Here’s how the British, Portuguese and French influenced Parsi cuisine in India
Parsi recipes travelled from Persia to the beaches of Gujarat, up north India, then to the west of India, east India and south India, acquiring technique and adding new flavours to the food.art and culture Updated: Apr 17, 2017 15:34 IST
Despite their dwindling population, the Parsis strive to preserve the legacy of their rich, robust and wholesome cuisine by even using social media to popularise it among food lovers around the world.
“Rich, pure, wholesome, rustic and robust. That’s Parsi cuisine to me. It is unique. It’s spicy, sweet and sour. It’s robust and elegant. It’s complex yet simple. One thing it isn’t, it’s not a quick bite. It’s food you sit down and enjoy,” Urvaksh Hoyvoy, who runs the ‘Parsi da Dhabha’.
He says opening the restaurant in 2009 on NH-8 en-route from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, about 150 km from here, was his way of trying to preserve the legacy of their food.
Drove from Uttan (Bhayander) to end of Maharashtra and beginning of Gujarat. Just before Daman & Diu is Varwada where this interesting Parsi style Dhaba exists. Ate a satisfactory lunch: Mutton Dhansak + Bhinda per eedu (bhindi anda) + Salli chicken + patrani macchi + mutton and chicken cutlets. The eggs were baked to perfection and the dhansak was homely. Flavours were very different from what we get in Mumbai Parsi restaurants. Very homely. This was a #SadakChef kinda Sunday :)
“Whenever I travel, I take my Parsi spices and cook in people’s homes. One such event happened in a country home in a tiny town of Bartelsville in Oklahoma,” he says.
“And we are beginning to use the social media to share our delicious legacy with the world,” he says.
Farzana Contractor, the editor and publisher of food and travel magazine UpperCrust, says, “I know people outside the community yearn to be invited for a ‘Lagan nu Bhonu’, because outside a Parsi home that is the only place they can get to eat this food, since there just aren’t too many places you can go eating out.”
“Like I, for example, land up at Ideal Corner at Fort whenever the urge to eat bhonu overcomes me. Though surprisingly even the Yacht Club (Royal Bombay Yacht Club) does a decent ‘Dhansak’ and they serve it with tiny pieces of plain fried Bombay Duck,” she says.
“As an ‘honorary’ Parsi and being married to a foodie as big as Behram Contractor aka Busybee (noted journalist and founder-editor of Afternoon newspaper), I can say I do love the Parsi cuisine immensely. “Alas, I don’t see much happening by way of preserving the food legacy. Authenticity is of course maintained quite simple because it is still home cooked and recipes there don’t change,” she says.
Anahita N Dhondy, the chef manager at SodaBottleOpenerWala which has seven outlets in India, says with their community population falling and their number being only 69,000 in India they are trying their best to preserve their culture and food.
“We made Parsi food cool and popularised the Bombay Irani cafe concept,” she says.
According to Dhondy, Parsi cuisine can be counted as the oldest ‘fusion cuisine’ as it brings together the flavours of Persia with the masalas and freshness of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa.
“It also uses techniques from British cookery. So it’s a beautiful amalgamation of all these cuisines. Some recipes are easy and some very lengthy with complicated processes.
“The ingredients would range from dry fruits to coconut, famous sambhar masala and dhana jeeru masala, curry masalas, pickles, souffles and sandwiches. It’s a vast range of cookery. It’s got vegetables, eggs, fish, meat and sweet preparations,” she says.
According to Urvaksh, the Parsis left their homeland because they immensely valued their beliefs and their faith was unwavering.
“The way we Parsis prepare and eat our food today is not how Parsi people ate in Persia. There’s a whole lot of ‘India’ in the cooking pot now.
“In Persia, spices were scarce, so the food was cooked simply. When we arrived on the shores of Gujarat to take refuge, we assimilated in the best possible way - the food way,” he says.
Parsi recipes then travelled the beaches of Gujarat, up north India, then to the west of India, east India and south India, through the bylanes of Mumbai’s Dhobhi Talao, Byculla, Colaba, acquiring technique and adding new flavours to the food.
The Parsi style curry, no doubt, came from Goan cooks who cooked for the Parsi homes at Princess Street, says the third generation entrepreneur, whose late grandfather Nariman Ardeshir Hoyvoy established the Parsi Dairy Farm and Dairyland in Mumbai.
“The delicious tomato gravy came from the Portuguese, the Saas ni Machi has a Frenchness to it being cooked in a delicate rice flour sauce, the palav daar is very robust and hearty, it’s our variation of the moghlai biryani.
“The chops and mash from the Brits. Tarela Kera in a sugar sauce-based banana fritters from the south. I’m not a historian but I am certain the way I cook and eat today is due to a beautiful journey our cooking has been through in India,” he says.
He says they are a very small community and their food is generally available only at Parsi weddings and Navjote ceremonies.
The non-Parsis love the taste so much that he used to get “tons of requests” from them to taste their popular dishes like Palav daar, dhansak, Salli boti and marghina Farcha etc, he says.
Contractor says the taste of each Parsi dish differs. “Like a Saas ni Machi with its tangy white sauce is 60 degrees away from Patra ni Machi, all wrapped up in banana leaf with the awesome green chutney. Or Sali Murghi is from Farcha ni Murghi,” she says.
She says her ultimate favourite is Jardaloo ma Gosht, which, incidentally, she cooked on TV with top British Chef Gary Rhodes for Discovery channel.
Divulging on some unique facets of Parsi cuisine, Urvaksh says, “We cooked with flowers, berries and fruits and with complex techniques before these celebrity MasterChefs’ great grandfathers wore nappies.”
He says the Medo Persian Empire was one of the greatest empires and it ruled over several communities.
The history books say that the Persian Kings did not thrust their habits and lifestyle upon their subjects, but rather encouraged and appreciated the diversities and the cuisines of Persia developed with its expanding borders, he says. Persia did not have spices but had delicious edible flowers, berries and fruits, which were infused to create delicate flavours.
“My favourite being the Zereshk berry or as its English name says Barberry. It’s a tiny Ruby red berry that grows on a shrub, and tastes delicious in a meat dish or even just cooked with rice. I was taught a secret Zereshk sauce from a Persian grocer in Dubai,” he says.
The 54-year-old entrepreneur says his endeavour is to cook and serve classic Parsi food in a home style environment and to put their cuisine on the home menu of people all over the world “so they may be as enriched as we are.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Dhondy says, “I feel Parsi food will become even more popular over the years. There will be more cafes and restaurants serving this kind of cuisine because it is adaptable, easy and very flavourful.”
“It will travel the world and even become gourmet. I would love to popularise it all over the world,” she says.
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