The Parsis, it is said, take their food very seriously. From ceremonially balancing babies on laddoos (an Indian dessert) when they first learn to sit, to the clarion call of “jamva chaloji [let’s eat]” at weddings – eating and drinking are intertwined with Parsi culture at every step. The sweetest culinary lore is also among the oldest, tracing its roots back to the time when the Parsis had arrived in Gujarat from Iran. The lore, called Qissa-e-Sanjan, narrates how a local king from the port city of Sanjan in Gujarat sent a glassful of milk to the Parsis, indicating that his kingdom did not have space to accommodate them, just like the full glass. The Parsis added sugar to the milk, indicating how they would blend into the local community and sweeten it! Thus started the Parsi tradition of adopting Indian ways of living – from wearing the saree to speaking the dialect.
However, the maximum amalgamation happened in cuisine. The first few ingredients that were adopted were local products – spices and coconut. The Parsis took to coconut like bees to honey, adding it in chutneys (the famous green coconut chutney used in patra ni macchi), curries, vegetable dishes and even desserts like kopra pak (a sweetmeat made of coconut).
The Parsi kitchen is headed by a woman with an extremely well-stocked and well-labelled pantry. In the spice box, other than the regular staples like turmeric, red chilli and cumin powder, you will also find home-ground mixes, like the famous dhansak masala (a mix of coriander, cumin and 10 other spices) and the commonly thrown in sambhar masala. The latter is not the one generally found in most South Indian kitchens, but a special one pronounced as sam-bhaar. These two are used in dishes like sali marghi (a chicken dish), sali ma gos (a mutton recipe), patia (made with shrimps) and even a simple
While the older generation still grinds these spices at home, they are also available in shops. In Mumbai, most Parsis flock to M Motilal Masalawala at Grant Road to stock up their pantries. Other special spices that you’d spot in the refrigerator include marchu-lasan (a red paste of garlic, red chillies and cumin seeds) and lellu-lasan (a green-hued paste of garlic, green chillies and cumin seeds), to be used in a variety of curries.
The kitchen will also have bottles of sugarcane vinegar, manufactured by
EF Kolah in Navsari, Gujarat; jars of jaggery; sali (potato matchsticks) and salty potato wafers. Also found are dry fruits such as charoli or chironji (Buchanania lanzan), almond (sometimes slivered and fried), dried coconut flakes and, not to forget, the humble but popular egg! You may also spot home-made apple and brinjal chutney and some boomla (Bombay duck), a type of fish!
The author is a renowned chef and the views expressed in the article are her own