Novruz Bayraminiz Mubarek! Happy New Year! While Azerbaijan is on the official Western calendar, the ancient tradition places the first day of the year on spring equinox, and the two-day celebration begins today. Perhaps an Azeri equivalent of Thanksgiving, Novruz Bayram (Or “New Year Holiday”) is the a feast marked by the gatherings of friends and family, labor-intensive preparation of the multitude of the traditional dishes, and the dying of eggs. Both March 20th and March 21st are declared a holiday (and a day off) back home.
The celebration is closely tied to fire (this is The Land of Fire, after all), where for four weeks leading up to Novruz, in many courtyards and even right on the street the youth would be burning weekly bonfires to jump over. Novruz is also accompanied by the Azeri version of trick-or-treat, where kids would place hats on doorsteps, knock on the door, and hide, expecting the inhabitants to fill their hats with candy, nuts, and pastries. I think I’ve shared this with you before.
A flood of memories comes over me when I think back to this special holiday. My family was Jewish, which means that matzo purchased from the local synagogue made its regular appearance on Passover, but for Novruz Bayram we were usually invited over to our friends’ house. The family, consisting of an elderly mother and an unmarried middle-aged daughter, who were also joined by the two married daughters and their families, put on the unbelievable feast of sweet and savory pilafs and the traditional pastries, which they also sent home with us. Other friends and neighbors too often brought over their pastries, which was a very special treat for me, since the only thing my mom ever baked was the mandatory zebra cake for my birthday. To this day I remember my only long-term Azerbaijani boyfriend, K., telling me that his family baked so many of them, that for as long as the pastries lasted, he didn’t feel any hunger, always filling up on this delectable butter-and-sugar-heavy concoctions between meals. (K. will surely appear on this blog more and more, as I delve further into the memories of the time and place I left behind. For the record, he gave his official consent to being depicted here with a laconic “It’s OK”). The three things that I especially associate with the holiday are shekerbura, baklava (or paxlava, as I remember it), and my favorite salty and savory shorgogal.
I remember one year around Novruz Bayram, when I was maybe in third or fourth grade and back when we still bought some things with rationing coupons, we were given the so-called “holiday” coupons which entitled the holder (or was it one per family?) to 1 can of condensed and 1 can of evaporated milk, a box of the superior “Indian” black tea (as opposed to the somewhat inferior locally grown and processed variety), and extra sugar for people to bake with.
Myself, I’ve never made either shekerbura or shorgogal, but I have made baklava once (and I don’t mean the traditional Western baklava made with phyllo – though I made one of those too, using maple syrup instead of the honey syrup). I thought it came out pretty decent, but my husband found the flavor of cardamom that prominently figured in the recipe overwhelming. I never attempted it again, but I think I should.