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Nouruz : At Last, Celebrating New Year's the Old Way

March 17, 1994|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

March 20 is the ancient Persian New Year's Day, Nouruz. But Nouruz (rhymes with "no-lose") is not the heritage of Iran alone. Many neighboring countries also celebrate it.

Under the former Soviet regime, public celebration of Nouruz was outlawed in Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The holiday is of pre-Islamic origin, so it should have presented no threat to the Soviet Union's official atheism, but the Communist authorities may have feared that any popular traditional holiday threatened their cultural hegemony and might serve as a rallying point for resistance.

They had good reason for their apprehension. Stalin didn't manage to eliminate the last freedom fighters ( basmachis ) from Uzbekistan until the middle 1930s. By an irony of history, a number of basmachis took refuge in Afghanistan, where their sons and grandsons avenged them 50 years later in the Afghan War.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new republics of Central Asia have been falling all over themselves to liberalize their cultural and religious policies. Mosques have been reopened; pilgrimage to Mecca, though limited by quota, is now permitted.

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And the New Year's festival (the Central Asian pronunciation is Nauroz, rhyming with "now rose") has been ostentatiously legalized. Huge banners reading "Have a Blessed Nauroz" were still hanging on public buildings in Tashkent last September, a good six months after the holiday.

Ironically, at the same time that the Central Asian countries are finally able to celebrate this ancient Iranian holiday, Shiite authorities in Iran have been trying to suppress it because of its pagan origins. As a result, Iranians living in our country often celebrate Nouruz with special fervor.

In Uzbekistan, sidewalk booksellers now sell a pamphlet explaining how to make the traditional Nauroz dish called sumalak (in Iran it's called samanu ). Only a few years ago it would have been a crime to publish the recipe. In the '70s, the Uzbek food writer Karim Makhmudov secretly made a videotape of the process of making sumalak because of the possibility that the tradition might be entirely lost one day; his family still shows the place where they hid the tape.

Like many Nauroz/Nouruz traditions, sumalak is pregnant with symbolism of springtime and new life. To make it, you start sprouting a kilogram of wheat grains in a dark place a week or 10 days before Nauroz. The day before the holiday, you grind up the wheat grass and squeeze out the juices. Then you boil the juices in a huge pot with four kilograms of flour, a little oil, water as needed and a handful of pebbles (they bounce around in the pot and keep a burnt layer from building up on the bottom). If you start cooking it about 8 p.m., it should be done around mid-morning, 13 or 14 hours later.

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The result is thick, brown and sweet. "It is said," reads the sumalak pamphlet, "that the more people taste your sumalak , the greater a good deed it is. That is to say, sumalak isn't just a Nauroz dish but a friendship event, and a friendship food blessing as well."

With Nauroz/Nouruz coming this Saturday, it's a little late to start making sumalak / samanu now. Other traditional dishes for the holiday don't take so much planning. They are based on either the first vegetables of spring or the last staples of the winter pantry: meat stewed with butter and whole wheat ( halim ), carrot and cauliflower soup, a radish and cucumber salad garnished with dill and cilantro, mushrooms grilled on a skewer and little dumplings or ravioli filled with wild greens.

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Spring herbs--which can include wild greens such as shepherd's purse and clover--give a fresh and unusual flavor to these ravioli. The original recipe calls for frying the filling in the tail fat of the local breed of sheep--it's a soft fat, not hard and tallowy like ordinary lamb fat. In any case, it's obviously unavailable here, so this recipe substitutes butter. Sticklers for authenticity could mince a small piece of fat from a lamb chop and fry it to cracklings in the butter.

NAUROZ RAVIOLI (Kok Chuchwara) 1/2 cup butter 1/2 pound onions, finely diced 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped 2 pounds mixed spring greens, such as mint, cilantro, cress, sorrel, clover, shepherd's purse and wild spinach, all finely chopped 2 teaspoons salt Ground red pepper Noodle Paste squares, or won ton skins, cut in tiny squares 2 tablespoons melted butter

Melt 1/2 cup butter in wide pan over low heat. Fry diced onions until tender. Add green onions, mixed greens, salt and 2 teaspoons red pepper. Cook until greens are tender and reduced in size. Remove greens and reduce pan liquid by at least half. Mix reduced liquid into cooked greens.

Set out Noodle Paste squares. Place filling in center of 1 square. Lightly moisten square's edges. Fold square diagonally over filling to make triangle, pinch edges to seal, then fold opposite corners of triangle over each other and pinch together. Continue with remaining squares until filling is used up.

Cook ravioli in boiling water until done, 3 to 4 minutes. Using slotted spoon or colander, remove and drain ravioli. Place in warmed serving bowl. Toss with 2 tablespoons melted butter. Season to taste with red pepper. Makes about 24 ravioli, or 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 4 servings contains about: 564 calories; 2,130 mg sodium; 132 mg cholesterol; 30 grams fat; 60 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 2.94 grams fiber.

Noodle Paste Squares 2 cups flour 1 egg 1 teaspoon salt

Combine, flour, egg and salt in bowl. Knead hard 10 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap. Let stand 1/2 hour. Roll out and cut into 2-inch squares.

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