A Brown Kitchen: India meets Persia in seductive Parsi pickles


October 4, 2018

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A first cookbook is like a first love, the first boy that you meet and fall in love with. You might not end up spending your life with him, but you might always remember the relationship fondly.

That is exactly how I feel about Niloufer Ichaporia King’s “My Bombay Kitchen.” It was the first cookbook that I purchased, and in many ways my first love.

Article by Nik Sharma | San Francisco Chronicle


When I moved to America, I was excited to be in a new country. Most of my time was spent trying out new restaurants or trying to get invitations to my friends’ homes so I could eat something new. But then, suddenly, halfway through the first year of school, I started to miss the food of Bombay (now known as Mumbai), the city where I was born and brought up until I turned 20. Now in Ohio, I was unable to find a lot of those special and regional dishes on the menus at Indian restaurants around me.

I missed the Indo-Chinese cuisine, a unique genre influenced by the Chinese immigrant population in India. I missed the pandan-scented goat biryanis served during the festival of Eid, and I missed the golden-brown grilled Mumbai sandwiches stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes and grated cheese, topped with warm melted butter.

And then there was the Parsi food.

Let me back up first. In high school, I joined a theater club, thinking a loud booming voice would be a good skill onstage. Between learning my lines, I made a few friends in the club, namely Yezdazar, whose mother ran the club. She chose the stories and the plays, picked the music and had the final say on all wardrobes. But she also did something that I thought was more amazing: She would invite some of us for lunch.

Yezdazar grew up in a Parsi household and his mom’s food was spectacular. Her kitchen table was always full — fresh crunchy spring onions served with bright red quartered tomatoes, lentil stews, an herb-seasoned roasted chicken, aromatic basmati rice and a wide selection of homemade condiments.

I eventually left theater club, when I realized I couldn’t hold a tune, and decided it was probably wise to move to something where I had some talent. Yezdazar transferred to a new school so those memorable lunches were gone, and I failed to stay in touch. But because the Parsi community is one of the most important communities in Mumbai, I had options to visit bakeries and restaurants to get my food fix. And so, Parsi food became synonymous with the city where I grew up.

The Parsi community migrated to India from Persia centuries ago and brought its unique cuisine, which was adapted to the ingredients available in India. They built some of the most wonderful bakeries, full of cookies, breads and pastries loaded with sweet cream.

I missed Parsi food when I came to America, until I came across Niloufer, a San Francisco author who holds a special Parsi New Year celebration every year at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Those words alone brought back memories of the Mumbai I missed, the food that I craved. I made Niloufer’s dhansak, a rich lentil stew with fresh fenugreek greens, herbs and vegetables; her poached jardalus (a type of dried apricot) and eggplant pickles, which have become a staple in my pantry.

Today, I keep my copy of “My Bombay Kitchen” safely tucked away on a bookshelf on the wall in my kitchen. I’ve used it often and still go back to it, just for Niloufer’s prose or her recipes. They still fill that void when I get homesick for Mumbai and the parts that make it so endearing to me.

Recipe: Niloufer’s Parsi Eggplant Pickles

This recipe is adapted from Niloufer Ichaporia King’s “My Bombay Kitchen” (2007, University of California Press). In India, we pickle almost everything, from unripe green mangoes to gooseberries to this beautiful eggplant pickle that’s rich with bold flavors. Indian pickles — or aachars — are different from their Western counterparts. They use a combination of oil and spices to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, and they’re also typically not fermented. Some recipes require the pickles to be kept in the sun as they cure. Oils like mustard or sesame are the two most popular choices in India, with the former bringing in that wasabi-like kick. But because of its high erucic acid content, mustard oil is not sold in America; there is a variety from Australia called Yandilla that is legally sold at Market Hall Foods in Oakland because it has a low erucic acid content.

Makes about 2 quarts

2 cups mustard, peanut or sesame oil (not toasted sesame oil)

2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

¾ cup thinly sliced garlic

¾ cup julienned, peeled fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons cayenne (see Note)

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

5 pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 cup sliced serrano or Thai peppers (see Note)

cups apple cider vinegar

¾ packed light brown sugar or jaggery

2 tablespoons sea salt

Instructions: In a deep non-reactive pan, heat the oil until hot. Add the fenugreek, cumin and fennel seeds. They will sputter, but watch carefully to not let the seeds burn. If they burn, remove the seeds with a tea strainer, discard and repeat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until they turn golden brown. Reduce the heat to low. Add the cayenne and turmeric and cook for about 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the eggplant and peppers and stir to coat, then add the vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir well to combine and bring to a boil on high heat, then reduce the heat and let it simmer, uncovered, until the eggplant softens completely and the oil floats to the top, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Do not add water. If it looks like the eggplant is going to stick, add a few spoonfuls of vinegar. While the pickle is warm, taste and adjust the balance of sweet, salt and sour. When cool, stir to incorporate the oil and then bottle. Store in a cool, dark place.

Note: If you like the pickle less spicy, halve the amount of cayenne and peppers.