Authentic Parsi Cuisine: Part 1


October 17, 2011

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What constitutes authentic Parsi cuisine is a matter of great debate. One of our colleagues who hails from a blue blooded Parsi family contends that any vegetable ma gosht and any vegetable pur eendu, is, not authentic.

By Bergis Desai | Mumbai Samachar

In Navsari, they would excommunicate her for this blasphemy. Perhaps she is right. The rich could afford to eat flesh, fish and fowl in pristine form but the middle class had to stuff in more vegetables. None of the other unvegetarian communities, like Bohras for instance, eat kera pur eendu ( the idea may repulse banana haters and egg lovers, but crisply fried and finely cut, not too soggy banana pieces, with cruelly whipped egg white, mixed with fresh cream skimmed off Parsi Dairy Farm ( Sadly, no longer) milk, served piping hot with ghee laden thick rotlis (not chappati) would have saliva dripping over the Sudreh). K pur E certainly qualifies as authentic Parsi cuisine and tops the list for its sheer ingenuity.

Akoori is a close second. North of Deolali, if you ask for Akoori, you get a blank look reserved for the slightly demented. Anda Bhurji is, of course, universal. But Rustom from Rustom Baug will be very upset if you do not know the difference between the two. Akoori is runny but not loose, it lovingly spreads goodwill all over the plate unlike its country cousin, the Bhurji, which petulantly sits in a heap, as if it is upset with the plate. Although the famous Architect, Noshir Talati, and Dara Mehta of Darashaw & Co., serve at their homes, mindboggling Akoori on toast, it is best had, with the same ghee laden thick rotlis, Parsi style. It is sacrilege to use oil or butter for frying the onion, desi ghee is what the purists insist. Liberally sprinkled with fresh green chillies and coriander, piping hot Akoori cannot be claimed as its own by any other Indian community.

Third on the list is Bhaji ma Bhejoo (brain with spinach). This columnist’s grandmother used to make the most cunning brain cutlets – small and dainty – the brain, in miniscule quantity, with potatoes and spices, in abundance. The size is critical. A largish cutlet loses the flavor. However, what she really excelled in cooking was Bhaji ma bhejoo. The jugalbandi between spicy spinach and brain pieces made great culinary music. But the texture of the brain had to be just right. Neither too soft nor too hard. Therein lay the cook’s expertise. Though many who have accidentally spotted raw brain on the kitchen table have been put off, for life; brain disguised in a spicy mix of spinach and onions can be simply delightful. Bhaji ma bhejoo is most certainly a Parsi innovation and easily makes the list. Believe it or not, but some Parsis have combined Akoori with spicy brains. The leading racehorse trainer, Cooji Katrak’s wife, Tina, known for her legendary dinner parties, has mastered this combination.

Dhanshaak is naturally the easy entry into the list. Anyone who flippantly dismisses the Dhanshaak’s claim to authenticity, is, committing sacrilege. The dal is just one of the ingredients, and not necessarily, its most important. The medley of vegetables, spices and flavours which constitute the Parsi national dish are carefully measured, like the chemical composition of some complex compound in a laboratory. The slightest deviation can render the delicacy apart. There is nothing like a vegetarian Dhanshaak. It is akin to asking for non-alcoholic cognac. The life force of the dal are the meat juices. Most Parsis prefer mutton to chicken in their Dhanshaak. Whilst that famous institution alternates between the two, every Wednesday (the Ripon Club, for the uninitiated), most of its followers prefer mutton, undeterred by the arguments against the evils of red meat. Parsi arteries are seldom choked with cholesterol, it is actually Dhanshaak ni dal, accumulated over countless Sundays. We must pay our tribute to one Ookerji (a Juddin), a cook in Godrej’s canteen at Vikhroli and who used to moonlight at our uncle’s residence, for conjuring up the best Dhanshaak ni dal in town. Although its appearance was a bit foreboding – dark and green, the collective memory of our taste buds can recall that flavor instantly, even though dear Ookerji shifted to a celestial kitchen, almost forty years ago. Why Parsis never cook Dhanshaak on an auspicious day like birthdays, Pateti, etc.? Due to its association with death, in the form of the Chahram-nu-botu (the ending of abstinence from meat, on the fourth day after death, by eating mutton dhanshaak, following the pre-dawn Uthamna). Dhanshaak is indeed worth dying for.

Popatji is our next entry in the authenticity list, and if you have never eaten it, then we bet you do not wear your Sudreh and Kusti. Popatji is not to be confused with a Bhakhra, a distant relative with distinct Juddin inputs. Shaped like the bird from which it derives it comical name (Adi Marzban cracked a million double entendre jokes on the Popatji in his plays – obviously, you do not expect us to narrate any, in this family newspaper), a good Popatji has to be very light, featherweight on the tongue, not too deeply fried and not unduly large in size. Good Parsis in Surat and Navsari and Udvada and Bharuch were extremely fond of keeping a green parrot, as a pet, in a brass cage, at the entrance of the house. The Parsi housewife would not touch lunch without feeding the parrot, who would imitate a few human syllables (unlike the Kookatua, its cousin from Zanzibar, who, believe it or not, could conduct a decent conversation but that is a story for some other day). Popatji, like the fond pet, was, therefore, light, fluttery, sweet, with a little protruding beak at the tip of its rotund self. Best consumed, fresh from the stove and piping hot, with a large cup of mint and green tea leaves (phudina and lili chai) embellished tea, in early evening. Some of our Agiyaries prepare a horrid, bastardised version of the delectable Popatji, for its Stum prayer offerings. RTI, in the good old days, made excellent Popatjis too. Popatji is inimitable and non-Parsis are prohibited from even thinking about it.

On the dessert list, Lagan nu custard pips the auspicious Sev. Like Akoori and Bhurji, Lagan nu Custard must never be equated with bread pudding, which you find on most five star brunches, these days. Our grandmother, who narrowly missed a Michelin star, used to bake it on a desi sagdi, fuelled by charcoal and wood sticks, and feverishly fanned, as its crust began to show the golden red hue, like breaking dawn over the ranges of Annapurna. Although it derives its name from being served at weddings, its origins are Persian. Creamiest of milk (anyone daring to use skimmed milk should be skimmed) with free range (desi) eggs, fresh rose petals, cinnamon, loads of fine white (not brown) sugar, exquisitely sliced almonds and charoli (chironji, for the English) and currants (not raisins) – talking of currants, we cannot help narrating the story of a famous Parsi caterer (now departed) and the use of currants in Lagan nu custard – the good caterer rejected the client’s suggestion as being too expensive; later, when the client went to settle the bill, she observed some great looking Lagan nu custard with lots of currants, and naturally protected at this discriminatory treatment. The good caterer waved his / her hand and a million house flies flew off the Lagan nu custard, at the aghast client – a true story indeed and one amongst the many about the unbelievable things which go on behind the scenes at a Parsi wedding.

Though served cold, this dessert tastes sublime, when served fresh and warm. Add a splash of cognac and it tastes divine. The bread and butter pudding is a very poor imposter.

[ Part 2 of the article is here ]