Once Chef Anahita found her culinary calling, bringing authentic Parsi food into the mainstream eye was almost a no-brainer. With The Parsi Kitchen, she seems on track.
Chef Anahita Dhondy’s food philosophy has consistently championed local, seasonal, and regional ingredients. This makes for the perfect gateway into Parsi cuisine, especially in its most authentic preparation, at home.
Aside from being a celebrity chef and social media influencer, Chef Anahita’s most popularly known for launching and establishing across India, nine outlets of Sodabottleopenerwala. The chain highlighted the budding chef’s passion to bring Parsi cuisine to the fore, and cemented her passion to explore and enhance regional food.
Estranged from her professional kitchen and diners sporadically during the lockdown, Chef Anahita found herself with an unusual amount of free time for the first time in years of chaos. Making the most of it all, she opened Anahita and Nilufer’s Weekend Kitchen from her house in tandem with her culinary inspiration, her mother. And of course, she sat down to complete her debut literary outing.
The Parsi Kitchen is perhaps the most natural culmination of her journey. Written over five long years, it’s a true labour of love, and an extremely delicious one at that. The book is not just a bunch of recipes thrown together, but a story lovingly woven together with intimate stories.
When asked about her inspiration, Chef Anahita says, “There aren’t too many chefs writing about their regional cuisine, that’s something I wanted to kind of showcase and share with the world. There was also a major shortage of Parsi cookbooks in the market, the last one was probably about 10-12 years ago! This is also a time where we’re exploring regional cuisine, making it perfect.”
Most would consider a professional chef’s cookbook a daunting and intimidating point to start from. That’s where The Parsi Kitchen differs, what with it’s stories of home and warmth replete with simplified steps.
It was a long process, however, with several rewrites, redevelopments, and testing of recipes along the way. While around 70% of the recipes came from her family, Chef Anahita was careful to do her due diligence before adding them to the book. She understands that home cooking isn’t about careful measurements but a little bit of ‘andaaz’, so there’s pro tips and tricks added below most recipes for that extra bit of help.
As for the rewriting, she says, “I worked on 2 drafts 3 years ago. So the first two years I worked on a draft that I didn’t like at all, so I scrapped it. It was becoming too textbook like, I wanted it to be more personal. If I can’t read it I don’t expect anyone else to read it. If you can pick it up at any time to read, if you keep going back to it for recipes and stories, then I consider it a success.”
According to the chef, each recipe comes with a backstory, and all the recipes find some root in her childhood and upbringing. Through these recipes, she aims to take you into a Parsi home.
So it isn’t surprising that her favourite recipe from The Parsi Kitchen is the Dhan Dar Patio. Similar to varan bhaat or dal chawal with a side dish, it’s a very fresh and tangy recipe. The chef recommends people to try this particular recipe first owing to its simple yet flavourful nature. For Chef Anahita, it’s a special craving when she travels home, her ‘comfort and go-to recipe’.
For sweet tooth satiation, there’s her grandmother’s classic Ravo recipe. Essentially a suji pudding, this dessert is popular amongst the Parsi community on auspicious occasions. Like several of their other popular dishes, it’s surprisingly easy to prepare. Of all chapters and dishes, one that’s closest to her heart is perhaps the one entitled Kairi chicken, which gives you a glimpse of her late grandfather’s rich life.
Writing a book is often as much of a journey for the author as it is for the reader. For Chef Anahita too, the curation of these Parsi recipes helped her reconnect with and discover her roots.
Of her highlights, she comments, “My travel to Gujarat for a month alone was definitely it. I went to all the small towns, door to door, and met people. Some people were really welcoming, others found it really strange that I was walking into their house and talking about food. It was very special to me because I got to explore where the whole thing for the Parsi community started.”
With extensive experience on a global scale with what is conventionally considered refined cuisine, one wonders why regional Indian food representation is so important to the chef. Having set up nine locations of SBOW and worked with the brand for nine years, what fuels her commitment to broadcasting regional, especially Parsi cuisine?
To this, she naturally replies, “The thing is that Indian food hasn’t been given the same kind of respect [as other global cuisines] for a long time. Especially regional Indian food. You’ll just find about 5 popular dishes across the world. Whereas in India, we know there’s so much variation across ingredients and techniques, hidden gems that are just not shown to the world. For each one of us, it’s our responsibility as chefs and consumers to dig deeper into ours, and other regional cuisines, and showcase it to that world. There’s so much to learn and so much to share and so much to be made. Now’s the time we need to represent it and be proud.”
Putting her money (and meals!) where her mouth is, The Parsi Kitchen’s book launch on February 11 at Mag St. Cafe, Mumbai is followed by a special dinner. The idea of the entire event is to do more than talk about the recipes and stories, but also experience it.
At the dinner, you get to actually experience the lost Parsi recipes from the book, made with the freshest regional ingredients by Chef Anahita. And when you like it, you can pick up the book to try it for yourself at home! The Parsi meals and 3 cocktails are priced at Rs 3,000, served with a generous side of sentiments and intimacy of storytelling with the author.
While Chef Anahita continues to plough on, and fight the good fight for Parsi cuisine awareness, she still emphasises the need for it to be a holistic task. “As consumers, they need to support the movement, that’s where the real change comes from. As chefs we can serve different ingredients and dishes, but if they don’t purchase it, my effort goes down the drain. Restaurants and even journalism included, the awareness comes from everywhere. It’s not the responsibility of just restaurants to be inclusive, that lies with the consumer and in social media, of course, supported by restaurants,” she adds.
From starting off with a 100+ recipes five years ago while juggling several restaurants and launches to finally being able to pen a full book that stands as a true memoir of food and family – Chef Anahita’s come a long and fulfilling way. Like other remarkable and modest chefs, she’s quick to clarify that success isn’t her end goal, rather an ongoing learning process.
On a parting note, I pick her brain on the distinction between a good and great chef. She says, “They must be really instinctive. A good cook can follow instructions and steps and a recipe, but a great cook can create those recipes, add to them, take away from them, enhance them.”
With The Parsi Kitchen, Chef Anahita reinforces her mettle as a great chef, and gives her readers the opportunity to be the same as well!