This Winter Solstice, Welcome Back the Light with an Iranian-style Pomegranate Dessert
Naz Deravian shares her tradition of celebrating the holiday Yalda—and her recipe for a delicious and stunning pomegranate masghati.
Yalda is the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice. Families and friends get together and stay up all night, grazing on various symbolic foods, hoping to outlast the longest night of the year and welcome back light and longer days.
Growing up in Iran, my family, like many other Iranian families, would celebrate Yalda gathered around a korsi (a low table, adorned with blankets and heated underneath). We would tell stories, crack jokes, sing and listen to the elders take turns reading from Divan-e Hafez (a book of poetry by a celebrated 14th-century Persian poet). We would munch on nuts, and sink our teeth into cool wedges of watermelon that had somehow magically been saved since the previous summer. All these foods represented wishes and hopes for the coming months. My eyes would inevitably fall with anticipation upon the ruby red pomegranates begging to be cracked open. Or better yet, squeezed whole by my father, to then be passed off to me to poke a tiny hole in it and quickly press it against my mouth and let its tart juices run down my throat. Pomegranates at the Yalda table symbolize a crimson dawn; the warm light of a new day that will always prevail over the darkest of nights.
My pomegranate masghati (pictured above) is a refreshing dessert inspired by all those Yalda night pomegranates I consumed as a child. Masghati is a sweet that is like a cross between Jell-O and panna cotta. It is traditionally prepared with a rose-scented sweetened syrup and wheat starch, commonly used in Persian kitchens as a thickener. Various regions prepare it with different flavors and techniques. In my recipe, I've traded in the wheat starch for cornstarch, which is more readily available. Some preparations also add butter or oil, but I prefer a lighter and less dense masghati, which makes for a satisfying end-of-meal treat.
The quality of your pomegranate juice will determine the taste of the masghati. Start with a bright and unsweetened juice and add sugar as needed to satisfy your taste buds, while honoring the natural, bright flavor of the pomegranate. The amount of sugar used should be just enough to balance the tang of the juice. Think of this pomegranate masghati as a palate cleanser; a delicate, sweet and sour bite to awaken the taste buds after a heavy winter's meal.
It's been many years since I've sat around a korsi. But no matter where we are, and regardless of how big or small our Yalda celebration, every winter solstice we take the time to crack open a pomegranate and watch in awe as its juices run like a river through our fingers. This year, on December 21, we'll scatter pomegranate seeds, slivered pistachios and rose petals on top of our crimson pomegranate masghati; burning bright with hope and light.
Naz Deravian is the creator of the blog Bottom of the Pot and the author of the cookbook Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories, which won the IACP 2019 First Book Award presented by The Julia Child Foundation. Read her previous article for EatingWell, My Persian-Style Butternut Squash Soup Captures the Flavors of All the Lands I Call Home.