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Despite the crisp 45-degree weather, a crowd of people line up next to a series of bonfires in Littleton’s Clement Park. From children to elders, to mothers holding small children, the group laughs and cheers as loved ones take turns leaping over the flames one by one while music and the smell of delicious food fills the air. It’s Chaharshanbe Suri, an Iranian festival celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar—which fell on Tuesday, March 15, this year.
“The fire symbolizes renewal,” says Sarah Shirazi, an Iranian-American woman who was present at Tuesday’s festivities. “It burns away any negativity from the past year and cleanses us as we enter the new year.”
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Shirazi—a Colorado native who works as community development director for KGNU Community Radio—has rung in the Persian new year with her family for as long as she can remember. The occasion, known also as Nowruz, is traditionally celebrated on the March equinox, marking the first day of the Iranian new year and the arrival of spring. Although the first day of the new year is this Sunday, Shirazi says many celebrants will begin preparing for the event weeks in advance, putting together a table of symbolic goods called a haft-seen. The word “haft” means seven, and the word “seen” means the letter S in Farsi, the modern Persian dialect. Every item placed on the table starts with the letter S in the language, and each item represents a wish for the new year.
“Garlic symbolizes medicine and protection; samanu is a sweet pudding which we place on the table for wealth; vinegar symbolizes patience and wisdom; and sumac represents the color of the sunrise,” Shirazi explains. “We also include other things like a mirror, for reflection, and colored eggs for fertility. Some people even like to include goldfish or beta fish on the table. It’s almost like putting together a Christmas tree.”
On the first day of the new year, Persians traditionally visit with family or have a party, where they feast on zabzi polo mahi (an herbed rice dish that’s often served with fish). On the last day of Nowruz, Shirazi and her family will gather at a local park to picnic and honor the coming of spring. In the weeks leading up to Nowruz, Shirazi and her family grow sabzeh, a type of sprout, which is then placed on the haft-seen table. The sabzeh is placed in a river to float away on the last day of the year, representing renewal. Family members will also gather with extended family and elders to celebrate the outdoors together.
“I just wish more people knew about Nowruz,” Shirazi says. “It’s such a fun holiday with so many beautiful traditions, and there’s a huge Persian community here in Colorado. I feel lucky to be a part of it.”
Since Nowruz is this Sunday, we asked Shirazi to share her favorite Persian restaurants around the Denver area—so we can all ring in the new year this weekend.
Surena Persian Cuisine
Tucked away into an unassuming strip mall off of I-25 and Arapahoe Road lies Surena, a family-owned eatery whipping up classic Persian dishes in an upscale setting. As one of Shirazi’s favorite local spots, she recommends trying the koobideh kabob, a skewer of tender ground beef seasoned with fragrant spices and served with charred tomatoes, jalapeños, and basmati rice. Pair it with a Persian Alligator, a delightful concoction of Midori, Malibu, pineapple juice, and Chambord—perhaps the perfect boozy beverage to ring in the new year. 9625 E. Arapahoe Rd., Suite P, Centennial
For those who reside north of Denver, Babajoon’s is the spot to visit for healthy, flame-grilled meats. The dishes consist of antibiotic and hormone-free meats like the chicken and beef combo kabob—a mix of the eatery’s two most popular protein choices. The meal comes with a liberal helping of saffron rice and grilled veggies, which you’re supposed to squish into your rice for optimal flavor. As Nowruz marks warmer weather, pair your entrée with faloodeh—a refreshing frozen slush made from wheat noodles and rose water. Plus, most of the menu is both dairy-free and gluten-free. 1005 W. 120th Ave., Westminster
Shirazi’s go-to choice for fast-casual fare is Shondiz. While Shondiz used to have a now-closed food cart on 16th Street Mall to feed hungry downtown lunch-goers, the Denver Tech Center brick-and-mortar location serves up the same favorites Denverites were missing. She recommends trying a stew, such as the Persian barley soup, a hearty and creamy vegan dish made with barley, mixed beans, and fresh herbs. Pair your cup of warmth with a side dish of walnut-marinated olives and finish it all off with zaban, a dangerously sweet Persian puff pastry drizzled with syrup and topped with coconut shreddings. 8000 E. Quincy Ave., Unit 1000
Owners Hassan and Afsar Soleimani brought healthy Persian grub to Aurora in 2005 with Darya Restaurant, and the spot has been a favorite among locals ever since. Start off with the mirza ghasemi, an authentic Persian appetizer featuring baked eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, and eggs all served next to warm bread. Next, dive into the baghali polo and mahicheh, a filling entrée of tender lamb, vegetables, basmati rice, and lima beans. Wash it all down with a steamy cup of Persian tea, and don’t forget to take some baklava to go. 10890 E. Dartmouth Ave., Aurora
Shish Kabob Grill
Just steps away from the State Capitol, Shish Kabob Grill has served delightful Middle Eastern fare in the heart of the city for nearly two decades. While the owners hail from Aleppo, Syria, Shirazi notes that many of the dishes feature a strong Persian influence, making it one of her must-visit favorites while visiting downtown. Order the grilled salmon plate, a specialty featuring a filet of juicy salmon glazed with delicious Middle Eastern spices and garnished with sumac and parsley, all paired with rice, hummus, and a fresh garden salad. 1503 Grant St.
Arash International Market
If you want to try making your own Persian feast this weekend, visit Arash International Market, an Aurora supermarket stocked with Persian ingredients. Shirazi’s favorite comforting meal to make herself is kuku sabzi, a baked herb and leek frittata made with fresh herbs and spices like parsley, dill, turmeric, fenugreek, and cilantro. Stop by Arash to grab all of the ingredients you’ll need—including the freshest, largest bundle of herbs at the best prices in town. 2720 S. Parker Rd., Aurora