Who moved my dhansak?: The tasty tale of Parsi food

From Persia with love came the Parsis, aching with nostalgia for their traditional food and ingredients but adaptable and open to influence, giving us one of India’s greatest cuisines.

How do you tell the Parsi from the pretender? Administer this three-question test:
Two dozen fried Bombay Ducks topped with a twist of lime makes for a good…

  • a) Dinner
  • b) Lunch
  • c) Breakfast
  • d) Wedding feast

When you enter the flower-bedecked venue of the Delna-Homi wedding, the first thing you do is…

  • a) Wish the bride and groom
  • b) Sip on a glass of Fanta and check out the saris
  • c) Nab an acquaintance and demand, “Who’s the caterer?”

You keep an extra day for your pilgrimage so that you

  • a) Have more time for prayer and contemplation
  • b) Can travel in a relaxed fashion
  • c) Can squeeze in an extra early morning milk puff, breakfast, mid-morning pick-me-up, lunch, auto-rickshaw mango ice cream, teatime treat, late-evening snack and dinner

Ask the questions and check the responses.

If you’ve landed a hat-trick of Cs, then you’ve found yourself a true representative of the Parsi community. Someone who requires at least three breakfasts to undertake the three-hour-long drive to the holy town of Udvada — a functional fried egg at home; Salli par Eedu on the highway; and then Kheema Pav and a chicken-organ-rich Aleti Paleti after arriving at Globe Hotel. Someone who unabashedly snoops around to find out whether the Delna-Homi feast will throw up Patra ni Machhi or Saas ni Machhi.

For if there’s one characteristic that unites Parsis across time zones, politics and personal tastes, it’s an extravagant and joyful love of food. “Most communities eat to live, but the Parsis live to eat. Khavanu, peevanu, majja ni life,” says Kurush Dalal, a Mumbai-based caterer, historian and archaeologist. Agrees Anahita Dhondy, chef and author of The Parsi Kitchen, “As I’ve written before, the Parsis love their chicken leg and Parsi peg.”

The parsis love their chicken farcha. Image: shutterstock/pi.
The Parsis love their Chicken Farcha. Image: Shutterstock/PI.

And they especially love their chicken leg when it’s fried into a frilly Chicken Farcha. Or cooked into a sweet-savoury Salli Margi topped with crunchy potato sticks. Just as they enjoy their pomfret smothered in a tangy green chutney, steamed in banana leaves. Or cooked in a delicate, white “saas” with elusive sweet-sour-spicy flavours. For this small community — best known for its Tatas and Godrejs, famous quirks and infamous insults, birdy dance and Mutton Dhansak — possesses an eclectic and extraordinary cuisine that goes well beyond Dhansak. From spiced Fish Cutles to an Egg Akoori made with raw mango and brinjal; from a chicken cooked in milk to chewy Bhakras and Mava Paancakes, the flavours span the globe.

The iconic dhansak, served with some kachumber and a pulao. Image: shutterstock/soumitra pendse.
The iconic Dhansak, served with some kachumber and a pulao. Image: Shutterstock/Soumitra Pendse.

“Parsi food is an amalgamation of at least five different cuisines — Persian, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Goan and British,” says Dhondy, who believes that this mix-and-match nature of the cuisine is responsible for its growing popularity. Adds Niloufer Mavalvala, Canada-based cookbook writer and foodie, whose books have won three Gourmand awards, “Parsi food is about balance. It’s never too oily or spicy because it’s balanced by the sweet and sour elements.”

This fine balance was born out of 1,200 years of desperate substitutions and kitchen experiments (which were probably viewed with the same misgivings that we view Oreo Ice Cream Samosa or Pav Bhaji Fondue). The story of the Parsis began around 12 centuries ago when a group of Zoroastrians fled Persia to escape religious persecution. Their boats carried them to Gujarat, where they made a new life for themselves in the palm-fringed coastal villages. When the Dutch, Portuguese and British arrived in India, the Parsis — who’d already mastered the art of adaptability — seized new opportunities and moved to urban centres like Bombay and Surat. “Parsi food is linked to the history of the community,” says Dalal. “It’s linked to the migration of the community as it moved from Persia to India, then from the towns of coastal Gujarat to Mumbai.”

It’s easy to imagine the Shirins and Sorabs who crossed the seas getting frazzled because they couldn’t find berries for their pulaos or dates for their bakes. But accepting that necessity was the mother of invention, they must have started adopting local vegetables and spices even while clinging on to the flavours of their motherland. “Preserved lemons, the love of saffron, cardamom, rose water, clove and cinnamon,” lists Mavalvala, who’s working on a book about food memories and recipes that the Parsis carried with them from Persia.

An iteration of lagan nu custard. Image: shutterstock/a rawool.
An iteration of Lagan nu custard. Image: Shutterstock/A Rawool.

This was just the beginning. Vinegar entered Parsi recipes when the Portuguese arrived in India. Custards, stews and cutlets marched in with the British. “Lagan nu custard is flavoured with jaiphal and vanilla. Vanilla as a homage to the British and jaiphal because we are Indian,” says Dalal, “From the Dutch we got biscuits and our Popatji (sweet dumplings) were inspired by the Poffertjes (Dutch pancakes).”

Which is how, idea by idea, the Parsi kitchen started creating dishes with familiar-unfamiliar names (cutles, istew, makrum, paancake) and identities as singular as that of the Parsis themselves.

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