Mahfam Moeeni-Alacron is the co-owner of Mingle + Graze, a quaint restaurant and cheese shop in downtown Chandler. In addition to running the restaurant, she’s been busy preparing for the Persian New Year.
Mahfam left pharmacy school to follow her love of cooking, attended Arizona Culinary Institute and worked for 15 years in kitchens around the Valley before finally opening her own restaurant in 2019 with her husband Cristobal Alacron. The couple share their heritages by incorporating nods to their Persian and Chilean backgrounds in dishes like the el Chileno sandwich made with in house roast beef, tomatoes, green beans, pepper relish and aji aioli on ciabatta, and the jeweled chicken wrap featuring chicken salad made with barberries, pistachios, mixed greens, tomatoes and pomegranate vin plus Mahfam’s barberry jam.
But Mahfam wasn’t always open to sharing her heritage. Recently, she sent me a Disney cartoon depicting Mickey Mouse talking about Nowruz. She wrote: “Imagine having this when we were little.”
Growing up in Arkansas, she was shy about Iranian culture. And she’s grateful that her mother continued to share their Persian traditions anyways.
“The Iranian culture was really ingrained in us and I really value it and do my best to instill it in the kids,” Mahfam said, adding that this is why it’s so important to her that she and her family celebrate Nowruz every year.
What is Nowruz?
Nowruz, which falls on the spring equinox to the minute, is a 13-day celebration of the Persian New Year. This year it begins on Monday, March 20 at 2:25 p.m.
Nowruz literally means new day. It’s the first day of spring, a new beginning. Iranians start the preparations for the new year weeks in advance with a thorough spring cleaning, setting up sofreh haft seen — a table set with seven items that start with the letter “s” — and buying a new item of clothing to put on at the moment the year changes. Even a pair of socks will suffice, especially when the moment falls in the middle of the night or a time of day that’s not convenient for a wardrobe change.
She remembers helping her mom clean the house and always having a new dress. “We couldn’t be in a bad mood, because whatever you do in the moment the year changes, sets the mood for the rest of your year.”
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The items on sofreh haft seen typically include: seeb or apple, which symbolizes beauty; sabzi, wheat or lentil sprouts, often grown at home, represent connection to mother nature and rebirth; sir or garlic, which keeps away bad omens and ushers in good health; sumac for sunrise to evoke new beginnings; samanoo, a wheat germ pudding that symbolizes abundance; serkeh or vinegar that represents patience; and senjed or oleaster tree fruit that symbolizes love and wisdom. The tablescape also includes a mirror meant to bring clarity, a goldfish, representing life, painted eggs for fertility and candles to bring light. Some people also add other “s” items like sonbol or hyacinth flowers for happiness and sekkeh coins for wealth.
“My mom always had a haft seen and baked her own sweets,” Mahfam said. “Even when we were in Arkansas with no Middle Eastern stores, we would drive to Memphis so mom could get all of her haft seen and baking ingredients. She sets a sofreh to this day.”
A typical Persian New year in the Moeeni-Alacron home
The Alacrons usually celebrate Nowruz at Mahfam’s parents’ house where her mom still does all the baking and they share a meal of traditional dishes like sabzi polo mahi, an herb-flecked rice with fish.
This year, she plans to have her children — ages 6 and 12 — help their grandmother set up the sofreh.
“These are traditions I want my kids to grow up with. They were really impressed with the Mickey Mouse video. They felt included.”
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At the moment the year changes, the family will gather around the haft seen, which at their house includes photos of family members who are not present. When the year changes, there will be hugs and the kids will be given eidee or presents, which is traditionally money. They will eat shirini, Persian treats like walnut cookies to start the year on a sweet note.
In Iran, people spend the first days of the new year visiting family members, starting with the oldest, until day 12. In America, most often there are no extended family visits, but immediate family members may travel for short visits.
On the thirteenth day, the family will go for a nature walk and Mahfam’s mother will bring the sabzeh from the sofreh, which will have absorbed any negative energy from the house. She will throw the plant into running water, like a river. “I tell her, ‘I don’t think you are allowed to dump it,’ but she does it anyway,” Mahfam said.
‘It’s really about new beginnings and what our hopes are for the future’
On March 25 and 26, Mahfam’s pop-up supper series will feature Iranian dishes traditionally served during Nowruz, like herbed rice with fish.
Some Iranian Americans are skipping New Year celebrations this year as an act of solidarity with the protestors in Iran. But Mahfam, feels it is important to continue celebrating traditions and cultural heritage that existed long before modern politics.
“That’s our identity. Nowruz has been through so many wars and hardships. I feel like it’s important to hold on to the traditions because it’s your base of normalcy. What I love about Nowruz is that it’s independent of religion and very inclusive. It’s really about new beginnings and what our hopes are for the future, including the people of Iran.”
Most of her family still lives in Iran. “And they are making the best with what they have. I believe that’s true of life in general. We all have hardships and you make the best with what you have and move forward.”
Prepare for Nowruz with a visit to Mingle + Graze
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday from 11a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed on Sunday and Monday.
Details: 48 S. San Marcos Place, Suite A, Chandler. 480-726-2264, mingleandgraze.com.
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Reach the reporter at [email protected]. Follow @banooshahr on Twitter.
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