Walk into an Iranian home during Nowruz, the Persian New Year that begins with the spring equinox, and you'll be greeted by what may be an unusual sight: an altar laid with ritual objects, including a shock of green wheatgrass, a mirror and candles, and seven dishes. Each dish holds a different food that starts with the letter "S". But the most eye-catching item of all may be a bowl of live goldfish darting to and fro. In recent decades, the millions of goldfish bought for Nowruz have churned up controversy: After the holiday, they're released into rivers and ponds where, for the most part, they die. To avoid this while still paying homage to tradition, I have a solution. Enter: marzipan goldfish, a harmless stand-in that's edible to boot.
It's unclear when the goldfish wiggled their way onto the Sofreh Haft Seen, the table of seven "S"s, the setting of which has been performed in Iran since at least Zoroastrian times. The table is a blueprint for the year ahead, with each item representing a desired quality like health, wealth, and love. Goldfish, signifying life, add a dramatic splash of color to the New Year table and are traditionally released into the wild after the celebration; however, they're unlikely to survive the transition. Lately, many are coming up with creative ways to replace the live goldfish, whether with a plastic toy, a drawing, or even an orange in a bowl.
Being a chef, my solution to the goldfish conundrum is, of course, edible — though it's still not fish. On my Nowruz table, you'll find a marzipan goldfish, bedazzled with a touch of gold food coloring, nestled between the bowl of sumac (symbolizing sunrise) and a book of poetry by Iran's beloved 14th-century Sufi poet Hafez. The idea for the marzipan came from my time living near an Italian bakery in Brooklyn, whose glass case held a shining array of miniature fruits, vegetables, and (conveniently!) goldfish, all fashioned from almond paste and fastidiously painted down to the last leaf, stem, or scale. I bought one for the appearance alone, but after tasting the chewy candy flavored with almond and vanilla, I was hooked.
The art of making marzipan fruit, or frutta martorana, remains popular in southern Italy and Sicily, and in the U.S. in specialty Italian bakeries. While it might seem out of place on an Iranian table, marzipan is actually eaten throughout the Middle East — Iranians even have our own tradition of fashioning mulberries, or toot, out of marzipan flavored with saffron and rose water, and tinting them in different colors. These shirini, little sweets served to guests, come complete with a tiny green pistachio stem. What's more, almonds are native to Iran, so it seems fitting that they have a place on the New Year table that is, in many ways, a living panorama of Persian history.
The advantages to making marzipan goldfish are many. They're a fun project to do with kids and adults alike, they taste delicious, and they can be preserved for years to come — though I wouldn't recommend eating any older than three to four weeks, as they'll go stale. There is no release into the wild (and no fish food required) — just a sweet way to honor tradition and welcome spring.
How to make marzipan goldfish
Step 1: Gather supplies and tools
Here's what you'll need to make marzipan goldfish:
- Fresh or store-bought marzipan
- A goldfish or koi mold (I like this one)
- Plastic wrap or cornstarch
- Rolling pin
- Small paring knife
- Parchment paper
- 1 sheet pan
- Food coloring (a complete set of food colors, or just yellow and red)
- Small bowls
- 1 or 2 small paintbrushes
- Gold and silver luster dust (optional)
- Edible ink pens (optional)
- Food-grade glaze (optional)
Step 2: Make the marzipan
Check the volume of your fish mold and consider how many fish you'd like to make, then make as many batches of marzipan as needed for that amount. You can always use store-bought marzipan, especially if you're making these purely for decoration, but homemade tastes much better.
Step 3: Shape the goldfish
Line the fish mold with a piece of plastic wrap, or dust with a little cornstarch (this prevents the marzipan from sticking). Take a piece of marzipan and rub it between your hands until it's soft and pliable. If the marzipan is too dry to mold without cracking, lightly wet your hands with water as you work the dough with your hands.
Press a chunk of marzipan into the mold, and gently roll over the marzipan with the rolling pin so all the nooks and crannies of the mold are filled.
Carefully unmold the fish out onto your work surface so the detailed side is facing up. Cut away any extra marzipan around the outside of the fish outline, and place the fish on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining marzipan. Allow the goldfish to dry out for two to three days before coloring. They should feel firm to the touch, and hold their shape when handled.
Step 4: Paint the goldfish
Squeeze food coloring into small bowls — if you want to make orange, use drops of yellow and red until you've achieved your desired hue; alternatively, use whichever colors you want. If you want to ensure the color is what you're looking for, test a small area on the bottom of one of the fish, and then get to painting.
If you'd like, draw in features like eyes and fins with edible ink pens, and add shimmer with luster dust.
Finish each fish with a spritz of the glaze (this adds shine and helps the color to hold up longer, but it isn't necessary if you plan to eat the marzipan within one to two weeks).
Store the goldfish in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to one month, or up to three months in the refrigerator. If you want to save them as decoration for future celebrations, they will last for years stored in a cool, dry place and handled gently — but those should only be for looks, not for eating.