This is the story of how a group of intrepid New Yorkers got together to prep, cook, style, prop, shoot and then devour an Iranian feast for the springtime holiday of Norooz. In the house were photographer Philip Ficks, Iranian-born prop stylist Lili Abir, food stylist Maggie Ruggiero, an Iranian-born food blogger (me) and a home cook par excellence (my mom, Farideh Hooshiar).
Norooz is the name of the ancient celebration of the Persian New Year. The word literally means “New Day” and has traditions of wearing head-to-toe new clothes; turning the house upside down to make it sparkling clean; and ridding oneself of all bad and stale thoughts and belongings. It begins with an exciting countdown of seconds to the exact moment winter ends and spring begins—a celebration of the renewal of life and earth—rooted in Zoroastrianism and celebrated by Iranians of all faiths.
The iconic heart of Norooz is the custom of creating a beautifully poetic still-life arrangement called HaftSeen, which literally means “Seven S’s” because it is made with seven items that begin with the letter S in the Persian alphabet: seer (garlic: symbolizing health), serkeh (vinegar: symbolizing patience), somagh (sumac: symbolizing sunrise), sib (apple: symbolizing beauty), sabzeh (green sprouts: symbolizing renewal), senjed (oleaster fruit: symbolizing love) and samano (wheat germ pudding: symbolizing affluence.)
But that’s not all. Candles, mirror, a bowl of goldfish, fresh flowers, rose water, decorated eggs, a book of Hafiz’s poetry are “non-S” items that have also carved an indelible niche at the HaftSeen table. Some celebrants also float an orange in a crystal bowl of water, to symbolize the planet earth.
Once the idea of creating a modern iteration of this ancient Persian feast here in Gotham took hold, our self-dubbed “groovy team” set to work. A chain of breathless e-mails ensued—to sort out everything from picking a shoot date to deciding what to cook to sourcing tough-to-find ingredients.
“Do we have slivered pistachios? I have some, but they are stale and not photogenic.”
“Crap. Not finding sangak bread. Where will we get it??? Might have to squeeze in Sahadi’s.”
“Sahadi’s only has lavash. Café Nadery has sangak, on the phone he said he wouldn’t sell it but maybe in person with sweet talking?”
“What IS kashk???”
Philip, meanwhile, researched Norooz online and put together a “dark but romantic” cosmopolitan mood board for lighting and composition ideas. For the menu, we chose Persian dishes traditionally associated with Norooz: ash reshteh (hearty herb and bean soup with Persian noodles) garnished with crispy golden onions and fried dried mint; sabzi polo va mahi (green herb rice, the iconic Norooz dish) with whitefish and tadig (the crunchy crust bottom of the rice, a signature of Persian rice dishes); served with kookoo sabzi (I call this the love child of quiche and soufflé, made with heaps of green herbs); mast’o khiar (cucumber soup) garnished with crushed dried rose petals and mint; and tea with “come-hither” marzipan mulberries.
So it came about that one bright early March morning, we got together in Lili’s spacious Chelsea apartment—with large windows offering enviable views of High Line, letting in generous amounts of natural light that Philip put to great use in taking photographs.
My mom and I soon arrived on the scene, trekking from Brooklyn and bearing not just good cheer but a stash of slivered—and photogenic!—pistachios and the illusive sangak bread (my friend Darya kindly got me a few loaves from the Jewish Persian enclave of Great Neck in Long Island). The air was fragrant with the scent of a florist shop’s worth of peonies, tulips, jasmine, narcissus—beautiful props, all white, chosen for their allusion to spring—mixed with the aroma of blessed coffee being brewed.
Lili, who says she has the Silk Road flowing freely through her veins, had an armory of enchanting props strewn in her apartment. Some were heirlooms shipped by a beloved Persian grandmother, to make her house in America a home. Some were plucked from local and far-flung markets. All were beautiful things to hold and behold: silver, brass, copper, baccarat, porcelain, forged, tinned, engraved, handmade, a Persian stack of kilims, hand-embroidered cashmere shawls, silverware, trays, teacups and teapots. It cast a mesmerizing scene.
The kitchen island was bountifully occupied, too, with pots, pans and utensils. Near it, a foldout table groaned under the weight of exotic and enchanting ingredients. It felt like a sensual culinary love letter: dried mulberries, barberries, sugar cubes, rose water, almond slivers, pistachios, saffron, cardamom, tea, jasmine rice, dates, dried mint, rock candy, edible rose petals and imported dried apricots that tasted so good we closed our eyes as we nibbled.
Maggie arrived hauling an impressive number of bulging shopping bags. She fished out bunch after bunch of fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, chives, dill, scallions) and stacked them into aromatic, hilly piles. She then triumphantly unwrapped a glorious golden whitefish, purchased from Russ & Daughters, with a thump on the counter.
We were all there. We had everything we needed. We’d had our caffeine jolt. We had music and we had good energy. There was beautiful light. It was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
The props were sorted, organized, brushed, burnished, wiped, folded, unfolded, moved and fussed into perfection by Lili and her two assistants. One assistant thoughtfully meditated over an army of burnished vintage 1930s silver cutlery laid out on a table. The lighting infused her shadowy figure amidst the glittery scene into a decidedly Vermeer type of portrait.
In the kitchen: organized chaos! Maggie started washing and finely chopping the mountain of fresh parsley, scallion and spinach; Mom started grinding saffron threads for the Persian steamed rice; and I chopped onions to slowly caramelize in sizzling oil to make the glorious “piyaz dagh” (a 15-minute process of sautéing and babying chopped onions till they are golden, translucent yet also crisp—a foundational step of almost all Persian savory dishes) for ash reshteh.
Soon the air was fragrant with not just the smell of coffee and the sweet scent of the heaps upon heaps of white flowers, but also a heady mixture of saffron and turmeric and sizzling caramelized onions.
Every hand was at work. We were in the zone! The Persian cooks (aka me and Mom) prepared the food. We all held our breath as Mom tackled the delicate task of coaxing the tadig (the crunchy bottom-of-the-pot layer) out of the pot in one perfect intact circle without breaking it, and then gently used scissors instead of a knife to cut it into slices. She moved on to mixing eggs with chopped herbs, barberry and walnuts to make the kookoo sabzi, and I hand-rolled hazelnut-size portions of my handmade Persian marzipan dough (mixture of almond flour, rose water, cardamom and confectioners’ sugar) into the shape of mulberry. I twirled it in sugar to give a sparkly coat, crowning each one with a slivered pistachio stem. Such a beautiful treat! It is my favorite Persian sweet to make.
Lili and Maggie plated and propped and styled each dish. The rice was shaped into a pyramid, as it’s supposed to be, atop a Qajar-era Persian silver engraved serving plate. There were lengthy deliberations as to exactly which tadig slices to use for the shot. Translucent slices of radish were fussed over and arranged like blooms atop the kuku sabzi. Perched atop a ladder bending down to take aerial shots, Philip and his assistants, Brian and Ketura, took test shots, arranging and moving, monitoring and finally shooting each arrangement.
Once we had the shots of our feast came the part we’d all been impatiently waiting for: eating! The murmured pleasure of the seductive food was enhanced by the sense of exhaustion and total satisfaction.
After all was said and done, we were left with some gorgeous photos and some very delicious memories. The morning after, we decompressed and enthused via e-mail. Philip sent us low-res image files—each a ravishing souvenir of the day before. Lili said: “Norooz is a holiday embroidered in my heart and soul. I love continuing this tradition with my own family in New York City.” Mom reminisced about a favorite Norooz outfit—red skirt, white velvet coat, white lace stockings and black verni shoes—that she loved when she was five years old. Maggie raved about the smell of the caramelized onions and delicious mulberry sweets, then concisely gave voice to everyone’s sentiments:
“It was a dream day. What a beautiful world it was.”