Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

5 Questions with Archeologist and Food Writer Kurush Dalal

TCS: There’s something about “gymkhana grub” that a certain generation will remember with great fondness. Your mum Katy ran kitchens for a few clubs herself – what are your memories of the food then?

KD: Katy ran kitchens at the Freemasons Hall, The Elphinstone Cricket Club, The PVM Gymkhana; and the Ripon Club. I also did my time at the Ripon, PVM and Elphinstone. Much of club food is the food of the Raj era, since the clubs date back to this period. My memories include fridges full of soufflés (like modern ice cream freezers) and elaborate roasts. Three, four and five course meals were common place. There were cheesey bakes, loads of buttery mash, salads with mayonnaise and aspics with meats, cold cuts and galantines. These have almost vanished from the food scene today. Lobster Thermidor was a great favourite of the Freemasons and Lobster Cocktails in hollowed out grapefruits were a great favourite at the PVM parties. The Elphinstone was more about Parsi food and budget snacks. The Ripon was almost all about lunch. Their Wednesday Dhansakh was almost a religious event as was the hand-churned mango ice cream. We did a variety of desserts at the Ripon which we rarely see today…my favourite was the Crepes Normandie.

WORDS BY GENESIA ALVES

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TCS: Parsi food has, over generations, incorporated influences from wherever the community settled. However, some of the original ingredients, like the fruit, berries or flowers of the old cuisine are not easily available here. Are there substitutes for these? Or has their importance faded?

KD: The cuisine of the Parsis today is separated from its parent cuisine by 1,300 years…this makes Parsi cuisine a separate cuisine with a series of influences, one of which is Persian. Here you have to note that this Persian is not the Persian of today but the Persian of 13,00 years ago. Thus, the adaptation to the Indian landscape is complete…no ingredient from Persia is missed per se. They have already been substituted. The pomegranate molasses (a souring agent) was replaced with imli, kokum, and then vinegar. The chickpeas were replaced with dal and the dried herbs with fresh greens. A few ingredients did keep coming from Iran amongst them were rose water and saffron.

TCS: You’re married to a Bengali – another community obsessed with food. Would you dare rate the cuisines? (Light heartedly of course!)

KD: Bengalis have a very distinctly Eastern Indian sensibility in their cuisine. They share influences with Orissa, Assam, and parts of Bihar and Tripura. But each of these sub zones within a larger zone has their own food idiosyncrasies. Bengali cuisine is incredibly rich is form and in the specific techniques of prep and execution. It has a very intricate vegetarian cuisine. It is an ancient cuisine with nuances and traditions dating back over time. Their food is event, caste specific with specific elements for widows, religious events etc. It follows many ayurvedic traditions. The meals are elaborate and follow very specific orders of dishes and meats…this is not really a huge thing with Parsi cuisine, and I find it fascinating. I rate it amongst the most elaborate and interesting cuisines of India, especially in a non-Royal context.

TCS: Your mother’s book Vitality focused on the nutrients in vegetables. How do you incorporate this sort of knowledge into the everyday kitchen?

KD: With patience. Jokes apart it is a fact that we have forgotten most of the practical and nutritional knowledge about food, and Vitality is a great guide in filling in the blanks. The home cook needs to understand the seasonality of produce, to be dependent more on local crops and not on imported fruit, vegetable and grain. In the absence of family elders the book is a great help to the Nuclear Family.

TCS: What are you looking forward to at the event?

KD: Great conversation and a sharing of memories with friends, since all food is memories, either ones you have made or are in the process of making.

Kurush Dalal is one of the guest speakers at the Gather event organised by BARO, Bombay Perfumery, and Paper Planes. The event, amongst other things, also celebrates the release of the new issue of Gather Journal (an independently published food magazine), a copy of which can be purchased from here.

The City Story is media partner for the event.