Persian Mämmi / by Vahid Mortezaei

Finns are quite insecure with their mämmi. After the British celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, made his typical, harsh, comment on this Finnish Easter dish, the confidence disappeared. The very first time that a friend of mine wanted to introduce mämmi to me I could sense the hesitation in her words: “this is something that we have for Easter, it’s a matter of love or hate”… I had a spoonful of it and found its taste, texture and look very familiar. 

 [Finnish Mämmi]

[Finnish Mämmi]

In Iranian cuisine we have something very similar to mämmi, called sämänu. We cook it only once a year for Nowruz celebration, which is the beginning of the Persian new year. Nowruz literally means new day and it starts on the 21st of March. Such a coincidence! Iranians and Finns cook a very similar dish once a year around a very similar date -and the two countries are geographically 4000 km and culturally a light-year away from each other!

And this is not all. 

My first Easter in Helsinki had another surprise. I noticed that all the shops were selling decorative grass, rairuoho. I didn’t know at all that this was another Easter tradition. The Iranians always grow grass for Nowruz. They call it säbzeh, which means green. Säbzeh is a symbolic element of Nowruz. A week before new year the whole market in Iran gets full of grass. In the first Easter in Finland I was really homesick. But the grass everywhere in Helsinki gave me the illusion that maybe Finns were celebrating Nowruz!

 [Photo by Mohammadreza Alimadadi, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA)]

[Photo by Mohammadreza Alimadadi, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA)]

In Iran we also paint eggs for new year. Well, I already knew that this is part of the Easter celebration, but imagine me seeing those painted eggs next to the grass everywhere in Helsinki. The Iranians have another very important tradition for Nowruz. We make an arrangement of symbolic items on a table and call it Haft Sin, which means seven Ss. There are seven fixed items among them, whose Persian names start with an S. The other items are not fixed and don’t necessarily start with an S. The arrangement is a must. The families gather around the table and wait for the exact second when the year changes. The exact moment is calculated every year by astrologists. 

 [Nowruz egg painting festival, Tehran, Iran. Photo by Amirhousein Bandi, IRNA]

[Nowruz egg painting festival, Tehran, Iran. Photo by Amirhousein Bandi, IRNA]

But guess what are those seven elements in our Haft Sin! Säbzeh (generally wheatgrass), sämänu (mämmi), sonbol (the hyacinth, which appears in Christmas time here!), somac (a spice), sir (garlic), sib (apple) and serkeh (vinegar). The painted eggs have a crucial place on the table even though they are not from S-group!

 [Haft Sin by Hozan Zangana,  www.hozanzangana.com ]

[Haft Sin by Hozan Zangana, www.hozanzangana.com]

Nowruz is an ancient celebration in Iran, which goes back to the Pre-Islamic Era. Therefore, these symbols don’t have anything to do with our Islamic heritage. Maybe they -like some Easter traditions- come from the Ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. Anyhow all the Iranians, muslims or non-muslims, celebrate new year gathered around mämmi, grass and painted eggs.

After seven years living in Helsinki, I realised that there are more similarities between the nations than one could imagine, just for the simple reason that we are human beings that have lived together for millenniums on this tiny planet. If we want to see the similarities, that is!

Hyvää pääsiäistä! Happy Easter! Nowruz mobarak!