Khaatu-Meethu-Teekho: Parsi Cuisine And Its Legacy
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Jamshedji Tata, Freddie Mercury, JRD Tata, Dr. Homi Bhahba, Air Chief Marshal Fali Major, Chief Justice Sarosh Kapadia and Dadabhai Naoroji all had something in common, they all were Parsis. The community comprises 0.00004 percent of India’s population, a tiny drop in this vast ocean of humanity.They literally had to escape death and persecution in order to survive. But survive they did, and how! They are a celebrated group and their joie-de-vivre extends to their cuisine as well.  

First, a quick history of the Parsis in India. Thisethno-religious group adhering to Zoroastrianism (an Iranian religion based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster),from the Fars province in Persia,migrated to medieval India to escape persecution by Muslim rulers during the Arab conquest of Iran. According to a 16th-century Parsi epic “Qissa-i-Sajan”,Zoroastrian Persians continued to migrate to the Indian subcontinent to preserve their way of life, and settled in present-day Gujarat after being granted refuge by a local Hindu king. However, they had to abide by three rules: speak the local language, follow local marriage customs, and not carry any weapons. 

Over time, as the migrants assimilated and thrived, Indians came to love all things Parsi. Their cuisine managed to make its way into the hearts of people in Gujarat and the nearby regions. Parsis settledalong the coast of Gujarat and started adding fish to their diets. They also took to desserts and snacks as a result of British influence in colonial India. 

Traditional breakfasts during the 1930s consisted of “khurchan” or offal meats cooked with potatoes in a spicy gravy, and some variant of ever-present deep-fried or half-fried eggs. In the countryside, this would be washed down with copious amounts of coconut toddy, which was often taken straight off the tree.A Parsi lunch generally includedrice eaten with lentils or a thick curry made using coconut. Dinner usually involveda meat dish to go along with potatoes or other vegetable curry. Kachumbar, a sharp-tasting onion-cucumber salad, usually goes hand in hand with most meals.Dishes like “eeda” (egg) are also popular among Parsis. Eeda includes scrambled eggs with spices or “akuri” and the omelette called “pora”.Vegetables like okra, tomato, potato and others are often cooked with eggs on top. 

Non-vegetarian meals form a big part of the cuisine. In fact, for the longest time, traditional Parsi weddings would only serve mutton. In recent times, with the emergence of the poultry industry, the focus has shifted to chicken.Vegetables were considered to be the food of the poor, but Parsis saw tremendous potential and importance in them.Take Chorpat Par Edu, a dish comprising eggs and bitter gourd, as an example or Dhansak, made by cooking mutton or goat meat with a mixture of lentils and vegetables. A lesser known, but extremely important, fact about Dhansak is that it is traditionally consumed four days after someone’s death. 

Now for the best part: the sweets and desserts! Parsis often use the term “monusamarva” or “to repair the mouth” when talking about desserts. As mentioned earlier, desserts took inspiration from colonial India. The Lagan Nu Custard is the Parsi version of a Crème Brulee, and Chapat, a side dish served with tea, is pretty much a Parsi pancake. 

Over the years, Parsi food has become more Indianised while still retaining some of its Iranian roots. Take Patra Ni Machchi for instance, a dish that has become completely Indian. This steamed fish delicacy topped with chutney and wrapped in a banana leaf now uses Pomfret as its main base.It is Indian in the sense that it uses onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and rich spices like saffron and cinnamon.It also makes use of jaggery and vinegar to bring out a complex flavour of sweet and spicy, thus giving rise to the expression “Khaatu-meethu-teekho” (sour-sweet-spicy).In a harmonious blend of old and new, Parsis still manage to keep the Iranian flavour alive in their cuisine, as is evident from the use of dry fruits and nuts in most of their preparations. 

Parsi cuisine is an amalgamation of dishes that are as rich and vibrant as the culture they’re born from.The contribution and influence of the Parsis was famously described by none less than Mahatma Gandhi: “In numbers Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare.”One could pay similar tribute to their cuisine as well. It harks back to their roots in Iran, adds a bit of India, and creates a new blend that stands the test of time.