Sitting around a table filled with plenty of Yalda night must eat food, fruit, and drinks, I hear my dad’s voice reading Hafez poetry aloud. The words are so mystical and deep. I lean over and pour some pomegranate arils in a small bowl, sprinkle some salt and grand Angelica powder over them and put a spoonful in my mouth. The arils are so juicy, yet very crunchy as I bite into the seeds. I have always loved the sweet and sour taste of pomegranate arils in winter in Iran. Pomegranate reminisces Yalda night for me.
Persians, for centuries, have been celebrating Yalda night in Iran on the 21st of December. This night is directly associated with eating lots of delicious food. It is tradition to gather with family and friends, and to munch on lots of festive fruits and sweets, while reading Hafez poems and sipping on Persian tea.
Furthermore, some families have specific rituals of eating certain type of local Persian cuisine on this night. Lets look into what Yalda means to Persians and the top 7 must eat food on Yalda night.
What is Yalda?
Yalda night marks the winter solstice and it is the longest night of the year. Yalda means birth and it refers to the birth of Mithra. Mithra is the god of light and symbol of goodness in the ancient Zoroastrianism. Therefore Yalda night essentially celebrates the re-birth of sun and light. It symbolically refers to the end of darkness on the longest night of the year as the sun beats the dark and wins it over. As a result, Iranians believe that it is good luck to stay indoors on this night. They encourage spending time with loved ones as to steer away from the darkness of evil on Yalda night.
7 Yalda night must eat food and fruit
Traditionally, on Yalda night, Persians arrange a spread with festive fruits such as pomegranate, watermelon, persimmon, medlar, dried fruits, and nuts. Additionally, sweets such as Persian Baklava or Baslogh are very common items on Yalda night must-eat spread. No Persian gathering is complete without drinking plenty of Persian tea.
One will not celebrate Yalda night without eating Pomegranates. Pomegranate is native to southwestern Asia, around the Caspian Sea, North of Iran. Moreover, Pomegranate symbolizes the cycle of life. On Yalda, eating a bowl of shiny ruby pomegranate arils is inevitable. In some households, Persians choose to sprinkle a bit of Ground Angelica over the pomegranate arils upon serving. Ground Angelica is believed to balance the cold nature of pomegranate which could prevent bloating and discomfort in the stomach.
Persians’ longstanding love affair with sweet and ripened persimmon fruit becomes vividly evident on Yalda night. Shiny orange coloured persimmons are must-eat fruit on Yalda night. Some choose to cut the fruit in quarters and enjoy the sweet flesh with skin on. On the other hand, some tend to eat the flesh and get rid of the skin. Either way, this fruit satisfies sugar cravings throughout winter in Iran.
Watermelon is another must eat red fruit on Yalda night. Watermelon symbolises health and wellbeing. Persians choose to eat watermelon on this night in order to immunise their bodies against the cold of winter ahead.
This ugly looking fruit is native to Iran, Soutwestern Asia and Southeastern Europe. Medlar (Azgil in Persian) is eaten when completely ripened and bletted, which is a similar process to rotting. The skin becomes quite wrinkly and the flesh loses its acidity. Moreover, the brown looking flesh becomes soft and sweet. Many associate the taste of this ripened medieval fruit to apple butter with hints of cinnamon and vanilla. In Iran, Persians eat this ancient fruit on Yalda night, and during late autumn and winter when it is in season.
#5 Yalda night dried Fruits & Nuts (Yalda Ajeel)
One must eat a handful of dried fruits, seeds and nuts (collectively known as Ajeel in Persian) on Yalda night. Persians believe that Ajeel symbolises prosperity and wealth. That being so, a handful of Ajeel is considered as an offering in resolution of problems amongst Iranians.
#6 Yalda night sweets
Last but not least, you can find all sorts of sweets in an Iranian household. Persians tend to have the biggest sweet tooth, hence the variety of sweets on the market around the country. Often, Iranians serve a special type of sweets on traditional occasions. Baslogh is a common yalda sweet, which is a soft starch-based candy infused with rosewater, ground cardamom, and saffron. Pistachios, silvered almonds, dried rose petals, and nuts are often spread on top for visual appeal and extra deliciousness.
#7 Stuffed grapevine leaves (Dolmeh) – Yalda dinner at my family
Being raised by an Azeri Mother, stuffed grape vine leaves (Dolmeh) has been a favourite dish since childhood in my family. We have traditionally had Dolmeh as a must-eat food on Yalda night for dinner at my house. It is not only a very light dinner option after having binged on all that flavoursome fruit and nuts but very hearty and satisfying.
Photos by Melika Shahid and Shirin Tahanan