Fire and Feasting

It may already be March, but there are many people still celebrating the new year, complete with their own brand of fireworks. The vernal equinox, on or around March 21, marks the beginning of spring and, for people of Persian descent, Nowrouz, the beginning of the year. Mahin and Reza Hejazi are among the Mobilians who celebrate the holiday.

The Hejazis are well known locally as owners of the popular grocery and café, Food Pak, on Old Shell Road. Both born in Iran, the Hejazis married in July of 1977 and moved to Florida two months later where Reza attended the University of Florida.

The couple arrived in Mobile in 1982 for Reza to finish his civil engineering degree at the University of South Alabama. In 1991, they opened Food Pak, fulfilling Reza’s dream to carry on his family’s business. They have raised two sons here and have been happily at home ever since. “We love the Southern hospitality and charm of this city, ” Mahin says. “Mobile has been very good to us. It has been the American dream come true and the land of opportunity.” She adds that while they feel truly grateful and blessed to be in Mobile, they also enjoy celebrating their heritage. “We value our thousands of years of family and cultural traditions.”     

So, every March, the Hejazis start their new year off with a little old-fashioned spring cleaning, followed by fire and then feasting. “We have about 150 people to our house every year, ” Mahin says. “It takes me a month to get ready, especially the sprouts that take about three weeks to grow.” The sprouts, seeds sown that burgeon into verdant grasses, symbolize spring and new life. “Persian new year tradition also includes buying new clothes, visiting family, friends and neighbors, throwing parties and finally enjoying the outdoor picnicking on the 13th day of the new year, ” Mahin says. A festival of the fire, Chaharshanbe Suri (see right), held right before Nowrouz, adds to the festive season with dancing and traditional dishes, including pastries and nuts, to give thanks for the previous year’s happiness and health. This year Chaharshanbe Suri is Tuesday, March 18, and Nowrouz is Friday, March 21.

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Roasted Whitefish

This traditional Nowrouz dish can also be served fried or smoked.

2 (2- to 3-pound) whitefish, scaled and cleaned (Mahin uses tilapia.)
3 lemons, 1 halved for juicing and 2 thinly sliced
salt and pepper
1 cup fresh parsley, divided
1 cup fresh dill, divided
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 – 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 – 3 tablespoons butter
1 lime, sliced for garnish
6 cherries, for garnish
chopped fresh cilantro,
for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Make diagonal slits in the skin on both sides of fish. Sprinkle lemon juice over top and inside the cavities. Fill each cavity with lemon slices and a quarter of the dill and parsley. Season inside with salt and pepper.
3. Drizzle olive oil into a baking dish. Place prepared fish in dish, drizzle with more olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Cut butter into small pieces and place on top of each fish. Scatter rosemary and remaining parsley and dill on top.
5. Cover with aluminum foil. Roast for about 30 minutes. Remove foil and roast for another 15 – 30 minutes more or until golden. Garnish with lime slices, cherries and fresh chopped cilantro. Serves 6 – 8.

Mirza Ghasemi

This savory eggplant dish is served with rice or Iranian bread.

8 small Japanese eggplants
2 medium tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/3 cup cooking oil
salt and pepper
4 eggs

1. Grill eggplants until tender and skins swell and burst, about 10 – 15 minutes.
2. Take the eggplants out of the oven or off the grill, and let sit until cool enough to handle. Peel eggplants and cut off hard tops. Cut eggplants into small pieces.
3. Meanwhile, cook tomatoes in boiling water for 2 – 3 minutes. Remove tomatoes from water, cool slightly, then peel and cut into small pieces.
4. In a skillet, cook garlic in oil over medium heat until golden. Add eggplant and cook for 3 – 4 minutes longer. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper, and cook until any excess water is gone.
5. In a bowl, beat eggs well with a fork. In another pan over medium heat, cook eggs halfway. Add to eggplant mixture, and cook for another  1 – 2 minutes. Serves approximately 6 – 8.

Sabzi Polow

This unique side dish is an herbed rice usually served with fish.

4 cups of basmati rice
1 cup of chopped parsley
1 cup of chopped dill
1 cup of chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons fenugreek
1 tablespoon of turmeric
2 teaspoons of saffron, divided
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup cooking oil
2 tablespoons barberries, washed (available at Food Pak)
1 tablespoon butter, melted

1. Soak rice in water for two hours. Rinse several times until the water runs clear.
2. Bring 8 – 10 cups of water to a boil. Add rice and chopped herbs, fenugreek, turmeric and a teaspoon of the saffron to the pot. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 15 – 20 minutes, until rice is soft but not fully cooked. Drain the rice in a colander and rinse with cold water. Set aside.
3. Place oil in the hot pot and return the drained rice to pot. Cover with a soft, clean napkin and cook for 30 minutes.
4. Soak remaining teaspoon of saffron in 2 tablespoons of hot water. Add barberries and 1 tablespoon of melted butter to create a sauce. Serve over rice. Serves 8.
Note: To create a molded version of the Sabzi Polow, above, follow the rice cooker method below.

Rice Cooker Method

1. Put all ingredients, except 1 teaspoon of saffron, the barberries and butter, in the rice cooker with only 4 cups of water.
2. Cook for 1 hour. (Do not cook the rice first.) The rice will be beautifully cooked and molded to the cooker. Turn over into the serving dish. Prepare the barberry, saffron and butter mixture as directed above and pour over top. 

Shirini e Papioni 

These fried pastry twists make a simple yet festive addition to the feasting.

1/2 pound puff pastry dough
all-purpose flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Roll dough into a 2-foot-by-1-foot rectangle. Cut into 1-inch-by-2-inch strips. Twist in the center to make a bow tie.
3. Place on baking sheet that has been lightly dusted with flour.
4. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden in color. Let cookies cool, then dust generously with powdered sugar to cover. Makes 2 dozen.


These Persian cookies are a light and tasty finale to all the fixings.

1 cup cooking oil
3/4 cup very fine sugar
2 small eggs, separated
1/2 cup rosewater
2 cups fine rice flour
poppy seeds, for garnish

1. Mix oil, sugar and egg yolks, and beat until soft. Beat egg whites separately until they thicken.
2. Add rosewater, flour and egg whites to the sugar mixture, and stir well.
3. Pour into a plastic zip-top bag and refrigerate for 24 hours.
4. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 300 degrees.
5. Spread dough onto a flat, nonstick surface to a thickness of about 1/4 inch.
6. Cut dough with a cookie cutter, sprinkle with poppy seeds and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake 15 – 20 minutes. (Color should not change much; cookies will still be pale.) Makes 1 dozen.

text by Sallye Irvine • photos by MATT GATES

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