Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Thousand Years of Fusion - My Article on Parsi Food Ancestry Published in the CaLDRON Magazine

I wrote a couple of articles and contributed some recipes for the Two Year Anniversary Bumper issue of CaLDRON Magazine. Here's the one I wrote about Parsi food as we know it today and its ancestry tracing influences from Iran and India that have all made it what it is today. 

Do check out the issue here and see my article up there in print on page 68!  

Parsi Food – the words evoke images of Dhansakh and Patra ni Machhi in most people’s minds. But there’s much more to the cuisine of this much beloved community epitomised by philanthropy and eccentricity in equal measure.

The Parsis arrived in India as refugees from Iran, a little more than a thousand years ago and first settled on the Gujarat coast. Legend has it that the leader of the earliest groups went to meet a local chieftain to seek asylum. The chieftain showed him a bowl brimming with milk and said his land was like that bowl, with no room for more. The leader of the refugees sprinkled sugar into the milk and said, like the sugar, he and his people would not only blend into the milk but would improve it too. And thus the Parsis remained in India, and not only did they blend in, they certainly added plenty of sweetness to the land.

In Iran their diet included plenty of meat and wheat, punctuated with a profusion of fruit which was also dried to last through the year, pulses, herbs, a few spices, saffron, onions and garlic. Bread was a big component of the meal and they were skilled bakers. In India they found an abundant variety of fish, fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, a wide range of spices, and coconuts. While fusion food has become a fashionable buzz word in the last few decades the Parsis were at it as soon as they arrived. Most of modern Parsi cuisine that we see in India is a result of a fusion of Persian with Gujarati and coastal dishes, with influences from British cuisine, along with a dash of Portuguese thrown in.

Thus were born classics like Patra ni Machhi that uses coriander and coconut, the vividly red Parsi curries that use coconut, dried red chillies and poppy seeds, the Patio which uses vinegar, red chillies, tomatoes, and is garnished with vegetables like drumsticks and baby brinjals, Lagan nu Custard which is a classic British egg and milk custard with cardamom and nutmeg added to the mix and topped with nuts and dried fruit, to name a few.
There was no Dhansakh in Persia, nor was there any Patra ni Machhi. However we see Persian ancestry in the Pullaos, and in various other preparations that use dried fruit like apricots, raisins, currants, and saffron. The fondness for lamb over other meats is another vestige of their Persian heritage. However, they avoided beef and pork in India because these were taboo to many locals.

The Parsis don’t have many festivals but the start of a new year is of marked importance. August is a month of celebration with three important days – there’s Pateti, Navroze, and Khordad Saal. Pateti is the last day of the year and is a relatively solemn occasion where one reflects on the deeds of the year gone by; taking stock of the good and bad one has done, and resolves on doing better in the forthcoming year. Navroze, the ‘new day’, is the first day of the New Year and brings with it hope for a new beginning, celebrated with feasting and family outings to plays and concerts. Khordad Saal is the day of the Prophet Zoroaster’s birth. All three days are marked with visits to the Agiary (fire temple) and plenty of good food.

An invitation to a Navjote (initiation) or Lagan (wedding) is quite coveted for the guest is guaranteed to be wined and dined in style. Here too, the Indian influence is seen in the meals being served on banana leaves. Of course, these days many people prefer to have a buffet spread but the sit down meals are as popular.

In the old days a wedding feast menu featured mutton dishes from start to finish. The goat being a large animal, it was only slaughtered at weddings where there would be a large crowd to feed. The menu featured Aleti Paleti (pan fried offal in a spicy gravy), Bhaji Dana ma Gos (mutton cooked in fresh greens and peas), Khattu Gos (mutton cooked in curd) and a sumptuous mutton pullao or plain rice accompanied by Masala ni Daar (spicy daal). Mhowdi, a liqueur made from the mahua flowers, would be served in little silver cups called ‘fuliyas’. 

The advent of poultry farms and broiler chicken has changed the Parsi diet considerably. Chicken was now easily available and one didn’t have to sacrifice a valuable layer that provided eggs. Eggs have always ruled the roost in Parsi kitchens and there is an endless variety of egg preparations, the most well-known being ‘Sali per Eeda’ or eggs on straw potatoes. Kasa per Eeda or eggs on something is an entire chapter in Parsi cuisine where eggs are steamed on top of a variety of bases. The base could be leftover vegetables, a simple mix of onions, tomatoes, and spices, a piquant kheema, or something as decadent as clotted cream! 

Fish also gained popularity and today, no Parsi feast is complete without Patra ni Machhi or Sahs ni Machhi made with pomfrets, the Parsi’s favourite fish.

While the Parsi loves proteins more, there is quite a variety of vegetarian recipes in the repertoire – much to most non Parsis’ surprise. Granted, most vegetable recipes have some meat added ‘to make it palatable’ but there are plenty of completely meatless vegetable preparations too, no doubt the result of intermingling with local communities and the sheer abundance of vegetables in India.

The cuisine today is a wonderful mix of original Persian preparations with strong local influences starting in Gujarat, going south along the western coast as they moved towards Bombay and beyond, right down till Goa. A thousand years of fusion has resulted in a unique cuisine that celebrates local produce and ingredients and yet holds on to the rich culinary heritage of the land of its origin.

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