Cooking With the Parsis

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Cooking With the Parsis; Parsi: Indian Spices, Mideastern Cooking; Tehmina Alphonse’s Parsi Recipes

  • Method for Making Ghee
  • Kheema Kebabs (Spiced meatballs)
  • Mango Kulfi
  • Dhansak (Chicken with lentil puree)

By Craig Claiborne


WOULD YOU come to dinner?” Tehmina Alphonse asked. “I will prepare you the traditional meal of the Parsis in India. Our culture is very distinct from the rest of the Indian culture, although we have adopted a lot of the customs of the land that we call ours now. Cooking with the Parsis is unique in toe sense LIICL it combines Middle Eastern cooking with Indian spices and herbs providing tastes and flavors very typical the Indian subcontinent

Helping ourselves from a platter of dhansak, warming, pacifying dish made with a velvet‐smooth puree of lentils and spiced chicken, we learned far more about aspects of Parsi‐Indian culture than’we had ever known.

The Parsis are followers of Zoroaster, one of the great teachers of the East. He is to his followers Jesus is to Christians and Moses is to Jews. The precise period of his birth is debated but, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition), some sources “place him 5,000 years after the Trojan War, [others] 6,000 years before the death of Plato,” who lived 300 years before Christ.

The encyclopedia adds that the religion of the Zoroastrians teaches them benevolence as the first principle and no people practice it with more liberality.

The Parsis emigrated to India from Iran in the ninth century during the time of the Asian conquest and were welcomed hospitably by the Hindu priests. No one knows, Mrs. Alphonse was saying, precisely what foods their ancestors brought with them to India, but they assimilated well and adopted well to Indian customs.

“This is, perhaps, the most typical of all Parsi meals, the foods that are hungered for the world over when Parsis travel,” she said.

“The name ‘dhansak,’ “ she went on, “derives from two words, ‘dhan,’ meaning rice, and ‘sak,’ meaning lentils; Actually, the main dish of the meal is the chicken with lentil purée and brown rice served separately. It isn’t brown rice as you know it in this country, but it is made with white basmati, or Indian rice, and the

color comes from browned onions and spices.”

Mrs. Alphonse speculated that the .dish might well have had its origins in a Persian dish, known in modernday Iran as adas polio ba morgh. It is made with rice, lentils and chicken, but is spare of spices other than a touch of turmeric. Dhansak is far more elaborate, with such Indian spices as cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon and chilies.

One of the compelling things about the meal served in the Alphonse home was its inspired marriage flavors. It involved fine juxtapositions of flavors—the delicate, subtle spiced lentil purée and chicken, complemented with cachumber, which is a simple, piquant “chutney” made with tomatoes and onions, green chillies, coriander leaves and a light lacing of vinegar.

That, plus kheema kebabs, Kebab, incidentally, is Persian word meaning meat or fowl, generally cooked over a charcoal fire. In this case they were ground meatballs about the size of Ping‐Pong balls, made with ground beef, chilies and spices.

Mrs. Alphonse said that though she now uses a great deal of beef, in her native India lamb is the basis of the vast majority of meat dishes.

The meal ended with seductive mango ice cream, smooth, satiny and creamy as if it had been handchurned, although it had been prepared in a standard home freezer. It is known as kulfi.

Our hostess, who became an American citizen last year, is married to a Haitian electronics engineer, Gerard Alphonse, who is a researcher at the nearby RCA David Sarnoff Research Center, The Alphonses ‘ have three children.

Mrs. Alphonse said that she encounters few problems in finding all she needs for her Parsi kitchen in Manhattan. On her visits to New York, which are infrequent, she stocks up on Indian spices from the small Indian enclave around 28th and 29th Streets and Lexington Avenue. Most of the foods come from the Kalustyan Orient Expert Trading Corporation, 123 Lexington Avenue between 2Sth and 29th Streets.

In addition, she receives, with fair frequency, a “care” package from her grandmother in Bombay, who taught her how to cook. Mrs. Alphonse’s mother, by the way, is a politician in Bombay and is deeply involved in charity work.

Mrs. Alphonse says that she likes highly spiced hot dishes. She learned early, she said, that some of her American friends were not equally enthusiastic about hot green chilies.

“The first meal I cooked I made to suit my taste,” she said. “A few bites later, all the guests were perspiring from the upper lips to the back of their necks. Since then I’ve been very careful about the use of chilies, red or green.”

Mrs. Alphonse asserts that she may have the only complete set of cookware from England by way of India. “My aunt passed through New York and Princeton several months ago,” she said, “and she was appalled that my kitchen wasn’t better equipped. When she got home she sent me all the utensils, mostly British, she had accumulated over the years.”

Put one pound (an arbitrary amount) of butter in a heavy saucepan and place it over low heat. When it melts, let cook about 45 minutes one hour. Do not cover and do not add any other ingredients including water. Stir often as it boils. Watch the butter carefully so that it does not darken or discolor. When the foam on the surface of the butter sinks to the bottom and the bottom is caramel‐colored, the butter is ready to strain. Pour the clear liquid through a very fine strainer. That is ghee. The solids that remain may be discarded, or you may add a 14‐ounce can of condensed milk and one‐half cup slivered, blanched almonds to the saucepan with these solids and cook until caramelized. Pour into a buttered dish. Let cool and serve as you would caramel candy..

2 tablespoons clarified butter or ghee (see method for making ghee) 1 cup finely chopped onion 2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves, optional 1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint or use half the amount dried 1 or 2 hot green peppers, seeded or not, finely chopped 2 teaspoons cumin seeds 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic 2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger ½ teaspoon paprika 1 teaspoon garam masala, see note Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 egg, beaten 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce Oil for deep frying, optional.

1. Place the meat in a mixing bowl. 2. Melt the butter in a skillet and when it is melted, add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until lightly browned. Cool slightly. 3. Add the onion to the meat. Add the remaining ingredients except oil. The mixture may be used now, but it is best if left to stand two hours. 4. When ready to cook, deep‐fry the balls. Or preheat the broiler or preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Or prepare a charcoal grill. Arrange the meatballs on a baking dish and broil , or bake, turning as necessary. Or cook them on the grill, turning often. Cooking time will vary according to the method used. Cook until medium well done. Yield: About 26 meatballs. Note: Garam masala is sold in Indian markets including those in the vicinity of Lexington Avenue and 28th Street. 1 cup mango slices in syrupy, see note 1 cup mango, pulp, see note 1 14‐ounce can sweetened condensed milk 1 cup heavy cream 2 cups milk ⅛ teaspoon grated nutmeg ¼ teaspoon pure vanilla exxtract

1. Put the mangoes with syrup and mango pulp into the container of food processor or electric blender. Blend to a fine puree. Add the condensed milk.

2. Add the cream and milk and blend well. Add the nutmeg and vanilla extract.

3. Pour the mixture into small molds (in India there are special aluminum molds in individual sizes for freezing kulfi) and place in the freezer and freeze. Unmold and serve.

Yield: 8 or more servings.

Note: Mrs. Alphonse recommends the Alphonso brand of mango slices and mango pulp. These are available at Kalustyan Orient Expert Trading Corporation, 123 Lexington Avenue. Note, too, that the mango slices and pulp may he omitted and the contents of a threeounce package of ground almonds substittited. Ground pistachio nuts may be substituted for the ground almonds.

2 three – to – three – and – one half‐pound chickens, see recipe for chicken for dhansak) 2 cups toover dal (yellow lentils), see note 1 cup channa dal (yellow split peas), see note 1 cup masoor dal (red lentils), see note . ¼ cup val peas (dried field peas), see note ¼ cup mung beans (dried and split), see note Water to cover plus 2 to 3 cups 1 or 2 potatoes, about half a pound, peeled and quartered or cut into eighths 1 small eggplant, trimmed, or use a slice from a larger eggplant, weighing about one‐third pound 6 spinach leaves, rinsed well ½ cup cooked red pumpkin or use half a package frozen cooked squash 1 small sweet potato, about onequarter pound, peeled and quartered 4 scallions, trimmed and chopped 1 medium‐size onion, about six ounces, peeled and quartered 2 tomatoes, about . three‐quarters pound, peeled and chopped 2 or more teaspoons garam masala, see note 2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic ¼ teaspoon turmeric 2 to 4 green chilies, seeded or not, chopped, see note 1 cup chopped, loosely packed fresh coriander leaves, see note 2 bay leaves Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Prepare the chicken, which must marinate for a time, according to the first step in the recipe for chicken for dhansak. The cooking time for the chicken is about 40 minutes. The cooking time for the dhansak is one hour. Cook the two entities so that they finish at the same time. 2. Combine the three kinds of dal, the val peas and mung beans in a bowl and add cold water to cover to about one‐quarter inch above the mixture. Let stand one hour.

3. Empty the lentil mixture with the soaking liquid into a kettle. Add two to three cups of water or enough to cover the mixture about half an inch above the solids. Add the potatoes, eggplant, spinach, pumpkin, sweet, potato, scallions, onion, tomatoes, garam masala, ginger, garlic, turmeric, chilies, coriander and bay leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remember that the spices indicated here will produce a mildly spiced dish. Add more spices according to preference.

4. Bring to the boil and cook about one hour, stirring often from the bottom to prevent sticking and burning. Remember that peas and beans tend to stick and burn easily. The lentils must be thick when ready, but if they become heavily thick. add a little water as necessary.

5. As the lentils cook, prepare the chicken according to the recipe for chicken for dhansak.

6. When both mixtures are done, purée the lentil mixture, using a food processor. Or put it through a food mill to produce a very smooth purée. Combine the lentil puree with the chicken pieces in a clean kettle. Stir in the chicken broth and heat thoroughly. Serve with brown rice, cachumber and chutney. Serve the kheema kebabs if desired.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings.

Note: The lentils, beans, peas and spices listed here are available at the Indian markets on Lexington Avenue and 28th Street, including Kalustyan Orient Expert Trading Corporation, 123 Lexington Avenue between 28th and 29th Street.. Fresh coriander is available in Chinese markets in Chinatown and the open‐air markets on Ninth Avenue, plus other sources where fresh Chinese and Indian produce is sold.

2 three- to three-and-one-half-pound chickens, each cut into eight pieces 2½ tablespoons finely minced garlic 2½ tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1½ tablespoons clarified butter or ghee [see method for making ghee] 1 cup coarsely chopped onion 1 to 3 hot red peppers, depending on size and taste 2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds ¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh coriander leaves, see note 2 bay leaves 2½ teaspoons garam or dhansak masala, see note.

1. Put the chicken pieces in a bowl and add the garlic and ginger. Add salt and pepper. Rub the seasonings into the chicken pieces and cover. Let stand one hour.

2. In a heavy casserole, large enough to hold all th‐e chicken, heat the butter and add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until onion starts to brown. Add the chicken pieces and the remaining ingredients.

3. Cook, turning the pieces in the casserole so that they cook evenly. Cover and continue cooking, turning the pieces as necessary, until chicken is tender, about 40 to 45 minutes. Generally speaking, it will not be necessary to add water or other liquid to this dish. If the chicken becomes dry, however, add a littlE water.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings in dhansak. (Note: See note for dhansak.)

2 onions, about three‐quarters pound 5 tablespoons clarified butter or ghee (see method for making ghee) 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic 1 teaspoon finely minced ginger 1½ teaspoons whole cumin seeds 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce I teaspoon paprika 6 whole cloves 6 whole peppercorns 3 cardamon seeds 1 one‐inch length of cinnamon stick ½ teaspoon dried thyme 4 cups rich beef broth 2½ cups basmati rice (see note) or Uncle Ben’s regular, converted rice Salt to taste 1 teaspoon lemon juice.

1. Peel the onions and cut’ them into thin slices.

2. In a skillet, heat two tablespoons of butter and add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are nicely browned without burning. Remove from the heat.

3. Heat one tablespoon butter in kettle and add half the cooked onions. Reserve the remaining onions for garnish.

4. Add the garlic, ginger, cumin, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, cloves, peppercorns, cardamon seeds, cinnamon and thyme.

5. Add the beef broth, rice, salt and lemon juice. Bring to the boil. Cover and simmer about 20 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed. Fluff the rice with a two‐pronged fork and stir in the remaining two tablespoons of butter. Serve on a platter garnished with the remaining cooked onions.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings. Note: Basmati rice is sold in Indian markets, including those in the vicinity.of Lexington Avenue and 28th Street.

Books available on Amazon Manna of the 21st Century: Parsi Cuisine Paperback Hardcover Indian Parsi Kitchen Celebrations: Celebrating Zoroastrian Festivals and Traditions Dhansak: Parsi Cuisine

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