Food has always had a strong co-relation to the culture, origin, evolution and geographical location of a community. While the ingredients in a cuisine has a strong co-relation to the geographical origin of the cuisine, the way food is prepared can be co-related to the culture, beliefs and traditions of the community.
One such cuisine, which is a medley of flavours and a skillful interweaving of various tastes, is now disappearing – not because people aren’t fond of it, but maybe because the custodians of this rich cuisine are slowly dwindling in number.
Time and again Persia has been invaded from the times of Alexander, maybe because of the strategic location and the extent of the geography till which Persian influence existed. Threat of intrusion and fear of conversion led to many moving mostly eastwards and ending up in the western coast of India. What we know of the famed Parsi cuisine is more of what they prepared after adapting to this country and ingredients available locally. While the predominance of stew, meats, nuts and raisins are from their traditions in Persia, inclusion of fish (sea-fish) probably can be linked to adapting to ingredients popular in India. Predominantly being in west coast of the country, the types of fish has mostly centered on sea-fish. The British era also significantly influenced their food culture through the inclusions of snacks and desserts.
They say that Parsi wedding food is incomplete without Lagan-nu custard. In fact the name is derived from the word wedding – Lagan. Its appearance and taste will make you correlate it with the more popular caramel custard. The addition of charoli (almond-flavoured seeds), cashews, nutmeg and cardamom adds to the richness of the dish. It isn’t too sweet and the texture is something I prefer over its more popular cousin caramel custard. Crusty top, partly burnt is an attraction difficult for me to resist.
But what was a welcome discovery for me was Ravo, during my recent adda session with elderly Parsi acquaintances at their home. Loved understanding how particular they are about every step in making their food. Semolina and sugar is cooked in ghee for about 10 mins. Then they switched off the oven, added half of the milk, beat the egg for a while with some milk added and poured the same in the semolina and switched on the oven and kept stirring till the first boil as remaining milk was added. Garnished with raisins and thinly sliced almonds, the dish was heavenly.
Ask someone the name of a Parsi dish and most often Dhanshak is the reply. It is a dish which is consumed on the 4th day of mourning (after a bereavement in family) indicating mourning is over since Parsis have vegetarian food only during the first three days. Hence, Dhanshak is not prepared on auspicious days. But it is often a must on Sundays. And for some, a heavy lunch with Dhanshak after some beer on a Sunday afternoon is the best way to invite a satisfying afternoon siesta. But it is time-consuming to prepare Dhanshak. It is a meal which takes care of most essential ingredients that one needs. Traditionally, seven types of lentil and seven types of vegetables along with mutton goes into prepare the shak. Little did I know (till my interactions with Parsi families in Kolkata) that the rice (Dhan) needs to be brownish in colour and that is done by the fine art of caramelization of onion and sugar (or maybe jaggery) and is spiced up by use of garam masala. Water is added in such a quantity that it is not required to be drained. And the taste multiplies manifold when you squeeze the lemon. Don’t leave any bit of it in your plate. Using the lemon rind, sweep off any remaining gravy sticking to your plate. Apart from Dhanshak, lentils find its use in Khichdi as well.
Can Dhanshak be cherished without kachumber? Onions, cucumber, tomato and at times radish is chopped into fine pieces and mixed with vinegar (probably sugarcane vinegar which gives a sweet & sour taste) to create a salad, which needs to be poured on the dhanshak on your plate and to be eaten together.
Apart from their intense love for egg and meat, potato is something that is deeply loved by the Parsis and it is apparent in so many dishes. Else why will a dish like chicken curry have thinly striped potato wedges mixed with it to form salli boti. Name itself denotes the contents – salli meaning sticks and here it is fried potato sticks with boti (meat chunks).
Vindaloo is a dish which strongly associates with Goa and connects back to the Portuguese influence therein. As the Parsis settled in west coast, it is likely that the Portuguese influence will surface in their local culinary culture. Not sure if it is universally true, but the ones I tasted at Parsi homes had an aroma of Coriander leaves which differentiated it from the Goan Vindaloo. Came to know that hot toor dal Khichdi gets nicely paired with this Vindaloo. One may often wonder if the flaming red colour of Vindaloo is by adding colorants. While the luckier ones use bedgi chillies, those who doesn’t get them create that magical red colour through use of Kashmiri red chilies. Homemade tomato puree helps in the cause as well. The small pork pieces, infused with this delectable gravy, is a memory which will last long. Guess the balancing of vinegar, jaggery and chilies is what brings out the charisma of the cook.
A dish that I had not known earlier and which completely bowled me over was Prawn patio. Quite close to Vindaloo in terms of the balancing act amongst sweet, sour and spicy tastes, the aroma of garlic was like the subdued violin in a tune dominated by the rhythm section comprising of jaggery, chilies and tomatoes. Soaked in the pao (bread) and with the bread absorbing the gravy, it weakened me considerably. But it also makes a wonderful combo with Dhundar (Dhun – wealth and Dar = Dal), which is steamed rice (cooked with some ghee and whole spices likes cardamom & cinnamon) and Toovar Dal cooked with onions and garlic. The sour and spicy patio is a killer combo with Dhundar. As they say “Dundar patio, bese bese chatio”.
Pathuri and Patrani machi has so much in common in the name. And that extended to the way they are done. But what differentiates them is the ingredients used. Patrani machi, in its current form having its origins in west coast, is based on primarily seafish like pomfret and the chutney is made with coriander & mint leaves mixed with grated coconut and green chillies. In contrary, pathuri is predominantly of Hilsa or Bhetki fish coated with mustard and green chilli paste and topped with mustard oil.
As I move in reverse chronology, the Parsi Stew was a great surprise for me. While it was there on the table, I asked the hosts where the stew is. Stew, to most of us, will have a flowing consistency. But here nothing is flowing. A tight consistency of medley of veggies was what was in the bowl. Came to know, they have two varieties and the one is the fried variety where vegetables are deep fried to make this stew. Call it stew or a dry vegetable curry, it was not only something different from whatever I have had, but was delicious too. Had to repeat a spoonful after I was through with Dhanshak.
My first tryst with Akuri was in the form of breakfast in a Jet Airways flight almost 2 decades back. While I wasn’t aware of its origin, I loved it. But, in recent times, I realized how different such an Akuri can be from what is made in a Parsi home. While the ingredients may be same, the sogginess of the Akuri in a Parsi home made it so much more tasty than what is often served in many other places. While Akuri maybe a lot more popular, within the community -per-eeda is a phrase that is extremely common i.e. dishes with egg in it. Starting off with tomato-per eeda, papeta-per-eeda, Bhida-per-eeda, Turia-per-eeda, tarkari–per-eeda is a long line of dishes with eggs augmenting the taste.
Talking about breakfast, the roasted fowl sandwich was another delight where the meat is roasted with certain ingredients that leaves its teasing taste behind as the contents make its way into your stomach.
As shared earlier, starters or snacks in Parsi cuisine have a visible influence of the colonial era in India. Cutlis Pao is nothing but a cutlet served inside a pao. So is the other vegetarian delicacy Chutney Patties. It is potato with green chutney, so very common in Mumbai made in the form of a chop, again, an influence of British era. The cutlets can be had even without the paos, and especially when the tomato gravy is poured over it. The snacks in this cuisine can keep going on, but am lucky (or maybe unlucky) to have tasted just a few of them.
As a Bengali, how I can’t restrain myself from samosas (or shingara as we call in Bengali). But unlike the ones here, the Parsi ones are flat in shape and the feel of mutton keema, after overcoming the crisp outer layer, is such a welcome deviation to the potato-peas combo of shingara. The subtle aroma of coriander and mint leaves lend a memorable touch to the same.
However, it was Mutton Soti Boti, which ranks at the top amongst some of the snacks that I have devoured. Marinated mutton cubes are cooked till it is done (also cooked in a way so that the meat is dry), is skewered with boiled potatoes. The skewers are placed across a frying pan and the meat & potato are fried till they are nicely browned. Then the same is again fried after rolling the skewers in bread crumbs and egg dip.
It is impossible to capture a rich and diverse cuisine like the Parsi cuisine at one go. There are so many vegetarian delicacies like Patrel or Mawa Cake or Dar Ni Pori which are also great starters or snacks. Paris Butter or Paris cheese makes some of their homemade cookies so unique in their smoothness. The homemade sauces, condiments and marmalade are sheer delight because of the honesty of their tastes.
They say that the speciality of Parsi cuisine is that it tastes sweet as it touches the lips; then as you chew the food, it tastes sour and then as you gulp the food, it leaves a spicy feel. In a very similar way, when you enter a Parsi home, you first feel their warmth; as you settle down, you feel the hospitality and as you get ready to leave their house, it is their generosity which touches you. Capturing the joy of being with them on here is impossible.