During my college years, I believed there was a conspiracy among my friends. Some of them were friendly with me just so that they could get invited to a Parsi event. Unlike most Indian weddings which have gained a reputation for never-seen opulence and pomp, Parsi events are in demand for one delicious reason…the Parsi food.
Recently, a dear friend who loves Indian food, especially Parsi food gave me this article idea after reading my post on Mouthwatering Memories from India. Her question- ‘what really distinguishes Parsi food from regular Indian food?’
So for her and all who have this question…here are my thoughts on what makes my native cuisine so unique and delicious.
When and how. We (by which I mean my ancestors) came to India from Persia around the 8th Century CE. Parsi Zoroastrians follow the teachings of Prophet Zarathustra/Zoroaster and his ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. (Wikipedia offers detailed information on Parsis in India.) Most settled on the west coast of India and adopted Indian food habits and culture. Over the past 1300 years thanks to our love for food, Parsi cuisine has grown into a unique west coast Indian cuisine which still retains some food flavors and techniques from ancient Persia. It’s like a slice of history on a plate.
- Vinegar and sugar- Many Parsi dishes use this unique balance of acid and sweetness called ‘khattu mithu.’ A popular Parsi tomato-based curry is the ‘Patio’; made using this method. The turkey mince (Kheemo) in this recipe is another example of how these two elements work together in a dish.
- Predominance of seafood –There are some very distinctive dried seafood pickles (like Sukha Boomla Achar) in our cuisine which are made using seafood and the ‘khattu mithu’ principle mentioned above. Growing up, the prawn pickle was a staple at home. Seafood, in general is seen often in Parsi dishes due to our coastal location in India. Unique and popular fish dishes include a green-chutney fish cooked in banana leaf (Patra ni Macchi) and an egg and vinegar based white fish curry (Saas ni Macchi.)
- Eggs on vegetables, frittata style- Growing up, my mum put eggs on everything. I mean it when I say everything; even most of our Parsi traditions require the cracking of raw eggs…but that’s another story for another day. Frothy well-beaten eggs form a delicious layer over many vegetables like okra, tomatoes, potatoes…and a kiddy favorite, eggs on chips. This Parsi-style Omelet recipe is comfort food at its best; bringing back childhood memories.
- Balance of dried fruits, fresh fruits and nuts- Dried fruit like apricots and raisins, nuts like pistachio and almond appears commonly in Parsi dishes. And it is not uncommon to find fresh fruits like pomegranate and bananas in the food. A boneless lamb preparation using apricots (Jardaloo Sali Boti) is one of my favorites even today.
- Bringing together meat and vegetables in one dish- Our most popular dish, Dhansak is made using lentils, meat and vegetables. Served with caramelized spiced rice, this dish truly shows a blend of Indian flavors and Persian technique. Check out this Dhansak recipe on the Parsi Cuisine website.
- Kachumber – This simple salad of chopped onions, cucumber, tomatoes, green chilies and cilantro leaves with a dressing of salt and cider vinegar or lemon is served with Parsi rice dishes.
- Use of rice or bread with food - Unlike most Indian homes which use chapatti/Indian flatbread, many Parsi families use bread or rice preparations with their food. The Parsi Pulao is one such popular rice dish, very similar to the Indian rice-and-meat preparation, Biryani.
- Custards and puddings- One of our popular wedding desserts is Lagan nu Custard (wedding custard) which is our version of the Crème Brulee. Puddings and custards are a staple in Parsi homes; my granny always had a good stock of ‘pudding’ (made in the pressure cooker because she didn’t have an oven) and ‘jelly’ as a ready treat in her fridge. Years later in hospitality school, I realized my favorite childhood pudding uses all the ingredients of a Crème Anglaise. I guess that speaks for the British influence on Parsi food.
Prophet Zarathustra gave us a simple philosophy to help lead a pure and happy life; ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds’…I’m just going to add ‘Good Food’ to that.