The Navroze table

Parsis have a reputation for being major food lovers, as anyone attending a Parsi celebration will confirm. And that’s a reputation likely to be upheld on March 21, when Parsis the world over mark Navroze.

While this festival is regarded as the New Year by just one of the three main sects of Parsis, the Faslis, all Parsis celebrate the event. The devout visit the fire temple in the morning and dine with family and friends that evening.

The cliché is that Parsis like to eat, drink and be merry, so it’s no surprise that food plays a large part in their lives. And this festival is a carnivore’s delight. Chicken, lamb and eggs are staples, with fried vegetables and seafood delights thrown in for good measure.

Traditionally, Parsi feasts took place outdoors, with the dinner tables laid out in long rows covered with white linen. The seating arrangement is unusual in that chairs are placed only on one side of the table. The tide of guests usually peaks at around 8 p.m., when the first call of “Jamva chaloji” (Let’s eat) is heard.

Two banana leaves and a white cotton napkin folded into a glass are laid out in front of every guest, along with a fork and spoon. The servers bring out the seven- to nine-course meal in carefully timed intervals, and almost every item on the menu has some significance.

It starts with humble rotlis or flatbread made of wheat. Then laggan noo achar (a pickle made with carrot, raisins and dates) and sarias (rice chips) roll in. Patra ni machhi (fish wrapped in banana leaves), considered auspicious, is followed by salli murgi (chicken with shoestring potatoes), tamota pur eedo (eggs on tomatoes) symbolizing abundance and fertility, and gose no palao (lamb pulao) topped with masala dal (spicy lentils), to offer thanks for the bounty of God.

The masala dal is made of a variety of dry lentils (usually seven) that are readily available and easy on the purse. Everyone can afford to eat dal and rice, which constitute the staple diet of most Indians. The amount of meat in the rice implies your social status

The dessert is always the quintessential, thick 7.5-centimetre-square piece of laggan noo custard (wedding custard). And despite the humongous calorie load, seconds are always offered and often accepted.

The Parsis’ food-centric ways have persisted since they sailed from Persia to the shores of the subcontinent. They’re also thriving in the GTA, which is home to more than 5,000 Parsis.

“We do have a wonderfully vibrant zest for life and love to celebrate every occasion on any calendar,” says Nilufer Mavalvala of Mississauga. “All festivals usually tend to circle around food and hence it is confirmed without any doubt that we do have a passionate love affair with food in general. No excuses here.”

After their initial migration to India about 1,300 years ago, the Parsi palate evolved, as did their customs and traditions. Persian staples — meat, fruits such as apricots, lemons, oranges and pomegranates, and rice — gave way to foods abundant in India such as coconuts, legumes, bananas, vegetables, cinnamon, cloves, black peppers, saffron and cardamom. The hot summers weren’t conducive to a meat-based diet so legumes served as a source of protein.

“Our cooking is still based on using products that grow around you. Whatever is available becomes the staple food; whatever is affordable is used in abundance,” Mavalvala says. “We must praise our ancestors for being extremely wise and beyond their years, for they were green before we knew what ‘going green’ was all about. We promoted fruits with antioxidants before we knew what that was, either.”

Persia was where the pomegranate originated and it’s still heavily used in Parsi cooking. Pregnant women are encouraged to eat one daily, Mavalvala says. And the fruit holds pride of place in ceremonies such as Jashan (thanksgiving prayer) Laggan (wedding) and Navjote (communion). Berries and walnuts, another holdover from Persia, are also widely consumed.

“From India, we added the banana leaf, which is still a huge source of conversation,” adds Mavalvala. Because weddings were traditionally huge affairs taking place over several days, caterers used banana leaves, which were readily available and made cleanup easy. They can withstand heat and cold, don’t have a strong smell, won’t discolour food and are strong enough to support the weight of the food placed on them. They’re large enough to be comfortably used as a plate. And afterwards, they’re compostable.

“The conventional Parsi feast was lavish,” says Kay Nargolwalla, an amateur gourmet cook. “Folklore has it that people would abstain from breakfast and lunch the night they were invited to a Parsi wedding or Navroze feast.

“A traditional feast has everything imaginable, from meats, fish, potatoes, eggs, rice, sweets and every possible food and drink one can think of. But those days are just memories now,” Nargolwalla laments. In North America today, the feasts are held at banquet halls and hotels where the menu is fixed, and the menu takes on a North American influence. “But in true Parsi spirit, we adapt as we have been doing for the past 1,000 years.”

Teenaz Javat is a Mississauga-based freelance writer for publications in Canada, India and Pakistan. Email desilife@thestar.ca.

LAMB PULAO

1 kg (2.2 lb) cubed boneless leg of lamb
1 tsp garlic paste
1 tsp ginger paste
4 tbsp + 2 tbsp canola oil
3 medium onions, finely sliced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
in 1-inch cubes
5 green cardamom pods
2 black cardamom pods
10 black peppercorns
1/4 tsp ground mace
8 cloves
2-inch piece cinnamon
2 bay leaves
2 large tomatoes, chopped
3 green chilies, chopped
5 tbsp plain yogurt, beaten lightly
1/2 tsp + 1/4 tsp saffron
Salt to taste
71/2 cups water
11/4 cup basmati rice
1 tbsp lemon juice
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved

Place lamb in deep mixing bowl. Add ginger paste and garlic paste, mix well, cover and refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temperature when ready to cook.

Warm 4 tbsp oil in deep non-stick skillet set over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Transfer to small bowl, reserving 3 tbsp of fried onions separately. Add 2 tbsp oil to skillet and add potatoes.

Sauté until golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

In the same skillet add green and black cardamom, black peppercorns, mace, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves. After a few seconds, when spices splutter, add marinated lamb. Increase heat to high and brown meat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes, green chillies, larger portion of fried onions, 1 tbsp yogurt, 1/2 tsp saffron and salt. Cook 5 minutes, then add water. Mix well, cover and boil 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook 1 hour or transfer contents of skillet to ovensafe dish, cover and bake in preheated 300F oven for 1 hour. Sauce should be thick at the end of cooking.

Meanwhile, prepare rice. Place in deep bowl and rinse two or three times under running water. Drain and set aside. Bring 7 cups water to boil in large pot set over high heat. Add rice and bring to boil again. Reduce heat to medium and cook uncovered for 8 minutes until partially cooked. Stir once or twice only. Drain immediately and spread rice on tray to cool. In a small non-stick frying pan over medium heat, add 1/4 tsp saffron and toast for a few seconds. Crush saffron into small bowl with fingers and add 1 tbsp lemon juice.

In a large oven-safe pan, spread a third of the rice, sprinkle 1 tbsp reserved fried onions and 2 tbsp yogurt. Layer half the meat and sauce, 1 tsp lemon saffron liquid, half of the fried potatoes and 4 halves of boiled eggs; repeat with second layer. Top with the remaining rice, sprinkle 1 tbsp fried onions and remaining lemon saffron liquid. Cover tightly and return to the oven at 300F for 30 minutes.

Serves four

LAGGAN NOO CUSTARD

4 cups homogenized milk
1 tbsp semolina
1 cup sugar
4 tbsp condensed milk
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tbsp butter or ghee
1 tsp cardamom powder
1 tsp nutmeg powder
3 tbsp slivered almonds
3 tbsp golden raisins

Bring milk to boil in heavy-bottomed saucepan set over high heat. Add semolina and sugar. Reduce heat to medium and cook 30 minutes till mixture thickens, stirring frequently.

Add condensed milk and cook 2 minutes. Keep aside and cool to room temperature.

Add eggs, stirring continuously, along with vanilla.

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a shallow baking dish with ghee or butter. Pour mixture in baking dish. Evenly sprinkle cardamom and nutmeg powders, slivered almonds and raisins over top. Bake for one hour until set.

Serves six

MASALA DAL

2 cups toor dal (or pigeon peas)
1/8 cup lal masoor dal (red lentils)
1/8 cup moong dal (yellow mung beans)
5 cups water
6-8 sprigs fresh coriander
A few mint leaves
1-inch piece ginger, sliced
6-8 whole black peppercorns
5-6 green cardamom pods
1/2 + 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
5 tbsp vegetable oil
3/4 tsp dhana jeera powder (a blend of cumin
and coriander seed)
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
3/4 tsp garam masala
3/4 tsp sambhar powder
3/4 tsp dhansak masala
1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
4 tbsp tomato puree
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 lime, juiced

Place all dals in deep bowl and wash several times under running water. Cover with water and soak 30 minutes. Drain, transfer to deep heavybottomed saucepan and add water, fresh coriander, mint, ginger, black peppercorns, cardamom, 1/2 tsp turmeric and salt. Mix, bring to boil over high heat and remove some of the scum that rises to the top. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover pan and cook 30 minutes. Stir occasionally and remove scum as it forms. Dal should be very soft and mushy when done. You can either mash it well with a ladle or transfer it to a blender and blend to a fine pulp. Set aside.

Warm oil in deep non-stick skillet set over medium heat. Add remaining turmeric, dhana jeera powder, chili powder, ground cumin, garam masala, sambhar powder and dhansak masala. Sauté 2 minutes until spices are fragrant. Add ginger-garlic paste, tomato puree and tomato paste. Cook 2 minutes, then add reserved dal. Mix well and cook uncovered 15 minutes for flavours to blend. Mix in lime juice and serve hot.

Serves six to eight

TAMOTA PUR EEDA

3 tbsp canola oil
3 onions, finely sliced (about 4 cups)
8 large plum tomatoes, diced (about 4 cups)
1 tsp minced garlic
1/4 tsp ground cumin seeds
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
3 green chilies, finely chopped
Salt to taste
3 tbsp malt or red wine vinegar
1 tsp brown sugar
4 large eggs

Warm oil in deep non-stick skillet over medium- high heat. Add onions, sauté until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, garlic, cumin, turmeric, chili powder, Worcestershire sauce, green chilies and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down, about 12 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook until sauce thickens, another 12-14 minutes. Mix in vinegar and sugar. Remove from heat. Transfer mixture into a flat oven-proof dish, about 8 inches square.

Preheat oven to 350F. Make 4 indentations in tomato mixture and break 1 egg in each. Bake until whites of eggs are set, about 20-25 minutes.

Alternatively, eggs can be whipped, spread over the mixture and cooked till done.

Serves four

Flavours of spring

By Smita Chandra

Enjoy the first taste of spring with this fragrant pulao loaded with tender asparagus and fresh herbs. Serve with raita and some tangy pickle.

ASPARAGUS HERB PULAO WITH SAUTÉED RED ONIONS

1 cup basmati rice
6 asparagus spears
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves
2 green cardamoms
1/2-inch stick cinnamon
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced, about 1 cup
2 tbsp of each of these fresh herbs, finely
chopped; dill, coriander, mint
1/4 tsp saffron strands
Salt to taste
1 3/4 cup water
1 plum tomato, finely diced

Place rice in deep bowl, rinse well with several changes of water. Cover with cold water and soak 15 minutes. Drain in sieve and set aside.

Trim woody ends off asparagus and dice spears into 1/2-inch pieces, leaving tips intact.

Warm oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf and cumin seeds. After about 30 seconds, when spices sizzle, add onions. Sauté for 5 minutes until they are softened and lightly brown. Add asparagus and herbs and sauté for 1 minute until herbs wilt. Add saffron, salt and drained rice, and sauté gently for 2 minutes. Add water and tomato, then bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to low, cover tightly and cook for 20 minutes.

Let rice sit for 5 minutes before transferring gently to platter. Serve right away.

Serves two to three

Original article here