Food

For Afghans Abroad, Nowruz Is a Chance to Reflect

Durkhanai Ayubi laughed as she recalled peeling walnuts as a child for haft mewa, a beloved Nowruz dish of her native Afghanistan.

To Ms. Ayubi, a restaurateur in Adelaide, Australia, it was always the most tedious part of preparing the dish. For years, her mother, Farida, would gather Ms. Ayubi and her siblings to peel all the nuts and sort through dried fruit before rinsing and steeping everything in water for two days until the fruit plumped and the liquid was sweetened like syrup. Then, finally, they would serve the refreshing compote as a central part of the holiday.

An ancient celebration rooted in Zoroastrian tradition, Nowruz signals the beginning of spring and the new year in Afghanistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and beyond. Meaning “new day” in Persian, this year, the holiday falls on March 20 at 11:33 a.m. Eastern time in the Northern Hemisphere. The incongruity of celebrating the first day of spring while heading into an Australian winter is not lost on Ms. Ayubi, who runs Parwana Kitchen and Kutchi Deli in Adelaide with her family.

Farida Ayubi and her husband, Zelmai, run Parwana, a restaurant in a suburb of Adelaide, Australia. Her recipes are at the center of Durkhanai Ayubi’s Nowruz celebrations.Credit…David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

“It’s one of the funny things when you’re displaced and on the other side of the world,” Ms. Ayubi said. “Nowruz is all about flowers blooming, rebirth and renewal. But, for us, it’s become this symbolic thing that we mark through food and getting together with family and friends.”

A traditional feast includes mahee (fried freshwater fish symbolizing life) paired alongside trays of jelabi (sticky spiral-shaped fried pastries) and sabzi challaw (a fragrant spinach and lamb stew with rice).

Ms. Ayubi features her mother’s sabzi challaw in their 2020 cookbook, “Parwana: Recipes and Stories From an Afghan Kitchen.” In it, a mound of spinach, whose rich hue represents new life, is cooked down with fried garlic chives and combined with tender lamb that’s been slow-cooked in a flavorful broth of onion, garlic and chile. The challaw, or Afghan-style rice, that accompanies it is perfumed with cardamom pods and cumin seeds. The whole dish is a nod to, and an appreciation of, nature’s reawakening after a dark winter.

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Sweets represent hopes for a sweet and auspicious new year, so, in the days leading up to Nowruz, women gather and stay up all night, singing and stirring samanak, a sweet pudding made with germinated wheat. During the holiday, shop windows traditionally display kolcheh Nowrozi, rose-scented rice flour cookies on colorful tissue paper. And, of course, there is haft mewa, full of nuts and dried fruit for prosperity. (Dried fruit and nuts are essential to Afghans, especially in winter when fresh fruit can be scarce.)

Haft mewa, a refreshing compote of peeled nuts and dried fruit soaked in water for two days, is central to Afghan celebrations of Nowruz.Credit…Johnny Miller for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Rebecca Jurkevich.

Translating to “seven fruits” in Persian — the number seven is considered lucky — haft mewa can call for more than seven ingredients, but almost always includes senjid, the dried fruit of the oleaster tree, a symbol of love, and whole dried sour apricots with seeds, an Afghan specialty. In addition, the dish includes more commonly found dried apricots, two types of raisins and nuts, such as almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts and walnuts.

The ritual of rinsing and soaking the fruits and nuts is significant because water reflects light, symbolizing brightness and life.

“Water is really important for us,” said Munazza Ebtikar, who is of Afghan descent and studies the country’s history and anthropology at the University of Oxford. “Whenever someone spills water, we say ‘khair ast, aab roshanest’: ‘It’s all right, water is bright light.’”

But it’s a dark time for the country. This is the first Nowruz since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August. While the Taliban says it has not formally banned Nowruz, celebrations will likely not be held openly in Afghanistan compared to years past, as the group opposes the holiday’s roots. For many Afghans across the globe, this will be a different holiday as they reflect on the events unfolding in the country.

When Ms. Ayubi and Ms. Ebtikar brought up the country’s collapse, their tones turned somber. But they were quick to note that the land now called Afghanistan has been subjugated to upheaval and political turmoil for thousands of years. And, despite it all, Nowruz has persisted “because it’s so ingrained in our history, our literature, our cultural memory and our traditions,” Ms. Ebtikar said.

Ms. Ebtikar said she anticipated that, among the diaspora, Nowruz would be taken very seriously as a form of resistance, and more specifically serves as a testament to the enduring beauty of a culture long overshadowed by the narrative of war and violence.

Ms. Ayubi and Ms. Ebtikar said they planned to go all out with their festivities to honor those whose celebrations will be muted. Walnuts will be peeled, fruits will be soaked and new life and new beginnings will persist, with plenty of water lighting the way.

Recipes: Sabzi (Spinach and Lamb Stew) | Challaw (Cardamom and Cumin Basmati Rice) | Haft Mewa (Seven Fruits)

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