I like Ashkenazi Passover seders, but I love Persian ones
I was in third grade when I experienced my first Hebrew School seder. Of course I had seders every year with my Iranian Jewish family, yet everything about this seder felt so weird to me.
Waxy paper cups held what they called haroset— dry chunks of chopped apples and walnuts doused with cinnamon. Haroset is supposed to resemble the mortar with which Israelite slaves laid bricks in ancient Egypt, but this was more like gravel. And for dessert, we simply got stale coconut macaroons from a cardboard canister.
The differences didn’t end there.
The seders in my family are loud, raucous affairs. My parents string together every table in the house into one long one, and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins crowd around it. We start the proceedings by passing the matzah platter from person to person as we take turns chanting the order of the seder in a Judeo-Persian accent and melody.
My dad reads through the seder in a mix of Persian and Hebrew, stopping often to shush the kids giggling at the far end or the aunties gossiping straight across the table. We occasionally share stories about our own exodus – my family fled Iran when it exploded into revolution in the late 1970s and made a new home here in the States, carrying our traditions on our backs like hastily made flatbread.
At our seders, we dip celery leaves in vinegar instead of parsley in salt water, and our bitter herb is a bitter lettuce, like chicory or romaine. And our haroset is a thing of beauty.
Every year, my dad consults with his copy of his own late father’s handwritten recipe, which he’d faxed to each of his kids decades ago. It’s a kitchen-sink mix of several dried and fresh fruits, including raisins, dates, and even bananas, wine, vinegar, pomegranate and other fruit juices, and a blend of warm spices that include cinnamon and fragrant cardamom.
Once he and my mom gather all the ingredients, he runs them all through a hand-crank meat grinder they keep on hand expressly for this occasion. The resulting blend, known in Persian as halegh after an Iraqi date paste, is so delicious that we all take home jars of it to eat with matzah throughout the week.
No matzoh ball, brisket, or gefilte fish ever graces our table, but Iranian Jews do eat rice during Passover – would we even survive without rice? – and our Passover dinner itself is a veritable feast.
Steaming mountains of basmati rice, multiple crispy tahdigs and stewy khoreshts – maybe a tangy green one made from herbs and celery, or a tomato-based one with okra or split peas – vie for space alongside platters of roast chicken and plates of sabzi khordan, the ubiquitous Iranian “finger salad” of delicate herbs like basil, tarragon, and mint and crunchy radishes and scallions.
Scallions may play the biggest role in Iranian seders. The part of the seder that’s most astounding to uninitiated guests is the singing of “Dayenu.” As we sing this song, each person gets a scallion, and we proceed to run around the table whipping each other with them. Mischievous boys whip their grandmas on the wrist, mothers-in-law whip their daughters’ new grooms, and a joyful, chaotic scene unfolds. It may seem strange to outsiders, but honestly it’s the best part.
Of course, once we get through dinner, it’s all about the sweets, and while I’m not above the allure of dense matzah marble cake from a box or those old macaroons, I’m partial to the wide variety of Persian Passover sweets.
Meant to be eaten alongside a glass of strong tea, they are all bite-sized, very sweet, and fragrant with some combination of the classic flavorings of saffron, cardamom, and rose water.
You might find loz’e beh – membrillo-like squares made from pureed quince preserves, or tut – adorable marzipan mulberries flavored with a touch of rose water. Loz’e nargil are coconut diamonds also scented with rosewater. But my favorite is badam sookhte, toasted almonds coated in a cardamom or saffron scented dark caramel. They are my favorite snack throughout Passover.
There’s no denying the differences between Persian and Ashkenazi Passover seders, and while I savor the taste of a good brisket – a rare treat for me – our raucous, spice-drenched feasts will always feel like home to me. Regardless of background, though, there’s one thing we can all agree on: how great it will feel to once again celebrate Passover in the same room, together.
For my Persian marzipan mulberry recipe, click here.
Tannaz Sassooni is an Iranian Jewish food writer living in Los Angeles. You can join in and make Persian Passover cookies with her in a Community Kitchen Live Zoom on March 21 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT. Click here to register.