No, this post is not 3 months late — today really is the beginning of the new year, or at least one interpretation of it. March 21 marks the vernal equinox, on which a 24-hour period is split perfectly between day and night. Persian and Turkic communities across the world celebrate this day as Nooruz, deriving from the Farsi word for “new day.”
Nooruz (I’m sticking with the Kyrgyz transliteration for this post — depending where you are in the world, N’ovruz, Nevruz, Nauryz, Nowruz also work) has deep Zoroastrian and Persian origins, hence the day being best known as “Persian New Year.” The Zoroastrian story of creation is one of light and darkness, and the religion incorporates a lot of fire (both symbolically and literally), so it makes sense that the spring equinox would carry a special significance. Though Nooruz remains a holy day for Zoroastrians, elsewhere it is a secular celebration of light, cleaning, and new opportunity in other areas of the world.
Before 1991, Nooruz was an official holiday in only one country: Iran. The holiday was banned in the Soviet Union for religious purposes, though it was allowed in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan starting in 1967 as an ambiguous springtime festival. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many independent states reclaimed Nooruz as an essential part of local culture that had been suppressed for decades by Moscow. Now, Nooruz is a national holiday in countries across Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, with informal gatherings in many other cities around the world. The United Nations declared March 21 International Nowruz Day, after the holiday was added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.
In many countries, the most important symbol of Nooruz is the “Haft Seen” (7 S’s) — a traditional table setting, in which 7 items, all starting with the letter ‘s,’ are gathered: wheat sprouts, a pudding made from germinated wheat, fruit, garlic, apples, berries, and vinegar all start with ‘s’ in Farsi, and are displayed to welcome spring. The Haft Seen is tailored to local customs across Central Asia, and different countries emphasize particular items or add their own (eggs make the Azerbaijani table, and there’s some conflict over the millions of goldfish that show up on Iranian tables).
From what I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan, there’s not so much of an emphasis on collecting all the 7 S’s, though it wouldn’t be a holiday celebration in Kyrgyzstan if there weren’t a well-laid out dastorkon. The “sabze” (wheat sprouts) are key, though, since the wheat is grown in the weeks leading up to Nooruz in order to cook the Kyrgyz version of “samanu:” сүмөлөк, sumolok.
The magical origin story of sumolok, a type of wheat pudding, which I learned by watching skits at a summer camp for Kyrgyz exchange students, is a tale of a poor mother and her hungry children. In the leanest days of the year, the late weeks of winter, this distraught mother has no idea how to console her babies, who are crying out from hunger. She has nothing to feed them, and nothing to distract them from the rumbling in their stomachs. She sends her children out to find kindling for a fire, and while her children are gone, she dumps some rocks and water into her kazan. The children, who associate the fire they build with a full dinner, fall asleep dreaming of the warm soup they’ll eat in the morning. Watching her dozing babies, the mother offers a last desperate prayer to god for something to feed her children. When morning came, lo and behold! The family found hot and delicious (not to mention nutritious) sumolok sitting in the kazan, waiting to be eaten. With this food, the family survived the winter and was able to plant their fields and live richly the next year.
Sumolok is not a dish you can decide to make at the last minute. It takes at least a week to prepare, and that’s just the rinsing and soaking of the wheat and sprouts alone; the actual brewing of the pudding takes a labor-intensive 24 hours of close attention and aggressive stirring. It’s a neighborhood affair, and primarily up to women to prepare, from what I observed — people gather at someone’s house and take turns stirring the sumolok with a 4-foot wooden stick. They stand on a stool in order to reach over the massive kazan, a metal pot that could fit several small children, or several hundred servings of sumolok. The bounty – a goopy, rich brown liquid – gets distributed between the neighbors in recycled Coke bottles or empty pickle jars.
Traditionally, the first time you taste sumolok each year, you’re supposed to dip your pinky three times and make a wish. Some prefer to dip bread into their sumolok, and others (like me) would rather just tackle the Coke bottle by the spoonful.
So get out there, blast this special Nooruz playlist, dance in the sun, eat your weight in sumolok, and enjoy the first day of spring. Nevruz Bayramınız Kutlu Olsun! Нооруз Майрамыңыздар менен кут болсун! Nowruz mobarak! Happy Nooruz!