Food is integral in a Parsi home, be it at festivals, as part of tradition or enjoying a leisurely, lavish spread. All three elements come together this Sunday, when Zoroastrians celebrate their New Year, Navroz. The GUIDE caught up with Jeroo Mehta, expert in Parsi cuisine, to take us through its intricacies and uniqueness
“Considering the miniscule size of the community, compared to what it has achieved and contributed, I am proud to be a Parsi,” says Jeroo Mehta, the doyenne of Parsi cooking, on the eve of Navroz. Dressed in a light blue shirt and white pants, the culinary author and former Associate Editor of a leading women’s magazine, tells us that Parsis believe that there are six seasons in a year with important festivals - originally related to agriculture. In each, food plays a very important role.
“I embarked into marriage without knowing how to cook, and it was because of the trials and tribulations both I and my family had to suffer whenever we were without an experienced cook that I wrote the book, 101 Parsi Recipes,” she says with a laugh. “When I perfected the art of cooking, I decided to put it all down, so no bride would be in the same plight as I was in!"
According to Mehta, on festive occasions like Navroz (this year on Sunday, August 18), birthdays and anniversaries, a typical Parsi menu would include a fish dish like Crispy-Brown Fried Fish or Luganno Sas (Fish in Spicy White Sauce), Khari Murghi-ma Sali (Chicken with Potato Straws), Meat Pilau with Masala Dal (Dhansak Dal without meat), or Dhan Dal and Kolimino Patio (Prawn Patio). The meal would end with a dessert of Sev with Sweet Curd, or Ravo.
Nuts over food
Over the centuries since the first Zoroastrians arrived in India, Parsis have integrated themselves into Indian society while simultaneously maintaining or developing their own distinct customs and traditions. “The use of dry fruits, liberally sprinkled over desserts and other dishes, and saffron, are a Persian influence,” says Mehta.
“Almonds, pistachios, kismis, walnuts, cashew, etc enhance Parsi cuisine. Figs, pomegranates (symbol of fertility), plums and apricots are used with abandon and decorate special dishes for celebrations during festivals and on any happy occasion.
Although a lot of our cooking reflects the Persian influence, which followed us to India 13 centuries ago, Parsi cuisine has adopted many ingredients that are used by other communities in India,” she reasserts. Thus Milky Falooda (traditionally served at Navroz), coconut milk in cooking and many other flavours and spices of the varied and individual cuisines of India have become part of Parsi cuisine.
About the Ses
Pointing to the cover of her bestseller, 101 Parsi Recipes, which shows a Ses (used on auspicious occasions) and consists of a silver plated tray or thali, containing a pigani, a container for the kum-kum, a vermillion paste, a paro which is conical shaped and contains sakar (large sugar crystals), and a gulabus which contains rose water, Mehta explains how each constituent of the thali has immense significance to a Parsi.
There may also be paan and sopari and a fish, which are considered auspicious symbols. The Ses may also contain rice, signifying abundance, sugar (sweetness), silver coins (wealth), eggs, for long life, and pomegranate.
(Fish in Spicy White Sauce, serves 4)
Slices of fish cooked in a gently spiced sweet and sour sauce and usually served at weddings. Also a favourite served with Khichdee.
450 g (1 Ib) Pomfret, Surmai or Indian
Salmon (Rawas) cut in slices 2 cm (¾ inch) thick
2 medium onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander
3 green chillies, finely chopped
1 green chilli, slit
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped (¾ teaspoon)
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds, slightly pounded, or cumin seed powder
2 dessert spoons flour
2 ¼ teaspoons salt
6 cherry tomatoes
2 cups water
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
½ tablespoon sugar
(Blend all 3 in a bowl)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
>> In a pan, heat oil and fry onion till soft and yellow (not brown). Drain excess oil.
>> Add coriander, chopped green chillies, slit green chilli, garlic and cumin seeds. Blend well and cook on low heat for 5 minutes.
>> Add flour and blend to a smooth paste, then add water gradually and mix well. Bring mixture to the boil; add 1 teaspoon of salt and simmer, covered, on low heat for 10 minutes.
>> Add slices of fish, tomatoes and 1¼ teaspoon of salt and continue cooking till fish is cooked.
>> Let fish cool then add mixture of vinegar, Worcestershire Sauce, sugar and egg. Tilt pan to allow mixture to flow evenly over fish. Place pan again on heat and cook 5 minutes longer before serving.
Extracted with permission from 101 Parsi Recipes, Jeroo Mehta, Popular Prakashan, Rs 250