It's the first day of spring, and for most people, that means, longer days outside, getting out the garden tools, and the beginning of barbecue season. But for Iranian-Americans and for others from the Middle East, Central and South Asia, today is the beginning of a New Year.
The holiday is called Norouz. In Persian, it literally means a "new day." It's seen as a time of rebirth and renewal, and like most holidays, Norouz is all about spending time with family, and eating lots of great food.
Chef and author Donia Bijan was born in Iran, but came to the United States as a teenager. In her book, Maman's Homesick Pie, Bijan describes memories of her mother's cooking, as well as, garden parties in their Tehran home with elaborate meals, and classical Persian musicians playing in the background.
Bijan calls her book a love letter to her mother, who is now deceased.
In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Bijan talks about her many attempts to recreate the rituals, traditions and cuisine of Norouz for her ten-year-old son. She says she didn't pay close enough attention to her mother's cooking while she still had the chance.
Like so many Iranian-Americans, Bijan says, "I myself, for too long, relied on my mother to carry the tradition of Norouz."
Part of that tradition includes a dish of herb rice and smoked fish. Bijan swears by her mother's recipe that folds parsley, cilantro, dill and leeks in layers of orange zest, cinnamon and saffron.
She says the hardest part of making this rice is chopping the herbs. "It certainly teaches you that good cooking does require a lot of patience," says Bijan.
For the fish, Bijan relies on techniques she learned from her intensive training at Le Cordon Bleu, the premier French culinary school. To create the smoky flavor --- without the help of a meat smoker --- she marinates the fish in salt, sugar and tea leaves for two days.
Bijan says her mother not only influenced her own cooking, but she nurtured Bijan's passion for food from a very young age.
"I was an awkward little girl who found grace in the kitchen," says Bijan. "She [my mother] never shooed me away, [she] didn't say, 'oh go outside and play.' She always gave me a task and expected me to follow through."
For many Iranian parents of that generation, Bijan says, cooking wasn't considered a proper profession. But Bijan's mother insisted that she go to France — to go to the source if she wanted to learn to cook well.
Her mother even took-on a graveyard shift at the hospital, where she worked as a nurse, so that she could pay for Bijan's tuition at Le Cordon Bleu.
She describes her mother's pride when Bijan finally opened her own French bistro in Palo Alto, California.
"She [my mother] would come and bring her friends and boast about her daughter," Bijan says. "She would clip all the little reviews and she had a scrapbook."
Today, Bijan says her French culinary training and her Persian heritage collide on a daily basis. But she enjoys the struggle, and she says food is the perfect way to travel between two cultures.
Spring Rice with Fresh Herbs and Orange Peel
This recipe came from Bijan's mother and folds parsley, cilantro, dill and leeks in layers of orange zest, cinnamon and saffron. The chopping of the herbs "teaches you that good cooking does require a lot of patience," Bijan says.
3 cups Basmati rice
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 bunch fresh Italian parsley
1 bunch fresh dill
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
Zest of 2 oranges
1 teaspoon saffron dissolved in ½ cup hot water
1 stick unsalted butter
1 piece of lavash or a flour tortilla
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Wash and drain the rice. Soak with a tablespoon of salt for 2-3 hours.
Rinse the cilantro, parsley, and dill. Use a salad spinner to dry the herbs and chop finely.
Wash and trim the leeks, cutting them in half lengthwise. Blanch in boiling, salted water for 3-4 minutes until tender, drain and rinse with cold water. Pat dry.
Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil in a non-stick pot. Drain the rice and pour into the pot to blanch for 6 minutes. Stir once or twice with a wooden spoon to loosen the grains that may stick to the bottom. Drain the rice in a colander.
In the same pot, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with 1/3 cup water. Place the lavash or tortilla over the butter to fit snugly on the bottom of the pot. Add two spatulas of rice, one spatula of fresh herbs, a teaspoon of orange zest, a sprinkle of cinnamon, half a leek and a clove of garlic. Repeat while alternating layers of rice, herbs, garlic, leeks, orange peel, and cinnamon in a pyramid shape, ending with a layer of rice. Cover and cook over medium heat for 8 minutes.
Remove the lid and pour the saffron water and the remaining butter over the pyramid.
Wrap the lid in a dishtowel and place over the pot to cover firmly and avoid steam from escaping.
Cook the rice over medium-low heat for 45-50 minutes.
To serve, you can invert the rice onto a platter, or use a spatula to mound the rice on your serving platter and carefully remove the crust to serve on the side.
Salmon with Seville Oranges, Tarragon, and Tea Leaves
Bijan adapted this recipe using techniques she learned at Le Cordon Bleu. Marinating the fish in salt, sugar and tea leaves for two days creates a smoky flavor without the help of a meat smoker.
4 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons Lapsang Souchong loose tea, (for a distinctive smoky flavor)
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
2 Seville oranges, zested
1 side, (approximately 2 pounds), wild salmon fillet, de-boned, skin on
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup Seville orange juice with pulp
1 medium shallots, sliced thinly
Two days before serving, toss the salt, sugar, tea leaves, tarragon, orange zest, and shallot in a bowl. Lay the salmon on a long piece of foil. Rub the salt mixture on both sides of the fillet. Lay another piece of foil on top and neatly seal the edges. Place a weight on the fish, the equivalent of 5 to 6 pounds (6 cans on a tray will do; 2- or 3-pound hand weights work well, too) and refrigerate for 48 hours.
Rinse away the herb and tea mixture under cold running water. Pat the fish dry with paper towels, brush with olive oil and lemon juice. The salt and sugar marinade has partially cooked your salmon so grill or broil no more than 2-3 minutes for a tender, flaky fish to serve with your herb rice.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today is the first day of spring. Where we are, that means longer days outside, getting out the garden tools and the beginning of barbecue season.
For Iranian-Americans and others from the Middle East, Central and South Asia, today is the beginning of a new year. In Persian, the holiday is called Norouz, which literally means a new day. It's seen as a time of rebirth and renewal and, like most holidays, Norouz is all about spending time with family and eating lots of great food.
To get a sense of just some of the tasty dishes served for Norouz, we decided to call upon Iranian-American chef and author, Donia Bijan. Her memoir, "Maman's Homesick Pie," came out last fall. In it, she describes her mother's elaborate garden parties in Iran with amazing meals and classical Persian musicians playing in the background.
So let's set the mood and queue the tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Donia Bijan, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
DONIA BIJAN: Thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: And what's the proper greeting?
BIJAN: (Foreign Language Spoken).
MARTIN: Ada shomo barack(ph). Pretty good?
BIJAN: Mo barack.
MARTIN: Mo barack. Mo barack, better than that. OK. Thank you. OK. So before we get to the actual food, I do want to talk a little bit about your story. Your memoir is in homage to your mom, who's passed away. I'm sorry for your loss.
For people who haven't read your book, how did you find your love of cooking and what role did your mom have to play in that?
BIJAN: Well, the book is so much a love letter to my mom, because she nurtured that love and passion that I have for cooking, from when I was a little girl. I was an awkward little girl who found grace in the kitchen. She never shooed me away, you know, didn't say, oh, go outside and play. She always gave me a task and expected me to follow through.
And I think I knew from when I was very little that I wanted to be a cook, but it wasn't a - you know, a profession, so to speak, that one would send their daughter to university for. But I knew that the seed was planted and that, some day, it would blossom.
And it's America's fault, really, because it was here where I found my voice and realized that I can make my own choices and make my own life.
MARTIN: And you were trained. You are, in fact, a trained chef. You were trained at the Cordon Bleu, the premier French culinary school. You owned your own French bistro in California. Forgive me, did your mom live to see you kind of embrace this love in this way?
BIJAN: She did. And she forced me to go to France. She insisted that I go to the source if I wanted to learn to do something well and she took on a graveyard shift at the hospital where she was a nurse so that she could pay for my tuition and send me to France. And she saw my restaurant open. She would come and bring her friends and boast about her daughter and clip all the little reviews and she had a scrapbook. So she was very proud of me.
MARTIN: Do your culinary - your two culinary heritages ever collide? I mean, you're classically trained in the French tradition, but you grew up with this heritage of amazing Persian cooking. Do the two ever collide or do you keep them separate?
BIJAN: They collide every day and all the time, because I'm constant about food. And when I'm making Persian food, I bring the French technique to that process. So it's been tremendously helpful. I've been told that I'm a little bossy, also, in the kitchen, which I must have picked up from my mentors and French chefs I worked with.
You can't help but draw from all that information that's in your pantry. And I think, very much, that food is the perfect vessel to travel back and forth between those cultures.
MARTIN: You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's the first day of spring. Happy Spring and Happy Norouz. We're speaking with chef and author, Donia Bijan, about the Persian food she indulges in for the new year.
Ah, food. Let's talk about food. The new year calls for two particular mainstays, as I understand it: herb rice and fish. And you, as the chef, are responsible for that part of the meal. Why is that? Is that the hardest thing to get right?
BIJAN: You know, the hardest thing about that herb rice is chopping the herbs because they have to be done just right and it takes forever, so you have to be patient and it certainly teaches you that good cooking does require a lot of patience.
But - yes. Those are the two mainstays. That spring herb rice, which is fresh herbs - like cilantro, parsley and dill - that are folded into the rice and along with brand new shoots of garlic and leeks. And all that green represents rebirth, which is the central theme of Norouz.
And, also, it's served with fish and fish represents life, which, you know, is not complicated to make the fish part, but it's the rice part that the new generation of Iranian-Americans, myself being part of that - we should have paid closer attention to when our mothers and grandmothers were making that dish.
MARTIN: Well, I don't want to call any names here, but our producer, Sanaz Meshkinpour, had quite a few words about how long it took to make this dish. It was, I believe, three hours, although it may have gotten longer in the retailing, but it turned out quite beautifully, I must say. And, if you don't mind, Donia, I'm going to have just a teeny little bite here. It's a beautiful - crust isn't quite right.
BIJAN: That's the tadig(ph) and that's the prize of your meal that, you know, you've worked so hard. But that is the best part. Families fight over that part of the dish.
MARTIN: Oh, do they, really? Oh, OK. Well, this is interesting. Well, I'm fending off all comers in here. Forgive me. I'm going to have a little bite.
BIJAN: (Foreign Language Spoken).
MARTIN: It's delicious. Mmm. How do you - you don't live in Iran now, obviously, but people are preparing for the holiday for quite some time. How do you translate that here? Do you feel sort of sad, in a way, when - because people around you aren't as engaged with it as you would be? Does it, kind of, bum you out a little bit? Or what do you do to kind of get the excitement level up?
BIJAN: You know, it's bittersweet. As far as for those of us who live in exile, I myself, for too long, relied on my mother to carry the tradition of Norouz. Like I said earlier, I didn't pay close enough attention. But being that we are the sons and daughters of that generation and it's up to us to continue to teach the rituals and the smells of Norouz to our children, to the next generation. And I fumble through a lot of it, but you know, there is a determination to get it right and to pass along those traditions.
MARTIN: Donia Bijan is a chef and an author. She is author of the memoir, "Maman's Homesick Pie." To get the recipes for her spring rice and salmon dishes, go to NPR.org/TellMeMore.
And Happy Spring and Happy Norouz. And, once again, it is...
BIJAN: Ada shomo barack
MARTIN: Ada shomo barack
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.