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It's that time of year again: or: how I conquered mold and mastered sabzeh.

When I was a little girl, there was one thing that entranced me most above all the other preparations made for Now Ruz every spring. More than the hustle and bustle of spring-cleaning, more than the large bolts of cloth that were cut and stitched together to make new clothes for every member of the family, more than the pounding of walnuts and rolling out of dough for making baklava.

What intrigued me most was watching the handfuls of lentils and wheat berries that Naneh had spread onto platters and covered with a wet cloth to germinate into beautiful mounds of brilliant green just in time to grace the haft seen (seven S) table--the table of the seven items beginning with the letter seen or "S" that is so central to the Now Ruz celebrations.

Now Ruz is the most important holiday of the year for Iranians. It has its roots in ancient Zoroastrian times when originally there were seven celebrations spread throughout the year. But these died out, and only Now Ruz has survived, an annual celebration of the vernal equinox when the cycle of life begins anew on the first day of spring.

Sabzeh is the quintessential symbol of rebirth and is central to the celebration of the festival and to the decoration of the haft seen table--a thing of beauty and heavily fraught with symbolism. A colorful cloth is spread on a table on which are placed candles, a mirror, decorated eggs, a goldfish in a bowl, bowls of nuts and sweets, and seven "S" items, usually sabzeh (green sprouts), seeb (apples), seer (garlic), sonbol (a hyacinth), somagh (sumac), senjed (fruit of the jujube tree), and samanoo (a wheat pudding).

Some households will also place coins on the table and others will burn wild rue incense to symbolically drive away evil spirits. A copy of the poems of Hafez usually appears on the table as well as a copy of the Qoran if the family is Muslim, the Avesta if the family is Zoroastrian or the Old Testament if the framily is Jewish.

These stay in place for 13 days, while friends and family visit back and forth, give gifts of money to children and employees, feast, and celebrate. On the 13th day, each family takes its sabzeh, goes out to the countryside for a picnic, and throws the sprouted greens into a stream of running water. This assures good luck for the rest of the year.

You would think the sprouting of lentils and wheat would not be such a complicated matter, but the first time I tried to grow sabzeh was soon after I had arrived in the United States as a brand new bride. It seemed important to maintain some spiritual connection to my homeland, and the most obvious means, when spring rolled around, was to plant sabzeh--the decorative symbol of rebirth, of nature's reawakening--and to set up a haft seen table.

But my meticulous attention to the lentils I had spread in a platter and carefully covered with a wet cloth were all for naught. I kept it in a dark place as I had been instructed, kept sprinkling the cloth with water, making sure it did not dry out, kept peeking under the cloth hoping to see green blades germinating out of round and pregnant pulses--all to no avail.

I peeked and saw no life. I peeked again and saw life--in the form of white mold, happily growing over and around the lentils and wheat berries, until they were practically covered. Too wet. I tried letting the cloth dry out. Too dry. There was no way they were going to germinate without moisture. Besides, they were practically rotted by now. Before long they were emitting a foul odor.

When Naneh grew sabzeh for us years ago it did not seem so very complicated. She did what I had just done (or so I thought), and a beautiful, lush, verdant display lifted its proud head just in time to greet the first hyacinth my mother would purchase to grace our Now Ruz table.

What was I doing wrong? My sense of defeat was magnified out of all proportion because I was new to this country, new to marriage, new to the duties of running a household, and new to the seemingly unfathomable secrets of planting sabzeh.

I wish I could say that my second and third attempts were more successful. They were not. And defeat led me to abandon the effort. I went to the grocery store and bought several boxes of alfalfa sprouts and clumped them together on a platter. There was no Iranian community in our town anyway, no one to share Now Ruz with, and not much motivation to keep on trying.

It was only recently that my interest in trying my hand at sabzeh was renewed. My now-grown children are starting to display some interest in their cultural heritage, especially now that they have little children. We have a larger Iranian community here now, more of a sense of celebration in the air at Now Ruz.

So I set out to try again. I consulted several Iranian friends who I thought could tell me what I had been doing wrong, but each reluctantly admitted that she had not had much success either. I was beginning to despair when I thought to call a friend in a nearby city whose brilliantly green platters of sabzeh I had admired in the past--and hit gold. It is really very simple. Here follows a foolproof method that I guarantee will succeed, thanks to my friend, Mahnaz.

Foolproof instructions for growing sabzeh:

About 2 weeks before Now Ruz, soak 2 cups wheat berries and 2 cups lentils in a bowl of water for 24 hours. Drain separately in colanders and pour off the water.

Line each of 2 bowls with a wet tea towel or cheesecloth. Pour the lentils in one and the wheat berries in the other lined bowl. Lap the edges of the towels or cloth over so that the lentils and wheat berries are wrapped in the wet cloths. (See first photo.)

Set the bowls aside and allow to stand for 24 hours, keeping the cloth moist. Unwrap the berries and lentils and spread each separately in a platter. Cover with paper towel or light cheesecloth. Sprinkle with water until wet.

Place the platters on a windowsill and intermittently keep sprinkling with water so that the paper towels or cheesecloth will not dry out. After a few days (depending on the light exposure, the amount of heat in the room, the amount of sun), you will see a protrusion of growth pushing the paper towel upward off the platters Continue to be patient for a couple more days.

When the paper towel has been lifted about 1/4-inch off the lentils or wheat berries, remove. You should by now have a healthy stand of low-growing green blades (straight and upright from the wheat berries, more feathery from the lentils). See second photo.

Continue to water lightly. Allow a few more days until they have achieved an appropriate height and set on the haft seen table, or any other decorative spot in the house. By Now Ruz you will have a beautiful display of green sprouts. See third photo and eid-e shoma mobarak.

Nesta Ramazani is a free-lance writer who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of "The Dance of the Rose and the Nightingale." An updated edition of hier popular "Persian Cooking" will be published soon.
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Title Annotation:Now Ruz celebrations
Author:Ramazani, Nesta
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Feb 28, 2014
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