I am slicing up watermelon cubes to bring to a party — not the usual dish for a December celebration, but this is a special event, the Persian fête for the longest night of the year, called Yalda.
Knowing my interest in food and culture, my new friend, Monier Attar, owner of Zand’s Market on Albany’s Solano Avenue, invited me to accompany her to a party at The Golestan Center, her granddaughter’s Persian-immersion pre-school on Berkeley’s Fifth Street.
I first met Monier last spring when I noticed an intriguing display table in her shop for another Persian secular holiday, Norooz, which honors the first day of spring. Monier kindly answered all my questions about this ancient celebration and I wrote an article about it.
Even though the actual longest day of the year is later this week, and traditional Yalda parties run until midnight, the preschool kids, their teachers, parents and grandparents planned an early evening celebration last Saturday, with all the classic dishes, including pomegranates, watermelon, dried fruit and nuts and a hearty bean and noodle soup called osh (or aush). The evening ended with the sweet voices of children singing songs in Farsi.
“Preserving culture runs in my family,” explains Monier, who left Iran with her two small children in 1984. “My daughter is 36 — when she was 3 years old, I enrolled her at an American school in Iran to learn English. Now 33 years later, she signed up her daughter, Darya, to learn Farsi at Golestan (which means ‘flower garden”) because she really wants to keep the culture alive.”
Yalda has been observed for thousands of years to celebrate the return of the light and the victory of the sun over darkness. The Persians adopted this Babylonian festival and incorporated it into their Zoroastrian religion, long before the spread of Islam. More details can be found in this article from The Tehran Times.
Back at The Golestan Center on Saturday, amid the elegant high-ceilinged rooms, sliding wooden doors and comfy floor cushions, a long table was groaning with rice dishes, yogurt with cucumber, fresh green herbs, vegetables, cheese, bread, several variations of osh soup and large bowls of fruit that the guests have brought to share. The children were dressed up and excited. Their parents gave them each a bowl of pomegranate seeds to eat with a spoon and many sat at the korsi — which is supposed to represent the traditional low table with woven cloths that covered a heater or charcoal fire, where families would sit to keep warm. (No heater in this one.)
“Darya said she really likes the way her teachers at Golestan hug her and kiss her,” Monier tells me as we stand, sampling an addictive dish of seasoned rice, cabbage and tiny meatballs. “She can already see how friendly and loving Persian culture is. “
“Before, when her mom and I were speaking Farsi to her she just refused to talk and left the room, saying ‘I don’t want to speak Farsi. I want to talk like my dad’ (he’s American.)”
“Now that she goes to a place where everyone speaks Farsi, she sees that there are other kids and people who know the language too. So she asked me, ‘Namna where did you go to learn Farsi?’ I told her I was born in Iran where everyone spoke it. Now she thinks we are very special people who can speak the same language that they speak at school. If I speak English to her dad, she says, ‘Namna what happened to your Farsi?’
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley. She is a regular contributor to “Oakland Magazine” and KQED’s Bay Area Bites. Follow her food adventures on her blog East Bay Ethnic Eats or on Twitter @EBEthnicEats.
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