The waning days of autumn simmer with a bittersweet wistfulness. We say goodbye to the dimming sun, cozy up, settle in for longer nights and set about planning our Thanksgiving menu. In our house, this undoubtedly includes a Persian-style butternut squash soup to brighten up our spirits and our holiday table.
Butternut squash soup is a stalwart of our fall meals. Over the years it has also become one of my contributions to our Thanksgiving celebration. It makes for a warming starter, but I also love to have it on hand on the big day to tide everyone over in those hours between a quick breakfast and the mighty feast.
The butternut squash soup recipe I've shared here was inspired by my trusted and loyal spice cabinet, and includes a few of the spices that are typically used in Persian stews, rice dishes and aash (hearty, thick soups). In Iranian cuisine, fragrance and color play just as important a role as taste. Cinnamon is used in savory dishes, rather than sweets, to add warmth and perfume to the dish. I use it in this soup along with earthy cumin and coriander. And of course, no other spice elevates a dish more than saffron—the golden flag-bearer of Iranian cuisine. I also like to combine the squash with a sweet potato for an extra boost of flavor to jazz up the milder butternut squash.
Just like my ever-expanding spice cabinet, my Thanksgiving celebrations have shifted and adapted as many times as I have. My family immigrated to Canada from Iran (with a brief stay in Rome), when I was 10 years old. Unlike American Thanksgiving, Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated in early October. Canada is farther to the north and the harvest takes place sooner; hence an earlier harvest celebration. Although I did not celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in Iran, all the elements of it—a celebration of family, friends, food, the harvest and being grateful—are ones that my family could easily relate to and embrace.
As a nod to my Canadian home, I like to finish this soup off with a drizzle of maple syrup to draw out the natural sweetness of the butternut squash. And if inspiration strikes, which I suggest it should for a holiday meal, I also like to add a few drops of heady orange blossom water. The sweetness from the syrup and the fragrance from the flower water should be a faint curiosity, a note you can't quite put your finger on. Just before serving, a sprinkling of crimson red sumac not only looks beautiful against the deep orange of the soup but also adds a tangy accent to balance the sugars and satisfy the Iranian palate for all things bright and sour.
When I moved to the United States, my Thanksgiving celebration shifted once again, this time to late November. These days, our Thanksgiving dinner table is a borderless map dotted with a colorful array of dishes; a feast where traditions gently bump into each other with grace and kindness. We're hungry for it all as we first whet our appetites with a soothing and silky butternut squash soup we call our own.
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.