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

To Ayubi, a restaurateur in Adelaide, Australia, it was always the most tedious part of preparing the dish. For years, her mother, Farida, would gather 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 Ayubi, who runs Parwana Kitchen and Kutchi Deli in Adelaide with her family.

“It’s one of the funny things when you’re displaced and on the other side of the world,” 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).

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.)

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 Ayubi and 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,” Ebtikar said.

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.

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Ayubi and 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.

Sabzi (Spinach and Lamb Stew)

Recipe from Farida Ayubi and Durkhanai Ayubi

Adapted by Naz Deravian

Sabzi is one of the traditional dishes served during Afghan Nowruz, the celebration of the new year and vernal equinox, and Durkhanai Ayubi included this recipe from her mother, Farida Ayubi, in their cookbook “Parwana: Recipes and Stories From an Afghan Kitchen.” The rich green hue of this dish symbolizes the arrival of spring and new life. In the book, Ayubi uses a pressure cooker for the lamb — you can as well — but the stovetop version below doesn’t take very long. Either way, the lamb becomes tender in an intensely flavorful broth of onion, garlic and chile. It then simmers in cooked spinach, fragrant with fried cilantro and garlic chives. This soul-affirming sabzi, along with its traditional accompaniment of challaw, a spiced Afghan rice dish, is a welcome way to celebrate the reawakening of nature. — Naz Deravian

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 2 1/2 hours

1 cup sunflower or grapeseed oil

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 fresh, long red chile (such as Holland), thinly sliced

2 1/4 pounds boneless lamb stew meat (preferably shoulder or leg), cut into 2-inch chunks

Salt

1 large bunch cilantro, leaves and tender stems finely chopped (1 1/2 cups)

1 bunch garlic chives or scallions, green parts only, finely chopped (1/2 cup)

2 1/4 pounds spinach (about 4 bunches), stems removed, finely chopped (see Tip)

Challaw, for serving

1. In a large Dutch oven or similar pot, heat 1/2 cup oil over medium-high. Add the onion, garlic and chile, and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Push the vegetables to one side and add the lamb to the other. Cook until lightly browned on all sides, 3 to 8 minutes total. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt (or 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt or fine salt) and 4 cups water, then stir and bring to a gentle boil, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook until the lamb is tender, 1 hour and 5 minutes to 2 hours.

2. Meanwhile, in a kettle or a small saucepan, bring 1/2 cup water to a boil, and keep at a simmer.

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3. In a very large skillet with a lid, heat the remaining 1/2 cup oil over medium. Add the cilantro and garlic chives, and fry, stirring occasionally, to bring out all the flavors, about 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl.

4. Place the same skillet over medium-high heat (no need to wash), add the chopped spinach and the just-boiled water, and cover partially. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid is gone, about 20 minutes.

5. Add the lamb, 1 cup of its cooking liquid (any remaining broth can be refrigerated or frozen for another use) and the cilantro mixture to the spinach. Stir to combine well, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until all the flavors mingle, about 15 minutes. Taste, season with salt if desired and serve with challaw.

Tips:

You can pulse the spinach in a food processor in batches to quickly chop it.

Challaw (Cardamom and Cumin Basmati Rice)

Recipe from Farida Ayubi and Durkhanai Ayubi

Adapted by Naz Deravian

The Afghan Australian cookbook author Durkhanai Ayubi emphasizes that a distinctive quality of challaw — a simple Afghan dish — is the elongated and separate grains of white basmati rice. She shared this recipe from her mother, Farida Ayubi, for this fragrant and comforting pot of rice in their cookbook “Parwana: Recipes and Stories From an Afghan Kitchen.” In this preparation, the rice is first parboiled and then steamed and scented with cardamom pods and cumin seeds. It is worthy of a celebratory feast, alongside saucy dishes like sabzi, but easy enough for weeknight meals. — Naz Deravian

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 45 minutes, plus 1 hour soaking

2 cups white basmati rice, soaked in cold water for 1 hour

Salt

1 teaspoon green cardamom pods

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 cup sunflower or grapeseed oil

1. In a large pot with a lid, bring 8 1/2 cups water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, drain the rice in a large fine-mesh sieve or colander and rinse under cold water until the water runs clear. Add the rice and 1 tablespoon kosher salt (or 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt or fine salt) to the boiling water. Boil uncovered, until the grains seem to have doubled in length, 5 to 6 minutes.

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2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan or kettle, bring 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil and keep at a simmer. Place the cardamom pods on a cutting board and lightly crack them with the side of a large knife.

3. Drain the parboiled rice in the sieve or colander and return the rice to the pot. Add the cracked cardamom pods and any seeds that may have popped out, the cumin seeds and 1 tablespoon kosher salt (or 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt or fine salt). Mix gently to combine, taking care to not break the rice grains. Drizzle with the oil and the just-boiled water from the saucepan, and stir gently to coat the rice.

4. Cover the pot and cook over high heat until steam escapes from beneath the lid, 3 to 6 minutes. This is a critical step in preparing the rice to avoid overcooking it. Once you see the steam, reduce the heat to low and cook until the rice is tender and all the water is gone, another 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Haft Mewa (Seven Fruits)

Recipe from Farida Ayubi and Durkhanai Ayubi

Adapted by Naz Deravian

Haft mewa, which means seven fruits in Persian, is a symbolic compote of dried fruits and nuts traditionally prepared for Afghan Nowruz, the celebration of the new year and vernal equinox. Durkhania Ayubi shared this version in her cookbook, “Parwana: Recipes and Stories From an Afghan Kitchen.” She received the recipe from her mother, Farida Ayubi, who grew up making it in Afghanistan and continued the tradition with her family in their adopted home of Adelaide, Australia. Different types of nuts and fruits, which sometimes number more than seven despite the dish’s name, are soaked in water for two days to allow the fruits to plump up and release their natural juices. The nuts are peeled so they don’t make the syrup bitter and murky. — Naz Deravian

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus soaking and 2 days’ chilling

1/3 cup/50 grams whole raw almonds

6 tablespoons/50 grams shelled raw pistachios

1/2 cup/50 grams walnut halves (optional; see Tip)

1 cup/150 grams golden raisins, rinsed

1/3 cup/50 grams dried large apricots, about 8, rinsed

1/3 cup/50 grams black raisins, rinsed

1/3 cup/50 grams senjed (oleaster), about 25, rinsed (see Tip)

1/4 cup/50 grams whole dried sour apricots with seeds, about 10, rinsed (see Tip)

1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Place each variety of nut in a separate medium heatproof bowl and cover each variety with some of the just-boiled water. Soak the almonds and pistachios for about 1 hour, and soak the walnuts overnight (if using) to help the skins peel off. Almond and pistachio skins slip off fairly easily; walnuts take more effort. Once the skins are softened, drain the nuts and use your fingers to rub off the skins. Rinse the peeled nuts and place them all in one bowl.

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2. In a medium pot with a lid, bring 5 cups of water to a boil. Remove from the heat and carefully add the nuts and all of the dried fruits to the pot. Cover and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once cool, cover and refrigerate for 48 hours to allow the flavors to fully develop.

3. Serve chilled, ladling some syrupy soaking liquid into each bowl. Be mindful that the senjed and whole dried apricots have seeds. Haft mewa will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Tips:

Peeling walnuts can be an arduous task, so you can leave them out and add more almonds and pistachios instead.

Senjed and whole dried sour apricots with seeds can be found at Afghan or Iranian markets, and online. They are a hallmark of the dish, but can be substituted with other dried fruits, such as figs and cherries.