Context & Culture

Taste the Samanak! Wishing you a Happy New Year with ancient culinary treats


The celebration of Nawruz, the New Year, on the 21st of March by the peoples of the region between Anatolia and Central Asia dates back some thousands of years. This year it is Afghanistan’s turn to host the Nawruz International Festival, which sees the presidents of several countries of the region gather for a joint celebration in Kabul. The AAN team takes this chance to wish everybody a peaceful and happy Nawruz – notwithstanding the tragic attack that took place at the Serena Hotel on Thursday night – by sharing, under the kind guidance of our cook some recipes typical of this festivity.

With its roots well buried in the mythological past of the land once known as Ariana (most traditions link its origin to king Jamshid, also a major character in Ferdawsi’s Shahnameh),(1) Nawruz is possibly one of the oldest festivals celebrated worldwide. Peoples of different languages and even from different religions (although overwhelmingly Muslim) observe it in different countries. This guarantees a certain variety of ceremonies take place with a common background linked to the coming of spring and coinciding with the northward equinox usually falling on the 21st of March.

In Afghanistan, Nawruz is probably most famous for the celebrations held in Mazar-e Sharif, Jahenda Bala (Raising of the Banner) and Mela-ye Gul Surkh (Red Flower Feast), attended by thousands of people from all over Afghanistan. But the festival is marked in one way or another in many parts of the country. Of course, many details must have changed over the thousand-year life of this celebration; however, basic yet highly symbolic aspects of Nawruz – like the special food prepared in this occasion – have probably largely remained the same.

One of the traditions of the Nawruz celebration in Afghanistan is the preparation of seven types of fruits, “Haft Mewa” in Dari. Before Nawruz, Afghans buy seven types of dried fruits, clean them, mix them and put them in a big pot or dish filled with water. The fruits are black and red raisins, senjed (the fruit of the oleaster), two kinds of dried apricot (in Dari, keshta and gholeng), almonds, walnuts and pistachios. After one or two days of soaking, the water in the pot becomes very sweet and tasty, a veritable syrup, and is ready to be served. It is shared by family members and also offered to relatives and friends visiting each other on the day of Nawruz. This sweet dish is typical of Afghanistan, and the number seven bears some resemblance with the custom of Haft Sin (the Seven ‘S’), a table featuring seven items starting with that letter which is the symbol of Nawruz in Iran (Haft Sin is a much rarer occurrence in Afghan homes).(2)

Another common Nawruz custom among Afghans is that on the last night of the old year people cook sabzi chalaw (white rice with mixed green vegetables, that is, two-thirds spinach and one-third gandana, Chinese chives). Cooking meatballs and other types of food is of course an additional option, but eating green food for Nawruz is believed to bring happiness and blessings for the family in the coming year.(3)

Probably the most interesting food tradition associated with Nawruz is the preparation of samanak, a kind of sweet meal that is cooked once a year, during spring days before the weather gets hot. It entails a very special ceremony and lots of effort: ten to fifteen days are required to prepare it. First, families buy some top-quality wheat (the amount depending on the size of the family) and clean it well. Then they soak it in water for a few days until it gradually germinates and white roots become visible. The wheat is taken out of the water, laid on a tray and then covered with a white, clean piece of cloth. The tray is placed in a room with normal temperature where nobody has access or can see it. One person of the family takes the responsibility of giving it water daily, and that person should be always clean and in a state of ritual purity (that is, has done his or her ablutions) when touching it. It is believed that if an unclean hand touches it or if it is accessible to anyone else, it will be mildewed or spoiled. In ten-to-fifteen days, the wheat grows sufficiently to produce thick white roots and above them green blades. Then all the women and girls of the household (sometimes men or boys join), and often some neighbours, gather around the tray with the wheat. Everyone makes a wish in their hearts and starts to cut the green blades with the scissors. If the number of blades he or she cuts is odd, it is believed that person’s wish will come true during that year.

The wheat sprouts are cut until only the roots remain. Then the roots are further cut in seven pieces and these passed one by one through a mincer three times until they release all their water and totally dry up. Once again, the remnants of the wheat roots are soaked in water and pressed in the machine so that all of their “sweet water” comes out. The roots, now dry, are set apart, but not thrown away with ‘ordinary’ litter. The water produced by the roots is in turn put in a very big pot (in Dari, pots are listed according to their capacity as yaksira, dosira, etc. Sir is a measurement unit, usually of about seven kilograms).

Then flour, depending on the amount of sweet water, is added to the pot and mixed well. A fireplace is prepared and the pot put on a fire of wood, its contents stirred continuously with a long spoon. Samanak takes a long time to cook, usually a whole day or night. In the past, the night time was preferred so that the all-family task of stirring the samanak could be accompanied by singing and dancing throughout. A special song in Dari is sung among the women while cooking samanak. One version of it goes:

Samanak dar jush ma kapcha zanem

digaran dar khob ma dabcha zanem

samanak nazr-e bahar ast

samanak sal-e yak bar ast

dokhtarha gerdesh khatar ast

sal-e digar ya nassib

(Samanak is boiling and we stir it with spoons

the others are sleeping, we make our ladles resound

samanak is the offering of spring

samanak comes once a year

the girls are sitting around it

One more year of good luck!)

During the baking of samanak, everyone takes part in stirring and mixing until it is ready. Sometimes the dish can become so thick that people use a long wooden stick instead of a spoon to stir. While cooking, they add whole walnuts to give it a brown hue. When the colour is achieved and the samanak cooked to the consistency of a pudding, they take it off the fire and put pieces of wood coal on the pot’s lid for one or two hours. After this, the samanak is finally ready, and it is distributed among all who participated in preparing it as well as to visiting neighbours, relatives and friends. Go get your bowls ready!

 

(1) The name of this mythical monarch is a probable corruption of Yima, a king mentioned in the Avesta who saved mankind from an everlasting winter, a story with many points in common with that of Noah’s Ark. Similar mythological motives from the ancient religions of Persia, woven together with Sassanid chronicles and legends from neighbouring areas like Sistan and Parthia, constituted the material for Ferdawsi’s Shahnameh, the eponymous masterpiece of epic poetry in the Persian language and an all-important book for many Afghans, Iranians and Tajiks to the present day.

(2) Haft Sin can vary locally, but are most celebrations consistently include the following: Sabzeh (cereals sprouts, symbolising rebirth), Samanu (pudding made of germinated wheat, symbolising affluence), Senjed (oleaster fruit, which stands for love), Sir (garlic, for medicine), Sib (apple, for beauty and health) Serkeh (vinegar, for longevity) and Somaq (somaq berries, symbolising sunrise because of their colour). Decorated boiled eggs, a goldfish in a bowl, rosewater, coins, candles and a mirror can be added to the table, all with some symbolic and auspicious meaning.

(3) The association of the colour green with spring and rebirth is obvious. For Nawruz, people go on outings to parks or green spots in the countryside and picnic and walk there since it is believed that walking on the new green grass will bring them happiness in the year.

Thematic Category: Context & Culture