On Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, elders take turns reading from a book of poetry by celebrated 14th-century Persian poet Hafez, and interpret the rhyming couplets as a form of fortunetelling. Their families listen and tell stories by candlelight, sing, laugh and fill the house with light and warmth while gathered around the korsi to graze on trays of delicately cracked clusters of pomegranates, sparkling bowls of their ruby red seeds and cool, crisp watermelon slices.
A korsi is a large, low square table that is heated underneath – by coals in the old days and electric heaters now. The table is draped with blankets, to tuck your legs under to keep them warm and cosy, and surrounded by cushions to lean against. While the use of a korsi is not common outside of Iran, Iranians in the diaspora create similarly inviting setups for their own Yalda celebrations. On this longest and darkest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, symbolic foods, pomegranates chief among them, are passed around to welcome back the light and longer days.
The Yalda evening celebrations begin with dinner, but unlike Nowruz meals, there isn’t a set menu. Families typically feast on regional warming stews, rice dishes, ash – thick, hearty Iranian soups – and especially pomegranate-based dishes, such as khoresh morgh naardooni, khoresh-e fesenjoon, and ash-e anar (pomegranate ash).
“Historically, the pomegranate – anar – holds special significance in Persian culture,” says Nader Mehravari, the food research fellow at San Francisco State University’s Centre for Iranian Diaspora Studies. “Pomegranates originated in the region of modern-day Iran. From a religious aspect, the pomegranate is considered a heavenly fruit and perhaps the original forbidden fruit. It is also a sign of fertility, light and goodness, which is why it is so auspicious on Yalda night as a symbolic opposing force of darkness.”
This victory of light and goodness over the forces of darkness has been celebrated by Iranians for more than 5,000 years.
According to Mehravari, the origins of Yalda date back to pre-Zoroastrian Mithraism, the worship of the god of the sun. It is said that Mithra was born on this day, and “Yalda” comes from the Cyrillic word meaning birth or rebirth.
On Yalda, which falls on 21 December this year, it is customary to take refuge from the darkness and remain indoors, and to welcome the new light by staying up as long as possible. It is believed that, with the sun’s triumphant rise, our days will shine brighter and longer with hope and good will.
For his northern Iranian-inspired dishes at Komaaj, a restaurant and catering company, the San Francisco-based chef Hanif Sadr uses pomegranate in all its forms – seeds, juice, molasses. This year, his Yalda menu will include an interpretation of seerabeh, a traditional northern Iranian sauce. Seerabeh is tangy, made with walnuts, pomegranate juice (or verjuice), pomegranate seeds, garlic and herbs, and is typically served with fish.
The combination of walnuts and pomegranates is a classic pairing in Iranian cuisine. In this version, Sadr takes the classic preparation of kaale (uncooked) seerabeh and serves it as a dressing for a crisp salad. Romaine hearts, purple carrots, radishes and orange segments provide the chromatic canvas upon which the pinkish sauce is drizzled.
Khoresh morgh naardooni (pomegranate chicken stew), also called anar mosama, is another celebratory dish to serve on Yalda. The combination of pomegranate molasses and pomegranate seeds in this deeply flavourful stew showcases the various ways pomegranates can be used to achieve layers of flavour. Be mindful that the taste and tartness of pomegranate molasses varies by brand. Before cooking, make sure you taste a little bit of the molasses to get an idea of how tart, bitter or sweet it is.
After dinner, families snack on symbolic foods that are placed on the korsi. The red hue of pomegranates and watermelon flesh represents the rising crimson sun, and the melons, traditionally stored in cool basements in late summer to last until winter, are believed to keep illness at bay in the coming warmer months. A bowl of ajeel – mixed nuts, watermelon seeds and dried fruits – is also set on the korsi for prosperity, alongside hot tea, sweets and fresh seasonal fruits like persimmons.
All of the food, the pomegranates in particular, serves as a joyful reminder that the re-emergence of the sun, light, hope and goodness is only but a night away.
Kaale seerabeh salad (salad with pomegranate dressing)
To celebrate Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, Sadr takes the classic preparation of kaale, or uncooked, seerabeh, a tangy walnut and pomegranate sauce, and serves it as a dressing on a crisp salad. Flecked with garlic and herbs, seerabeh is typically served with fish in the northern Iranian province of Gilan. Here, vegetables provide the chromatic canvas upon which the pinkish sauce is drizzled. Sadr recommends using a pomegranate juice you like to drink for the sauce and refrigerating the sauce overnight to allow the flavours to meld. Any leftover sauce will keep for five days in the fridge and is great served with fish, chicken or roasted vegetables, or as a dip.
Total time: 10 minutes, plus 24 hours’ marinating
For the dressing:
240ml pomegranate juice, plus more as needed
180g pomegranate seeds
30g walnut halves
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp lemon juice, plus more as needed
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
Handful coriander leaves
1 tbsp coarsely chopped mint leaves
1 tbsp coarsely chopped parsley leaves
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Sugar, to taste (optional)
2 romaine lettuce hearts, or 4 to 6 heads little gem lettuce
2 large radishes (watermelon, red, white or daikon, or a mixture), thinly sliced into rounds
1 large carrot (preferably purple), peeled and sliced into 0.5cm-thick rounds
1 large orange, segmented
Bread, for serving
1. Prepare the dressing: place the pomegranate juice, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a blender, and blend until smooth. Add the coriander, mint and parsley, and blend until smooth. With the blender running on low, drizzle in the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning. If the sauce is too sour, sprinkle in a little sugar; if it’s not acidic enough, add a little more pomegranate juice or lemon juice, one tablespoon at a time. Be mindful that the flavours will meld more and pop as the sauce rests. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer, and discard any tiny bits of pomegranate seeds. You should have around 400ml. Transfer the sauce to a container, cover and refrigerate overnight (the sauce can be made up to 5 days in advance). The sauce will thicken slightly as it rests, but it’s not a thick sauce.
2. Assemble the salad: remove the larger outer leaves of the romaine hearts and set aside for another use. On a serving platter or on individual plates, neatly arrange the lettuce leaves, stacking some on top of one another (if using little gems, just halve them lengthwise and place on the platter; no need to stack them). Or, chop the lettuce if you’d prefer. Scatter the radishes, carrots and orange segments on top. Sprinkle everything with a little salt. Stir the sauce to combine, and taste for seasoning and acidity. Drizzle over the salad and serve right away. Use as much sauce as desired. Serve with a side of bread to sop up any lingering dressing.
Khoresh morgh nardooni (pomegranate chicken stew)
Khoresh morgh nardooni (also called anar mosama) is a deeply flavourful dish from the northern provinces of Iran. It is wonderful for Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, or for any holiday celebration. Pomegranates on Yalda symbolise a red dawn: the emergence of light and brighter days ahead. Here, the combination of pomegranate molasses and pomegranate seeds showcase the various ways the fruit is used in Iranian cuisine. While not traditional, some preparations, such as this one, use tomato paste for added depth and vibrancy. Serve this with Persian rice, a side of fresh herbs, radishes and spring onions.
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Pinch of saffron threads (about ¾ tsp)
A pinch of sugar, plus more as needed
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken legs (about 1.4kg)
60ml plus 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
¾ tsp ground turmeric
¼ tsp black pepper, plus more as needed
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (see tip)
260g pomegranate seeds (from 1 large pomegranate)
Lemon juice, as needed
Mint leaves, for garnishing (optional)
Steamed rice, fresh herbs, sliced radishes and spring onion segments, for serving
1. Bring 2 tablespoons water to a boil in a small saucepan, kettle or using the microwave, then let stand for 2 minutes to allow the temperature to drop slightly while you grind the saffron. Using a mortar and pestle (or small bowl with the handle of a wooden spoon), grind the saffron with a small pinch of sugar to a fine powder (about ¼ teaspoon) and add the hot water. Gently stir, cover and let steep until ready to use.
2. Season the chicken legs generously with salt (about 3½ teaspoons). In a large frying pan with a lid, heat 60ml of oil over medium-high. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, reduce the heat to medium and add the chicken legs, skin side down. Cook until the chicken is golden, 5 to 8 minutes; we’re not looking to brown the chicken skin here, just to get a nice golden colour. Flip and cook the other side until golden, 5 to 8 minutes. You may have to do this in batches. Transfer the chicken to a baking tray or large plate.
3. Leave behind about 60ml of the rendered fat in the pan and discard the rest. Add half of the diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the onion with a little salt, ½ teaspoon of turmeric and the black pepper, and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
4. Transfer the chicken legs along with any juices back to the pan skin side down. Swipe the chicken through the turmeric-stained oil and flip so the skin side is up. Add 350ml water, scraping up any bits stuck on the bottom. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and gently simmer the chicken for 25 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the pomegranate sauce: in a small pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over medium. Add the remaining diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the onion with a little salt, add remaining ¼ teaspoon of turmeric, and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Reduce the heat to medium-low, stir in the tomato paste, and cook just to take off the raw taste and deepen its colour, but taking care not to burn it, about 1 minute. Add the pomegranate molasses, give it a quick stir just to incorporate (pomegranate molasses burns quickly), then stir in 220g pomegranate seeds and save the rest for garnish. Sprinkle with a little salt, and remove from the heat.
6. Add the pomegranate sauce and the saffron water to the chicken, gently stir, and simmer uncovered over medium heat until the sauce reduces by about half and the chicken is tender, about 25 minutes. Every once in a while, spoon a little sauce over the chicken. If the sauce reduces too quickly, reduce the heat to medium-low or low (you want enough sauce to spoon over rice and the chicken). Taste for seasoning, and add a little sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, if the pomegranate molasses is too sour or bitter. If your sauce is too sweet, balance it with a little lemon juice, 1 tablespoon at a time.
7. Garnish with reserved pomegranate seeds and mint leaves, and serve over rice with a side of fresh herbs, radishes and spring onions.
Tips: The flavour and tartness of pomegranate molasses varies by brand. Before cooking, make sure you taste it to get an idea of how tart, bitter or sweet yours is; you can always balance it with a little sugar, if necessary. Sadaf sour pomegranate molasses has a nice balance. If you use Cortas, keep in mind that it is quite strong and a little bitter.
© The New York Times
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies