Shab-e Yalda – Celebrating the winter solstice in Iran
All ancient cultures have a mid-winter festival to help people get through the dark days and cold nights and in Iran, they celebrate the winter solstice – called Shab-e Yalda in Farsi – which takes place on the 21st December, the longest night of the year.
Shab-e Yalda commemorates the start of the solar year and like many Iranian festivities is deeply steeped in symbolism. The festival represents the victory of light over darkness and the renewal of the sun, our most important source of life energy. It is thought that Iranians adopted the festival from the Babylonians several thousand years ago and incorporated rituals from their own Zoroastrian religion. In times gone past this would have meant that fires would be burnt all night to ward off evil spirits and there would be rituals and feasts to commemorate Mitra, the Zoroastrian sun god.
Today, Shab-e Yalda remains a significant festival in the Iranian calendar and most commonly involves Iranians staying up late into the night with family and friends and feasting on red fruits such as pomegranates and watermelons which symbolise the crimson hues of the winter sun at dawn. Small tables are decorated with a Yalda sofreh (the farsi word for tablecloth) and are adorned with candles, fruits and nuts.
The reading of poetry from Iran’s most celebrated poets such as Hafez, Khayam, Rumi and Ferdowsi, is an essential part of the night’s festivities and many long hours are whiled away reciting poetry and nibbling on Ajil, a colourful mix of roasted pistachios, almonds and cashews mixed with sweet dried apricots, figs and mulberries.
To this day, my parents throw Shab-e Yalda parties for 30 or so of their close friends, playing games that grow increasingly raucous as the night goes on. They begin the evening with high-brow Persian literature and by the early hours of the morning have descended into singing 1970s Iranian pop songs, punctuating their feasting and drinking with dancing to the rhythmic beats of hand-held tonbak drums.
As 2016 draws to an close, the message of Yalda is as timely as it is relevant. It has been a tumultuous year for many, with political developments across the globe prompting many to have fears about what the future may hold for our fragile planet. Yalda gives us a message of hope. It is a reminder that even at the darkest time of the year, on the longest night, the sun will rise again. Light triumphs over darkness, in nature, as in real life.
This uplifting message seems the perfect way to end the year. So on that note, happy holidays and I hope you enjoy all the festive celebrations with your loved ones. Here is a Persian recipe that you might want to incorporate into your holiday feasting. See you on the next cycle around the sun…
A rich, creamy and indulgent soup which makes a delightful starter for any festive meal
200g shelled, unsalted pistachios
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 medium leek, trimmed and finely chopped
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp cornflour, mixed into a paste with 2 tbsp cold water
1 litre good-quality chicken stock
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
Juice of 1 orange
1½ tbsp fresh lime juice
For the toppings
100g Greek yogurt
1 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped and toasted
Pinch of sumac to garnish
Blanch the pistachios in a pan of boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and then rub the nuts with your fingers, discarding the purple skins. Rinse in a bowl of hot water to remove any remaining bits of skin.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the onion, garlic and leek. Fry for 10 minutes until soft.
Toast the cumin seeds in a small pan for a few minutes and then grind with a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder. Add to the pan along with the cornflour paste, stock, salt and pepper. Leave to simmer for 15 minutes.
Pour the soup and the pistachios into a food processor and blend for at least 3 minutes, until you have a smooth consistency.
Return the soup to the pan and add the orange and lime juice. Heat through, then taste and adjust the seasoning to your preference.
Serve with a swirl of yogurt, a few slivers of toasted pistachios and a pinch of sumac.
For more stories and recipes from Iran, get a copy of my Persian cookbook The Saffron Tales: Recipes From the Persian Kitchen. Available in all major retailers.