Adaptable cooks

Indian Parsis, originally from Persia, absorbed various cultures’ cuisines and made them their own

On a cool, gray San Francisco morning, Niloufer Ichaporia King, the author of My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking, was driving to the Alemany Farmers’ Market, an outdoor venue offering an incredible selection of moderately priced fruits and vegetables grown on small farms in the area.

“Did you get a chance to look through my cookbook and decide what you wanted me to cook?” she asked Pat Reed, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

“Well,” Pat responded, “maybe something made with chicken. But I admit I found the potato chips and eggs dish in the book rather intriguing.”

“My husband mentioned a few days ago that it had been a long time since we’d had eggs and potato chips,” Niloufer said. “I’ll make them for breakfast this morning after we get home.”

Eggs and potato chips?

Niloufer King is a Parsi — born in Bombay, as Mumbai was once called, and raised in India — who has lived in the United States for the past 45 years, ever since she “rebelliously” married a Baltimore reporter when she was 19. That marriage ended years ago, and she has made her home for the past 25 years in the San Francisco Bay area.
Along the way, she picked up a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, and most years on March 21, she oversees the preparation of a Parsi New Year’s dinner at Alice Waters’ restaurant, Chez Panisse.

The Parsis, she says in her cookbook, originally lived in Persia and practiced Zoroastrianism, the religion based on the divine revelation that came to the prophet Zoroaster, who is thought to have been born in the seventh century B.C. in what is today Iran.

Zoroastrians believe that within each person is “an ongoing struggle between light and dark forces,” she writes. “Popular imagination has us classified as fire worshippers because the forces of light embodied in the ultimate godhead, Ahura Mazda, are symbolized by the sacred fires kept burning in the inner sanctums of our temples. To defeat the forces of darkness, … followers of Zoroaster are urged to concentrate on ‘good thoughts, good words, good deeds.’ ”

At one point, Zoroastrians influenced a civilization stretching from Europe and Africa over Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent. But by A.D. 641, Arabs had occupied Persia, and their new Islamic faith had become the state religion. Historians say massacres, persecution and conversions significantly reduced the Zoroastrian population.

While the Arabs were dispersing their Muslim message across the Mediterranean, “a small, stubborn group of diehard Zoroastrians resisted conversion to Islam,” King writes, “holding fast to the old faith, carrying its symbolic flame, the Iranshah, with them in their wanderings.”

Perhaps a century and a half after the Arabs arrived in Persia, this group reached Hormuz, she says, an ancient Persian port city on the Strait of Hormuz; today it is but a small village on a hilly, largely barren island. The Zoroastrians set sail for India around A.D. 936, and they landed in Diu, an island off what is today the state of Gujarat on the west coast of India. “Nineteen years later, in response to signs and portents,” King writes, “they set sail again, this time landing on the Gujarat coast.”

In Gujarat, the local leader gave the Persians land to till and told them they could practice their religion, but they would have to put down their weapons, respect local customs, wear local clothes and learn to speak Gujarati.

“For the next 500 years of so, Parsis spread out along the coastal plains of Gujarat,” King writes, “some engaged in agriculture and trade, some in weaving and shipbuilding, others in their hereditary priestly profession.”

After the British East India Co. arrived in Gujarat in 1608, the Parsis found their financial paradise. The company had initially been put together to compete with the Portuguese and Dutch in an admittedly nasty business, the trade of spices from India and Southeast Asia. But it quickly broadened its trade base to include cotton, silk and other items, and it reported big profits after landing in the country.

“Unhampered by rules of caste or food taboos, Parsis got along with both local suppliers and foreign buyers, acting as brokers and interpreters,” King says.

In 1661, when a Portuguese princess married Charles II, the king of England, her dowry included the seven islands that made up Bom Bahia, or “beautiful bay,” as Mumbai was then called. The English crown leased the islands to the East India Co., which quickly turned a few fishing villages and a deep natural harbor into a flourishing commercial center.

“Once more the ideal mediators and brokers, Parsis flocked to the growing city,” King writes.

Within 100 years, she says, “the commercial and cultural life of the community passed from rural Gujarat to urban Bombay, and the history of the city and Parsis became inextricably fused.”

***

The word adaptability perhaps best describes the Zoroastrians’ approach to their cuisine.

The food they had prepared in Persia had been extraordinary. Persians had, as King puts it, “an enduring love for saffron and rice; for meat cooked with fruit and vegetables; for fruit and nuts … ; for eggs cooked with vegetables; for herby lentil stews; for milk, cheese, and cream; for sweetmeats and wine and the taste of sweet-and-sour.”

In India, these people, now called Parsis — Pars-i means “people of Pars, or
Persia” — added Hindu and later Muslim influences to their cooking. With the arrival of the Portuguese came chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, cashews and other New World foods. And the Parsis embraced a number of European dishes as well.

“By the later part of the twentieth century,” King writes, “all this adopting and adapting and enriching had led to an urban Parsi cuisine with an immense range of tastes and techniques, a real magpie cuisine. At one end of the continuum, you find a simple dish of puréed lentils with little more than salt and cumin; at the other, the potage of five different kinds of lentils, eight vegetables, and twenty-something spices that is our emblematic dish, dhansak. …

“To this day, Parsi food is characterized by our ability to size up the offerings of another tradition and make them our own, adapting and transforming whatever we’ve taken a fancy to.”

***

“For years I thought that putting eggs on wafers, as we call potato chips in India, was a joke recipe,” the author writes in her cookbook, “a loony fantasy or a way of lampooning
our Parsi love affair with eggs.”

Then Niloufer, egged on by a friend who was a potato-chip expert, cooked the dish, called wafer par ida in India. “You will not believe how absolutely delicious this dish can be and how you’ll laugh with delight as you eat it,” she says.

Afterward, she checked with one of her Parsi food experts. “Oh, yes, wafer par ida,” the Parsi said. “Delicious.”

After the trip to the Alemany market on that gray morning, Niloufer headed for the kitchen of her house in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. There, she pulled out a skillet and softened some chopped onions in a little heated ghee. She next added ginger-garlic paste, some chopped green chiles and fresh cilantro, and crumbled a few handfuls of potato chips into the skillet, tossing the contents of the pan. Finally, she made nests in the potato chips and cracked an egg into each, cooking the eggs until they just set.

Then the three — Niloufer; her husband, David, a Berkeley chemistry professor; and Pat — began to eat the chips and eggs. Niloufer’s Parsi expert was right: It was a delicious breakfast.

***

After co-author Emily Swantner made her first Eggs on Potato Chips dish, she e-mailed Pat: “I really liked the way the eggs/chips looked in my small cast-iron wok. The chips were REALLY crunchy. YUM!! (My husband) George wanted seconds and wants me to make it for him again this weekend.”

Recipes

The recipes that follow are from Niloufer Ichaporia King’s My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking.

Eggs on potato chips is a serious recipe, not a way of making fun of the Parsis’ serious love of egg dishes. In an ideal universe, your potato chips would be homemade or fresh from a Bombay potato-chip works, “where a vat of oil is always on the bubble,” Niloufer King writes. But most people aren’t going to make their own potato chips. Instead, she recommends you use the best commercial ones available. (If you’d like to make your own chips, however, King’s recipe is on The New Mexican’s Web site: www.santafenewmexican.com.)

Story co-author Emily Swantner, who prepared these recipes for The New Mexican, says Trader Joe’s Hawaiian-style salted potato chips and Whole Foods Market’s lightly salted potato chips both work well in this recipe.

EGGS ON POTATO CHIPS
Wafer Par Ida
(Serves 2 to 4)

1 tablespoon ghee, clarified butter or a mixture of vegetable oil and butter*
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon Ginger-Garlic Paste (optional; see recipe below)
2 to 3 serrano chiles, finely chopped
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
4 good handfuls of plain potato chips from a just-opened bag
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon (about) water

Heat the ghee over medium heat in a sturdy medium skillet, preferably cast iron. Add the onion and let it soften, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes. Before it browns, add the paste if you like and the serranos, and as soon as the mixture looks cooked, add the fresh cilantro. Crumble in the potato chips, tossing the contents of the pan to combine them thoroughly. Make nests in the surface of the mixture — they won’t be perfect hollows — and crack an egg into each. Pour a tablespoon or so of water around the edges of the pan to generate some steam, cover the skillet tightly and let the eggs cook just
long enough to set the whites without turning the chips soggy.

Turn out onto waiting plates.

Swantner says the cooking time for this dish is 5 to 8 minutes. Be careful not to burn the chips, she notes.

*Swantner used a combination of ghee and butter to make this dish. Ghee is a form of
clarified butter used in Indian cooking; it is available in jars at Whole Foods Market and Sunrise General Store in Santa Fe and Talin Market in Albuquerque.

***

Among the treasures of the New World brought to India by the Portuguese, cashews are at the top of the list. The usual Indian way with cashews is to fry them, but King prefers roasting them to a pale gold before tossing them with a small amount of ghee, butter or olive oil, which captures the pounded ajwain seeds and salt. Ajwain, or ajowan, with its heady oreganolike scent, is King’s favorite cashew-spicing option.

ROASTED CASHEWS WITH AJWAIN
Masala Kaju
(Serves 2 to 10)

1 pound raw cashews
1 tablespoon ghee, butter or olive oil
2 teaspoons (or more) salt
About 1 tablespoon ajwain seeds, coarsely pounded to release the aromatic oils *
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or Indian chilly powder (optional)**
Freshly ground black pepper (optional)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Tip the nuts onto a baking sheet big enough to hold them in a single layer. Roast for 7 minutes and then start checking every 2 minutes, roasting for another 4 to 8 minutes and moving the nuts around if your oven has hot spots. The cashews should be golden, not brown, although a few brown flecks are all right. Coppertone tan is too brown. (It took Swantner 14 minutes to get the cashews the right color.)

If you want to make a smaller quantity of nuts, a toaster oven works well, but you need to be extra vigilant with cashews.

After the nuts are out of the oven, let them sit until they’re cool enough to handle, but still warm. Add the ghee, following immediately with salt, ajwain and the cayenne, if you like. Alternatively, give the cashews at least 40 twists of a pepper mill, set for a coarse grind. For best results, mix thoroughly with your hands.

Serve when the nuts have cooled down to the point they become crisp again. This takes about 15 to 20 minutes.

Note: To avoid wasting what’s left of the buttery ajwain in the bowl after the cashews are gobbled up, use it as a seasoning for boiled or steamed corn on the cob.

* Ajwain can be found at Sunrise General Store in Santa Fe or Talin Market in Albuquerque.

**Swantner used Indian chilly powder — also available at Sunrise General Store and Talin Market, or over the Internet — to prepare both the nuts and Parsi Ratatouille that follows.

***

“Some summers ago,” King writes, “we were fooling around with farmers’ market trophies — ridge gourds, yellow squash, small eggplants with tight, bright purple skins, peppers and tomatoes in a range of colors. My chef friend David Tanis walked in on the scene of a large wok full of simmering vegetables and said, ‘Oh, ratatouille Parsoise!’

“The idea is to combine the ingredients for a conventional ratatouille but to use Indian or pan-Asian squash and eggplants, though anything good and in season will work,” King writes. “Quantities are approximate. Make more than you think you’ll need, because leftovers get better with standing.

“This can be cooked a little ahead and left to stand while other dishes are prepared. It can be served warm or at room temperature.”

PARSI RATATOUILLE
(Serves 6 to 8)

3 to 4 tablespoons light olive oil or peanut oil
2 to 3 fresh green or red chiles, slit to the stem
1/2 teaspoon (or more) cumin seed
2 large onions, sliced
1 to 2 tablespoons Ginger-Garlic Paste (recipe below)
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or Indian chilly powder*
3 to 4 large ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons jaggery or piloncillo**
1 teaspoon (or more) salt
1 pound eggplant, cut into small cubes
2 to 3 bell peppers (any color), cut into strips (Swantner used red and yellow peppers)
1 pound Asian squash (ridge, sponge, snake gourd) or summer squash, cut into small cubes

Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok. Add the chiles and sizzle for a moment until the skins blister. Add the cumin seeds and let them crackle. Add the onions and let them soften, stirring occasionally. Stir in the paste and the cayenne. After a few moments, add the tomatoes and jaggery, and let the mixture cook down for a few minutes to a sauce consistency. Add the salt. Eggplant, peppers and gourds or squash go in next, all tumbled together with the sauce. Add enough water to generate some steam and increase the heat to boil the sauce. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and let the vegetables cook gently until they’re completely tender, bathed in a thick, rich tomato sauce. (Swantner estimates 20 to 30 minutes cooking time for this dish.)

Let the ratatouille stand if you have time.

* If using Indian chilly pepper instead of cayenne, Swantner recommends beginning with
1/2 teaspoon, and then checking to see whether more chilly is needed. She found ridge gourd at Talin Market in Albuquerque.

** Jaggery is unrefined sugar made from palm sap; it’s available at Talin Market in Albuquerque. Piloncillo is a brown-colored unrefined cane sugar pressed into a cone shape; you can find it at Mexican markets in Santa Fe.

***

“Every Parsi household must have a supply of this paste,” King writes. “In households where there is a grinding stone and a person to do the work, it is prepared every morning along with the other pastes needed for the day’s menus.

“The preparation of pastes is now more often done in an electric wet-dry grinder, which can almost duplicate the smooth texture produced on a stone. Fortunately, Ginger-Garlic
Paste can also be easily prepared in a food processor. It keeps well for up to two weeks refrigerated and even longer in a freezer. Or if you are in a rush, you can combine equal quantities of very finely chopped or grated peeled fresh ginger and garlic, just as much as you need for the recipe.”

GINGER-GARLIC PASTE
Adi Lasan
(Makes about 1 cup)

About 1/2 cup roughly chopped peeled fresh ginger (about 4 ounces)
About 1/2 cup roughly chopped peeled garlic cloves
About 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
Vegetable oil

In a wet-dry grinder or food processor, grind the ginger and garlic to a smooth paste, using as little water as possible. Add the salt if you plan on storing the paste. Pack it into a small, tightly covered jar with a nonreactive (nonmetallic) lining to the lid. Pour a thin film of oil on top of the paste. Store in the refrigerator.

Note: Ginger-garlic paste is now commercially available, both in India and in the United States. It’s a good idea to look at the ingredients before you buy any. Of course, nothing is as good as a paste ground at home, King writes.

WHERE TO GO

* Sunrise General Market
52 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, NM 87505
982-6705

* Talin Market
www.talininc.com
230 Louisiana Blvd. SE
Albuquerque, NM 87108
505-268-0206

Original article here