1 February, 2017
Understanding Parsi Food & Customs in the light of Zoroastrian religion
by Ervad Dr. Ramiyar Karanjia
Many a Parsi customs, because they are not properly understood or traced to Avestan times or scriptures, are believed to be of Hindu origin. This is not entirely correct as we will shortly see. Only perhaps 20% of the customs are of later origin. Some have undergone minor changes on the basis of time and place. I feel it is quite possible that many of the customs may be a part of some Nasks which are now lost. We can say so, because some of the above customs can be traced back to ancient Iran.
At the outset we will examine some customs for auspicious occasions, appropriately referred to as ‘Sagan’. The word sagan is similar to the Sanskrit word Shagun, shakun and means auspicious. Customs of auspicious occasions can be divided into four categories:
The different foods used for sagan represent the different creations and it is an occasion of thanksgiving to Ahura Mazda for His different creations as also a pledge to look after the creations. Sev (Vermicelli) or Rava is made of Wheat and reminds one of grains and vegetation. Also it is sweet and reminds one to have a sweet nature not only throughout that auspicious day, but throughout life. As it is made finely it also reminds us of industry.
Bananas, used along with Sev are to represent the fruits and vegetable on which we depend. Curds made from milk reminds us to take care of animal kingdom. Eggs from chicken remind us to treat our winged friends with care, whereas fish remind us to take care of creatures of water.
I will dwell a bit more on the symbolism of fish. Cooked fish, motifs of fish, replicas of fish, sweet meats made in the shape of fish are widely used for several auspicious occasions, especially those connected with Marriage. The use of fish on auspicious occasions is generally misunderstood to be a Hindu custom. However, the use of fish as a motif can be traced back to more than 2,500 years in ancient Iran. In a bas relief of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, not only his crown is adorned with fish, but there is also a relief depicting the lower half of a torso of a person, who one leg is fish and another of a goat.
While on food let me also dwell on Dhan-dar, white rice with bland dal (lentils) generally cooked with turmeric, one of the favorite food of Parsis on auspicious occasion. It is food which all, poor and rich, can afford. Since Dhan-dar is cooked on auspicious occasions as also on the day of Uthamna, on the third day after death, it tries to tell us to treat happy and sad occasions as same. Not to get too elated when happy nor get too sad by calamities. The great Sasanian Dastur Adarbad Mahraspand compares good times to a bag of air which could easily get deflated by the slightest prick.
Dhandar is also one of the simplest as well as most nutritious foods. It conveys the message of being simple in food as well as life. Moreover, one needs to have nutritious food whatever the occasion in life, as without nutritious food one cannot have health, and without health one can’t live a proper life either on a physical, mental or spiritual plane.