinach, then garnished with dry mint and turmeric.
It's so fresh, it's just, it's so green tasting.
Ms. BATMANGLIJ: Taste of spring, huh?
WOLF: Absolutely. It does. It tastes just like spring.
There's a bowl filled with seven kind of nuts and dried fruit, and there are seven different sweets. Tiny marzipan berries with a sliver of pistachio for stems, honey almond crunch with saffron, rice cookies with poppy seeds, cloverleaf-shaped chickpea cookies with cardamom and baklava from the gods.
Ms. BATMANGLIJ: I'm going to take out the baklava and I'm going to put the syrup on it while it's hot. It's very important. Mix it (unintelligible). I put it there and I usually design it with pistachio and rose petals. That's my signature.
WOLF: For the big family feast, Najmieh usually has 20 to 30 guests and serves the same menu every year. For our test lunch, she made melt-in-your-mouth breaded catfish sticks marinated in lime juice and turmeric. She stuffed a whole, smoked whitefish with garlic and slices of Seville orange then baked it for an hour. We also had herb kuku made with a dozen eggs, a fertility symbol, and about six cups of herbs representing spring.
The green, green omelet was topped with garnet-colored barberries. I totally understand why this holiday has lasted for thousands of years.
Ms. BATMANGLIJ: When the revolution came in '79, the Islamic republic frowned upon Nowruz but the interesting thing was Iranian people, it's a sort of resistance. They celebrate Nowruz more than ever. Politics changes but cultures stay forever. That's my…
WOLF: For NPR News, I'm Bonny Wolf.
Ms. BATMANGLIJ: (Unintelligible)…
SHAPIRO: You can find a recipe for fresh herb kuku at npr.org/books.
Ms. BATMANGLIJ: Nowruz is here. It's once a year, it's once a year.
SHAPIRO: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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