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Nowruz | Spring in a Time of Coronavirus

This past weekend was significant.  As a moment in the calendar year, we officially welcomed the season of spring.  As a Central Asian culture, the “new year” holiday of Nowruz was recognized.  But also in this weekend, Kyrgyz authorities imposed a strict 30-day lockdown and ban on mass gatherings.  At this time, like much of the world, Kyrgyzstan is making strident efforts to be ready for the impact of a coronavirus outbreak.  There is a sadness about missing the Nowruz celebrations, but nevertheless, spring is HERE, and the holiday is an important one for witnessing and experiencing the connection between Kyrgyz people and the natural world.

At its root, Nowruz is a Persian holiday, and it is celebrated on the Spring Equinox.  In Iran, most households spend 12 days leading up to the holiday in preparation: cleaning out homes and preparing food in anticipation of the new season.  

In Kyrgyzstan, the celebration is not quite so lengthy, but festivals around the country usually see crowds gathering to watch dancers perform in traditional costumes or Kok Buru players compete in high-stakes matches.  Here, Nowruz means that another winter has passed.  It is a time to regather as a community, sharing in customs, conversations, games, and food with an optimistic outlook toward the season ahead.  

One of the customary Nowruz foods is called suumuluk (in Kyrgyz)In Afghanistan, it is known as samanak, and in Iran as samanu.  But in all cases, the idea is the same.   Newly harvested wheat grains are soaked for several days until they germinate.   They are then boiled overnight to create a thick, sweet, slightly nutty porridge or paste.  Several stones (or sometimes whole walnuts!) are thrown into the pot, presumably to help keep the suumuluk from burning.  The origin story of the dish tells the tale of a woman with several children, who one day runs out of food.  She boiled water and added stones to the water, all the while trying to remain cheerful for her children but inwardly praying for a miracle.  When they woke up in the morning, the boiling water had turned into a porridge, and they were able to eat.  

Suumuluk is tasty, but is revered more for the tradition than the sustenance!  During the boiling process, women (generally) will sit together to keep watch and stir throughout the night.  They talk, sing, and play games during this time, and in the morning serve the finished product to their families while singing a particular song that loosely translates into “Samanak is boiling and we are stirring it; others sleep and we are playing.”   Family and friends eat the suumuluk by first dipping in a pinky finger and making a wish for the new year before they try it.   It is a playful and anticipated tradition that creates an edible representation of love and community within the culture. 

Preparing Sumuluk for Nowruz

A well-filmed and accurate depiction of the process behind sumuluk! The video is in Kyrgyz, but the notes give a timeline to explain what is happening during the film. Enjoy!

Ruby Mitchell

Online Content Editor @ White Leopard Travel Co. (and currently self-quarantined in Bishkek!)

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