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Persian New Year Ushers in a Taste of Spring

By Amy Zimmer | March 20, 2012 8:08pm
Persepolis has a table with symbolic items celebrating Nowruz.
Persepolis has a table with symbolic items celebrating Nowruz.
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UPPER EAST SIDE — New York's handful of Persian restaurants Tuesday kicked off Nowruz, the 13-day celebration of the Iranian New Year.

Preparations were in full swing at Persepolis, a restaurant on the Upper East Side, which is home to New York's largest Iranian population. The holiday, a celebration of the spring equinox, is a time of rebirth and cleansing of the body, mind and home. It also centers on a feast, which includes a table with seven symbolic items starting with the letter "s."

"The table is for good luck in the New Year," said Parvez Eliaas, co-owner of Persepolis on Second Avenue, near East 74th Street, and its sister restaurant, Shalezeh, on Third Avenue, near East 81st Street.

Along with a traditional dish of fish and herb rice, Eliaas listed the objects involved in a typical celebration.

There's sumac, a crushed spice of berries, symbolizing the "spice of life"; senjed, a sweet dried fruit from a lotus tree, representing "love and affection"; and serkeh, a vinegar symbolizing "patience and age," he said. The table's seeb, or apple, is meant to invoke "health and beauty;" its sir, or garlic, is for "good health"; samanu, a wheat pudding for "fertility and a sweet life"; and sabzeh, a wheat grass symbolizing "rebirth and renewal," he said.

Also on the haft-seen table at Persepolis are Persian cookies made from pistachios and walnuts and cherry blossoms to usher in the spring and happiness, he said.

Some families celebrating Nowruz (also spelled Norooz and Noruz) place a mirror on the table to denote a time of reflection over the past year along with coins for prosperity, colored eggs for fertility and an orange in a bowl of water, symbolizing the earth. Sometimes a real goldfish is also added to the spread to denote new life.

Shalezah did not have a haft-seen table, but did have a festive atmosphere with balloons and confetti, Eliaas said. Both restaurants were serving the typical New Year meal Tuesday and Wednesday night.

"We are doing the traditional food, which is rice made with dill and fava beans, and kooko sabzi, a quiche made of spinach," he said. "We eat a white fish, that's similar to striped bass." The fish he serves is pan-roasted, although some celebrants fry, smoke or bake their fish, he said.

Reservations for the holiday have been streaming in for weeks at both restaurants, Eliaas said.

"Persepolis has been around for 22 years," Eliaas said. "A lot of our regulars from the neighborhood come and people, who have moved away to Connecticut and Westchester and different places, come back."

Over the years, Persepolis has grown as its popularity has, expanding its location at 1407 Second Ave. in 2005. When the Second Avenue subway construction began five years ago, owners were worried about the restaurant's future, which is why they opened Shalezeh in 2008, nearby at 1420 Third Ave., Eliaas said.

"We were afraid the Second Avenue subway might have an effect, and we wanted to be safe and stay on the Upper East Side," he said.

The Upper East Side — the neighborhood where Eliaas moved to in 1996 — has the city's largest Persian population with approximately 1,200 people of Iranian descent, according to a 2005-2009 Census estimate.

Other restaurants celebrating Nowruz include Pars Grill House and Bar, on West 26th Street and Eighth Avenue, and Ravagh Persian Grill, which has locations in Midtown and the Upper East Side.

"People come from all over," Cyrus Arian, manager of Ravagh's Upper East Side location said.

There will be a Nowruz celebration and Persian arts festival Thursday evening in Dumbo and a kids festival for the holiday in TriBeCa on March 31. After the holiday, New York hosts its ninth annual Persian Day Parade, along 12 blocks of Madison Avenue on April 15.