In orthodox Zarathushti communities, the tradition is found embedded in the preparation of foods during the communal gahanbar/gahambar and jashn/jashan feasts, when certain foods are prepared according to tradition and then blessed by prayer. Much of the food preparation and sharing is steeped in a rich cultural heritage and history.
For the people engaged in the preparation and distribution of the food, their effort is a service to the community. For all partaking in the feast, the feast and its attendant traditions and rituals bring enjoyment and comfort to an individual’s mind, body and soul. The preparation of the food and its communal sharing helps in build and maintain the health and spirit of the community as well.
One such food is the traditional aush soup prepared during festivals and feasts in the Iranian-Zarathushti neighbourhoods and villages of Yazd and Kerman.
The food commonly prepared and served to the congregation is aush, a vegetarian stew-like herbal soup that is said to have health giving as well as healing powers for those who are ill. Aush is made of finely chopped herbs to which are added previously soaked legumes and lentils in a whey (kashk) broth. Persian noodles (reshte) complement the soup.
Every step in the preparation and serving of the aush including opening the lid of the large pot is a ritual. After prayers are said over the food, it is considered blessed, health giving and healing for those who may be ill. It is health giving and healing not just because of the ingredients and the method of preparation, and not just because its formulation has through the ages been put together to restore ‘the hot and cold’ in the body, but also because it contains the spiritual power of the healing manthra that was recited to bless the food and give it spiritual strength. Three spoons of aush are considered sufficient to aid the body heal itself and restore its balance of hot and cold.
Balance in Food Type - Hot & Cold
According to an age-old tradition, there are two types of food – hot/heating (garmi) or cold/cooling (sardi). There are those foods that are generally balanced between the two, and then there are restorative hot and cold foods designed address an imbalance and thereby restore balance in the body. The concept is similar to yin and yang in Chinese food classification. The person making this determination is of necessity is an experienced and knowledgeable healer, often an older woman in the community. However, with the move of Yazdi and Kermani Zoroastrians to Tehran and their desire to be super-modern through a rejection of the old ways, this knowledge too is in danger of dying out. In this short space, we will try and give a glimpse into this rich heritage and honour those who are still dedicated to its practice.
‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ in the context of foods are metaphors. Perhaps hot and cold refer to the manner the body utilizes these foods, and whether they perk up or slow down a person physically, mentally and spiritually. Some say that hot foods thicken the blood while cold foods thin the blood. In what might sound like an anomaly in English, hot foods may produce cold sores in those so prone.
Classification of Foods
The classification of foods as belonging to one of the two categories (actually three, since some foods are neutral) has been developed by tradition. Certain foods are hotter and colder than others, and some placements are debated. What we read is that in general:
- Animal fat, poultry, some meats, wheat, sugar, sweets, wine, some fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices such as mint and saffron, all dried vegetables and fruits fall into the hot category;
- Beef, fish, rice, dairy products including yoghurt, beer, specific fresh vegetables and fruits such as radishes, watermelon and pomegranate fall into the cold category; and
- Some foods such as onions, tea and tomatoes are almost neutral.
While this may seem a contradiction, another tradition is to avoid an excess of ‘cold’ foods in hot weather and ‘hot’ foods in cold weather. The contradiction is the popular Iranian yoghurt-cucumber drink taken to cool down in hot weather. Overdoing the consumption of such a beverage in hot weather may cause problems. Perhaps, it is an issue of degree.
The balance of hot and cold foods in their preparation makes for balance in aesthetics, taste and properties – and all of these properties are essential elements of good Iranian-Zoroastrian cuisine. For instance, in the preparation of fesenjun, a sauce for chicken dishes made from pomegranate molasses, walnut, eggplant and cardamom – walnut a hot food, and pomegranate a cold food, are combined in order to provide balance. A meal of ‘hot’ kebabs is likewise balanced with ‘cold’ mast (yoghurt) and khyor (cucumber), cheese and vegetable relish such as radishes and parsley. ‘Cold’ pickles serve a similar purpose in helping to neutralize the effects of ‘hot’ fatty foods.
In Iran, dried fruits and nuts called aujil or aujil-e-moshkel-gosha (problem-solving nuts) are distributed at a communal feast for the participants to take home. The nuts have previously been prayed over perhaps by reciting a nirang. Among the Zarathushtis of India there is a tradition with a similar name called moshkel aasan. Both traditions implore the spiritual aid of Shahbehram Izad, the angel Vahram’s (Verethagna in Avestan) to help solve problems and overcome difficulties.
Aujil is a mixture of seven dried nuts and fruits: pistachios, roasted chick peas, almonds, hazelnuts, figs, apricots and raisins (keshmesh), the number seven being auspicious. Some substitutions are made according to locale, availability, taste (salty or sweet) and family preferences. Roasted squash seeds (tokhmeh kadoo), roasted melon seeds (tokhmeh hendooneh), walnuts, cashews, and dried mulberries (tut) are possible substitutes.