Interview: Anahita Dhondy, author, The Parsi Kitchen - “I don’t believe in keeping recipes a secret”
Dhansak and patra-ni-macchi are probably the only two items that come to most people’s minds when asked about their favourite Parsi dish. But Anahita Dhondy, former chef-partner at SodaBottleOpenerWala and newly-turned author is trying to change that with her debut book. The Parsi Kitchen takes readers into the world of the community’s cuisine, with delectable food images spread throughout the tome. A breezy, nostalgic read, Dhondy’s memoir gives readers a glimpse into the unique traditions, recipes and stories of a food culture that’s unknown to many. The author talks about the making of her book, travelling through small Parsi towns, and why dhansak isn’t her go-to dish.
What led you to pick up the pen after so many years as a professional chef? I knew I wanted to be a chef right from when I was a 10-year-old in my mom’s kitchen. But it’s only when I started working in an industrial kitchen that I realised that the job is labour intensive, time consuming and most importantly, takes your heart and soul. I honestly didn’t think of Parsi food at all for a few years. When I was studying culinary arts at London’s Le Cordon Bleu (LCB), I was definitely enjoying myself but still felt like there was something missing. It hit me then that I needed to focus on my own cuisine, and that I was the only one who could do it because I’m in the heart of the industry. I soon met restaurateur AD Singh and joined the team of SodaBottleOpenerWala (SBOW) the next day, when it was still in its nascent stages. The first two years were spent in establishing the brand, bringing Parsi cuisine to people. That’s when I signed my book, and took two more years just to conceptualise it. It’s only during lockdown that I managed to actually write and finish it.
What is your earliest memory of Parsi food? Was the cuisine a staple in your household? The language of any Parsi kitchen is very multicultural, and that’s what I love about it. It’s not always dhansak, curry chawal (red coconut curry with rice) and patra ni macchi (fish in green chutney steamed in banana leaves). It’ll also be dal chawal, vegetables, quiches, salads and sandwiches. My grandparents’ kitchen had a strong influence of UP food as they lived in Allahabad; the flavours were more local to the city. Of course, there would be bhakras (fried dough balls) for snack time and Parsi choi (tea) too, but there were many other accents to the food that we grew up with. One of the earliest memories I have is of eating akuri (masala scrambled eggs); it’s one of the first things I loved. It was a leela lasan (green garlic) nu akuri, a lighter and fluffier version that kids can enjoy.
What kind of recipe books could one find around your house growing up? The Time & Talents Club cookbook has been there forever; and we had community chefs Katy Dalal and Jeroo Mehta’s books too. Bhicoo Manekshaw’s recipe book is very special to me. I met her before I went to LCB – it was a special moment for me because she was the first Indian to study there. Most Parsi recipes are hand-me-downs, but other things like cakes, cookies, Thai or Chinese food were adapted from recipe books and magazines like Women’s Weekly that Parsi women were obsessed with – my mom would constantly try out recipes from them. It was lovely to be exposed to various cuisines as kids.
Are there any recipes that didn’t make the final cut that you’d have liked to include in the book? Honestly, there are so many. A lot of them are even lost as they’re not cooked by many today. In Gujarat, I saw lot of papri and vaal (flat green beans) but we don’t get those ingredients in north India. I consciously selected recipes that could be made anywhere and by anyone, and are the best representation of Parsi food. Mutton berry pulao was not going to be included but so many people asked for it that I made sure we added it!
Is there anything you discovered during your travels through small-town Gujarat for the making of this book that really stayed with you? I went to Sanjan where I met random strangers who showed me what they grow there, what the food was like. In Udvada, I stayed at Globe Hotel where ravo (semolina halwa), boi (fried mullet fish), and akuri were served for breakfast and I wondered how to eat so much! It gives you a great insight into the community and how crazy we are about food. Parsis can be in any profession, but when it comes to the dining table they want their meats, rice, curries, kababs all there. When I returned home, we held a food pop-up where I made items like doodh na puff (makkhan malai-like flavoured milk froth) that I ate fresh in Gujarat. I would recommend such a trip for anyone interested in our culinary traditions.
What should a novice to Parsi cuisine start with? I think ravo is a very easy dish. It’s the first chapter – it’s a dish made on special occasions so I wanted to start the book giving an insight into our culture and community in India and it really fit in. Another really simple recipe is of chicken cutlets. It’s possibly the easiest cutlet you can ever make!
What is your go-to dish that you could have daily for the rest of your life? It has to be dhan dar patio (white rice with tuvar dal and a sweet and tangy gravy). A lot of people love dhansak but it’s just too heavy, you always have to take a long nap after! I love not just prawn patio but even those with pumpkin, brinjal or a plain tomato patio. I’ve even gotten my Punjabi husband to enjoy it, and we eat it almost twice a week!
Having left SBOW, how do you wish to continue making Parsi cuisine more widely known around the country?The only thing needed is constant amplification. Not just about food, but any kind of insight into the community will get more people interested. As soon as you keep seeing, reading and hearing about something, you’ll be eager to know more. That’s how anyone can create a change.
What do you hope people take away from your memoir?I want people get excited to talk about Parsi food and include it on their dinner tables! I also hope it inspires more people to talk about their own regional cuisines, homes and stories. I don’t believe in keeping recipes a secret – sharing recipes with the world ensures they don’t die out. It’s important for communities to share their food culture widely.
What’s next on the radar for you? My mom and I were running a food service during lockdown and I was at SBOW for seven years, so I have been in and out of kitchens a lot. I’m currently just focusing on the book, my social media presence, and my own entrepreneurial ideas. I plan to open a restaurant in the future but not anytime soon. And it won’t be just Parsi food!
Huzan Tata is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai. She writes on arts, culture, books, lifestyle and travel.