I was fortunate to grow up in a military family and lived overseas in Asia and Europe, but even though my kids are growing up in the middle of America with little probability of living in other countries, I’d still like for them to be exposed to other cultures and be aware of how other people live and do things. Understanding where other people are coming from helps us be more tenderhearted toward others (one of my goals for my kids is that they be tenderhearted) and has a host of educational benefits, from history to geography to international relations.
For our pre-preschool level, with kids barely 4, almost 3 and 15 months of age, I think the important thing is just to establish the name of the country and a few good facts, along with some stories. A holiday from another country or culture is the perfect occasion to teach a few things and enjoy sampling a different type of food as well!
A friend of mind mentioned that Saturday the 20th was the Persian New Year, so I quickly assembled a few things to have a Nowruz of our own. I didn’t have all the needed ingredients so I substituted many things, but again I think the point for preschoolers is just to get the initial exposure. If I had older children who had really read up and studied Iran, I would have been more careful with the details.
The Persian New Year, or Nowruz, is a celebration of the first day of spring. Although some Zoroastrians celebrate it as a religious holiday, in Iran it’s a secular celebration. There are a lot of attendant traditions you can read up on if you’re interested, but we chose to focus on the haftseen table (pictured at right and top) with it’s seven items that start with S (in Persian, not in English) and represent spring and new life. Any real Persians reading this should be forewarned that I messed up on these big time, but here is what’s supposed to be represented and what I used instead:
- wheat sprouts for rebirth (I used some of our tomato plants)
- sweet wheat germ pudding for affluence (I did not have any pudding, so I skipped it, so much for affluence!)
- dried fruit of the oleaster tree for love (I used raisins)
- garlic for medicine
- apples for beauty and health
- sumac berries for sunrise (I used strawberries)
- vinegar for age and patience (I used balsamic vinegar, not sure what kind is appropriate!)
The haftseen table is also supposed to have goldfish. Since we have a bad record of killing fish (perhaps they die of shame since we name them all “Little Bob Dog”) I did not go out and buy a goldfish. Instead I put goldfish crackers in little babyfood jars so we could pretend they were in fishbowls and eat them later. Other items you’re supposed to include are lit candles, a mirror, colored eggs and a couple of other things I didn’t have on hand.
In any case, the kids seemed interested in the table and we talked about how people from Iran celebrate the new year on the first day of spring. Then I let the kids eat the fruit and raisins and eggs and goldfish for their snack while I read them a Persian folk tale I found online, The Magic Horse.
For dinner we had Khoresh Fesenjan and Polow and cucumber yogurt salad. I wanted to have doogh, which is a carbonated yogurt drink, but I couldn’t think of how to make that myself so we didn’t have it. I also wanted rosewater ice cream for dessert, but I had no rose water and no ice cream. Maybe next year.
Here is our Khoresh Fesenjan with the polow in the background. I expected the Khoresh Fesenjan to thicken up more, but it didn’t. That might be because I used pomegranate cherry juice instead of pure pomegranate juice. It’s just that pomegranate juice cost $5 more than the mixture, so I skimped. I figured the kids wouldn’t know the difference, and we all liked it. Also I didn’t have basmati rice so I used brown rice for the polow and it didn’t make the crispy top – Josh noted that it tasted different than the last time I made it, but the last time I had basmati rice. Oh well.
Cucumber salad is really easy to make. I’m not sure it’s technically Persian, but it goes well with Persian flavors. I just cut up a cucumber and stir it up with some salt and a little bit of plain yogurt or kefir. It’s very tasty and a nice light side dish. Now I’m thinking perhaps I should grow cucumbers in my garden this year so we can eat cucumber salad more often. Then again, the last time I planted cucumbers I only got one or two. I do not have a green thumb by any stretch of the imagination.
We enjoyed our Persian dinner. Sarah has been boycotting solid food all week, but she tucked in to the Khoresh Fesenjan like it was going out of style. Jack liked the dinner so much that when he was saying his prayers before bed, he said, “Deah Havvahly Faddah, tank you fo’ Pudge-in food.” (translation: Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for Persian food)
I’d like to do more things like this next year, and I want to be more deliberate about putting them on the calendar so I can find books and really prepare. What holidays or celebrations can you think of that highlight a particular country or culture? Have you celebrated any holidays that weren’t from your own tradition? Do you have any recommendations for books of folk tales from other countries suitable for young children?