One of the reasons why I started this series on Zoroastrianism is to allow people know more about the religion that have been an integral part of India. However, there is not much awareness and information about it. Only those people who are in touch with Parsis or Iranis know about us, while the rest of the India only know us as “Bawa”, a term that is commonly used across India. I am sure many across India know about Tata and Godrej groups because these two companies make wide range of products that most Indians use day in day out, but nothing beyond that. Many of my friends have come up to me and asked some really bizarre questions that root out of misconceptions, curiosity and ignorance. I don’t blame them, because Zoroastrian community is very tiny and close-knit and it hardly allows any information to leak out. What I am trying to achieve through this series is spread out some information about Zoroastrianism history and culture. While I have already covered a lot about history, its time to jump on to the culture and other aspects of Parsis. I’m starting with food, because food not just connects the community. It also connects us with the rest of the India.
You can tell a lot about the people, by their food. Zoroastrians are very loving, caring and peaceful by nature and therefore I can say one thing for sure. We love our food and love is the core ingredient of any Parsi cuisine. When Zoroastrians settled into India, they brought along Persian cuisine elements, but the Indian food scene was already loaded with lot of Indian spices and herbs. Over a period of time, Parsis blended with the local Gujaratis and they made changes to their recipes adding the colorful Indian spices and herbs, adding a new dimension to the traditional Parsi cuisine. Many of the Parsi dishes are seafood-based and that is because Parsis earlier settled as traders and therefore they occupied the coastal region and towns. Later on with the advent of Europeans and the British, Parsis decided to add another element to their cuisine – desserts, and that’s how Parsis fell in love with puddings, ice-creams and custards. Today, majority of people across Mumbai flock to Irani cafes to have puddings, cakes and custards that can beat Starbucks and Café Coffee Day hands down in terms of quality, taste and price. After all, Irani cafes were and still remains a meeting place for many people for social gathering or just a casual meet-up. Read my exclusive blog on Irani Cafes in Mumbai.
Compared to the spicy Indian food, Parsi cuisine is mildly spiced and strikes a good balance between sweet and sour. While we are very particular about the taste, we are not really finicky about what we eat. The only thing that matters to us is that the food should taste delicious, the list of ingredients hardly matter, but the quality of ingredients does matter. Spices are an important part of our food and if you want to prepare a Parsi dish make sure that your spices come from M. Motilal Masalawala. Yes, that’s the brand name majority Parsis and Iranis have been using for the entire last century and it still continues to be leading name. I am not endorsing or promoting the brand, but somehow these guys have perfected the art of spices and when you add these spices to the Parsi cuisine, it works like a magic.
So, here are some of the popular Parsi and Irani dishes that are quite popular in the community.
Dhansak (Lentils Cooked with Mutton/Chicken/Vegetables)
If you’ve ever been to a Parsi friend’s home or ceremony you might have come across this dish for sure. Dhansak is a household recipe which is also served during ceremonies, but most Parsi/Irani women cook it at home. In all these years, I have come across so many different Dhansak recipes that I’ve lost count. It includes lentils mixed with chicken or mutton (depends on your preference) cooked well to get that tasty brown thick texture. Dhansak is generally served with brown rice.
Paatra-ni-Macchi (Fish Wrapped in a Leaf)
This is a trademark dish that you ought to find at every Parsi/Irani ceremonies. Basically, it’s a marinated pomfret fillet coated with green chutney (made from coconut, green chillies, cumin seeds, garlic and lemon juice) wrapped in a banana leaf. The leaf is tied well and then it is steam cooked for 15-25 minutes. During the steaming process, flavors of the chutney get absorbed into the fish giving it a fine texture and softness. When you eat it, you get the tender flavor of the fish infused with hot-sweet-sour flavor.
Parsis breakfast dishes are usually effortless, simple and yummy. Akoori Pav is one such simple to make breakfast item that has remained so popular with bawas. It also looks very similar to the Mumbai-style bhurji bread (scrambled egg and breads). Parsis picked up this dish from the British and it still remains hot favorite in the community.
Margi Na Farcha (Chicken Wings)
While KFC’s Colonel Sanders was working hard to make a delicious chicken wing recipe in Kentucky, Parsis were already chomping off the Margi na Farcha at various festivities. This is a great starter for any event, be at home or somewhere else. Many Parsis prepare it with their own experiments to it and therefore you will find that the taste differ when you move from place to place.
Kolmi no Patio (Prawn/Shrimp in Spicy Tomato Curry)
While Parsis normally prefer mildly spiced food, this one is an exception. Kolmi no patio (in red hot-sweet-sour sauce) is certainly for those who want to relish some spicy tangy food. It is generally served with a plain lentil side dish and rice and the spicy flavor blends with rice and the lentils to give its distinct flavor. If you’re not ready for a heavy meal like Dhansak, Kolmi no Patio is the right substitute.
Sauce ni Macchi (Fish in White Sauce)
If you’re a sea-food fanatic, Sauce ni Macchi also known as Saas ni Macchi is a mildly spiced fish dish cooked in sweet and sour white sauce. Compared to the Patra Ni Macchi, it is less spicy, because it has more of sweet-sour flavor to it. On the other hand, pomfret is commonly used for Patra Ni Macchi, but for Sauce ni Macchi one can choose from wide variety of white fish and it still taste good.
Sali Boti (Mutton with Spicy Tomato Gravy Garnished with Fried Matchstick Potatoes)
I already mentioned about how Parsis are not too worried about the list of ingredients and this is one dish that has a weird combination of ingredients, but it still taste good. This dish includes bone or boneless mutton cooked in spicy tomato gravy. The mutton is slow-cooked to ensure the flavor is retained in the gravy. After serving it on the plate, it is garnished with fried matchstick potatoes.
Sali Per Eedu (Eggs on Fried Matchstick Potatoes)
Another weird combination Parsi dish that has remained one of the staple breakfast items in the Parsi community is Sali per Eedu. This make-it-quick dish is good for picnics and one-day trips. Put some oil in the frying pan, add fried matchstick potatoes, some chopped tomatoes, green chilies and coriander and break the eggs over the fried matchstick potatoes. Cook till the eggs are done and sprinkle salt and pepper as per preference. That’s it.
Sagan Ni Sev (Roasted Vermicelli of the Auspicious Day)
A Parsi might say no to his wife’s demands, but he cannot say no to sweet dishes. We gobble up lot of sweet food items after our meal. Any festivity event or celebration is basically incomplete if you don’t have desserts or any sweet-dish and Sagan ni Sev is one such item. However, Sagan ni Sev is a morning dessert to kickstart your birthday or a New Year day on a sweet note. I remember my mother making me Sagan Ni Sev for me on my birthday and even on Parsi New Year day. It involves roasted vermicelli being cooked until it is golden brown. Raisins and dry fruits are then added to it along with sugar and clarified butter (ghee).
Falooda and Kulfi
Parsis still have retained certain food dishes that connect them to their Iranian roots and kulfi falooda is one such dessert that you’ll find in the community. While Parsis and Iranis as equally crazy about ice-creams, but kulfis and faloodas still top the list.
Lagan Nu Custard (The Wedding Custard)
An iconic dessert, Lagan Nu Custard is generally towards the end of celebration and a typical Parsi normally starts eating it when he or she is about to burp all the food just consumed, an indicator that he/she just made space for the incoming custard. When British were in India, Parsis fell in love with custards and puddings and this one still remains immensely popular across the community.
Apart from all these there are many other in-between-the-meal snacks like bhakra (deep fried sweet dough balls) and dar ni pori (sweetened lentils stuffed into bread) and Chaapat that are equally popular in the community. One can also not forget the popular bun maska (bun bread & butter) and biscuits and mawa cakes that one find at various Irani cafes. The Lagan Nu Bhonu (The Wedding Food) is one such example that Parsis are foodies and if you ever want to witness the food madness try attending any Parsi wedding or Navjote (initiation ceremony) and wait for that two-word announcement – Jamva Chaloji, which means Let’s Go, Eat.