Last month, London’s Bombay-styled cafe Dishoom beat top restaurants such as Michelin-starred Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Spanish tapas bar Barrafina and other highbrow eateries to became UK’s top restaurant as voted by Yelp reviewers. Look closely at their menu and you will find dishes such as akuri, keema par eedu and bun maska featuring on its menu.
Parsi food is going places in India too. Not so long ago, for instance, Delhi got its Parsi specialty restaurant Rustom’s Parsi Bhonu after several outlets of SodaBottleOpenerWala left a mark on the palates of diners in the capital. While the former specializes in authentic Parsi cuisine, serving lesser-known wonders such as nariyal na dudh ma cauliflower (cauliflower cooked in coconut milk), Bhaatia nu gos (mutton gravy with fried potato) and vengna nu patio (brinjal served with a tangy curry), the latter has Iranian cafe favourites such as sali chicken, bheeda par eeda (eggs on lady fingers), cutlets and akuri. This goes to tell us that when it comes to Parsi cuisine, someone is doing something right.
“Parsis migrated from Persia and this gives our food a heavy Iranian influence. This is also where we get our meat-eating habit from,” says Perzen Patel, founder of blog and catering company, the Bawi Bride. Apart from meat, the usage of dry fruits such as raisins and apricots in cooking savoury fare is also something, they learnt from the Persians.
If you look at the menus of authentic Parsi restaurants or Iranian joints, you will notice that Parsis seem obsessed with eggs. Chef Farrokh Khambata, owner and head chef at Joss Catering Company that caters to several Parsi banquet events, concurs: “This is something we probably got from the Britishers, just like our passion for custards and puddings.” Dishes such as tamata par eedu (eggs on tomatoes), salli par eedu (eggs on straw potatoes), bheeda par eedu and Parsi breakfast speciality akuri are mainstays.
When the community migrated to India, their first pitstop was Sanjan, Gujarat. This made them notice tropical ingredients such as coconut, jaggery and banana leaves that have become staples of the Parsi pantry over the years.
In the masala box
If there is one thing about this community’s culinary habits, then it’s the fact that they are extremely particular about their ingredients. Says Patel, “So, you will have some Parsis who will buy their dansaak masala only from Grant Road’s Motilal Masalawala.” Dansaakmasala — a star ingredient in most homes — is something that the Parsis now prefer buying from the store instead of hand-pounding it like in the good-old-days.”Apart from this, there is turmeric, chilli powder, curry powder and dhanna-jeeru (coriander seeds and cumin seeds) that complete the masala box,” says Tanaz Godiwalla, a community caterer.
“There is also the leelo and laal masalo, made using a combination of red or green chillies, garlic and cumin seeds that is sauted at the onset of any gravy,” says Khambata. “And everything has an onion and tomato base,” Godiwalla concludes.
Another sacrosanct ingredient is vinegar. “Parsi cuisine is known to have a balance of sweet and sour,” informs Patel.
Patel, Khambata and Godiwalla confirm that most cooks in the community are particular about using E F Kolah & Son’s slow processed sugar cane juice vinegar that gets brewed in Navsari in Gujarat. “Today it is easily available in stores selling Parsi food supplies and works just right to add tang to any dish,” shares Patel. In the popular Parsi preparation, jardaloo ma gosht (apricot and meat stew), heaps of dry apricots are soaked in lugs of vinegar and then used to cook along with mutton. Similarly, the lagan saras stew has vinegar-soaked raisins adding hints of sweetness to the otherwise hot curry. This technique of soaking dry fruits before tumbling them into a dish adds dimension to the food.
Texture too is an important component of a Parsi meal. “That’s why we sprinkle a dash of salli or potato straws on certain dishes to create a see-saw,” says Khambata pointing to three breakfast dishes – salli with kheema, salli par eeda and salli boti.
The rest of the cuisine is heavily non-vegetarian. “Breakfast is usually bheja, kheema, akuri or Parsi poro (a six egg omelet), seafood dominates lunchtime meals with prawn patio, patra ni macchi, saas ni macchi with rice and dinner is generally a mutton or chicken-based gravy with rotis or patties,” says Khambata.
“The bawajis love their kulfis,” says Godiwalla. Then there is the famed lagan nu custard which translates into wedding custard, owing to the celebratory nuts that are added to traditional custard to notch up its glam value. “We also make lots of ravo, which is like semolina ladled with milk, ghee and butter and lastly there is sev or vermicelli — fried and eaten with dahi.”