LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The hope for better, brighter days is at the very heart of Yalda Night, which marks the winter solstice and is celebrated in Iran and other Central Asian countries. During the longest night of the year, people defiantly stay up all night or just really late and celebrate, gathering in homes with food, family, poetry and music. They fight the darkness and joyfully greet the dawn. Joining us to talk about these ancient celebrations and the role of food in them is cookbook author and chef Najmieh Batmanglij.
Welcome to the program.
NAJMIEH BATMANGLIJ: Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we can all use, I think, some Yalda celebration right now. Tell us a bit about Yalda Night in Iran. Even before the pandemic, it was mostly celebrated at home, right?
BATMANGLIJ: Ancient Iranians believed that on this night, there is a battle between good and evil. This was when daylight and good were at their weakest and night, darkness and evil were at their peak - very powerful. So this night was considered as a - magical and unlucky. That's why family would get together, usually at the home of the elders.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: For safety.
BATMANGLIJ: For safety - right - because the elder - they couldn't travel. So the younger - they went to the elders' family and - to support each other. And usually, they light fire outside the house, and also, they light candles inside. And this was symbolic to help the light, the sun, to conquer the darkness.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me what you eat on this night. What kind of food is there?
BATMANGLIJ: Food plays very important role in this festival. Fresh fruits from the summer and autumn, such as watermelon and grape, would be saved for this night. This would be set out on a ceremonial table together with pomegranate, persimmons and oranges.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you are known, of course, for celebrating Iran's ancient and traditional culture through your recipes. Do you have any favorites for Yalda Night?
BATMANGLIJ: Yes. I remember my mother made special thick soup called pomegranate ash (ph) - pomegranate soup which - tiny meatballs flavored with tarragon.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And poetry is also a huge part of Yalda Night - right? - and storytelling.
BATMANGLIJ: That was very important. In my parents' house on this night, my older sister would ask us to make a wish, and then she would consult the book of Hafez, the 14th century poet, and recite the poems that came up randomly as answers and answer to our wishes. We were very excited about this ceremony. And that was - one of the things was she would ask us, do not ask more than three times because Hafez gets angry. And my grandmother was a wonderful storyteller who would enchant us and mesmerize us, hypnotize us through the night with her stories. I never forget my grandma's stories. And of course, singing, dancing, game playing - these are all very important part of this night.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What a beautiful celebration. Iranians, of course, have had a tough year. There have been protests, sanctions, COVID, of course. So celebrating this year must be especially meaningful but I imagine also hard because we can't gather in the same way.
BATMANGLIJ: That's true. Hopefully after this dark and evil time, there will be light, goodness, kindness and, most importantly, human contact that we all are missing these days.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the winter solstice falls on Monday this year. What will you be doing this year to celebrate?
BATMANGLIJ: Well, unfortunately, my children are in California. We cannot hug them and be close to them. But I'm going to make carrot halwa (ph), and I'm going to make the thick pomegranate soup, which my mother made. So we're going to set up the ceremony, but we're going to be together. Thanks God we are together (laughter).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. And we all need to hope that the sun comes back into our lives.
BATMANGLIJ: That's true.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's cookbook author and chef Najmieh Batmanglij.
Thank you so much for speaking with us. And may we say Shab-e Yalda Mubarak.
BATMANGLIJ: Oh, thank you. Happy Shab-e Yalda.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHABE TOOLANI")
ALI MOLAEI: (Singing in non-English language).
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