Patra Ni Machhi: History And Evolution Of The Parsi Favourite

Patra ni Machhi is perhaps the first dish anyone can think of besides Dhansak, whenever someone mentions Parsi cuisine. This traditional Parsi dish, originating from the western coast of India, is a fragrant and flavorful dish which is one of the most significant symbols of Parsi heritage, thanks to its history.

Like many other Parsi delicacies, the dish had ties to the exodus of a group of Zoroastrians from Persia to escape religious persecution. History notes that some of their boats washed ashore in coastal Gujarat where they adapted to local ways and made efforts to retain their culinary legacy with the help of local ingredients. 

In the case of patra-ni-machhi, plump fillets of a flat fish (typically pomfret) are smothered in a green coriander-coconut chutney; the dish balances some heat alongside a tanginess and muted sweetness (the banana leaves steamed in vinegar-infused water add a special aroma) and some may even call the dish umami-rich, 

Historical Roots

The Parsi community traces its roots back to ancient Persia (modern-day Iran), where they practised the Zoroastrian faith. It’s widely known that Parsi Zoroastrians faced persecution in their homeland and fled to the Indian subcontinent in the 8th century CE, in search of refuge and freedom to practice their religion. They settled primarily in the coastal regions of Gujarat and Maharashtra and brought with them their rich cultural traditions, including their distinctive cuisine.

However, the steamed fish preparation existed in Parsi cuisine before the community arrived in India, but seldom included seawater fish. The Parsi began using pomfret and seer fish only after they travelled to India and the use of banana leaves, coconut chutney, coriander and green chillies is also something that was introduced to the recipe after the community moved here. It’s important to note that chillies weren’t particularly popular in Iran during that time despite a successful spice trade. Most Iranian dishes at the time used peppers for heat, while Parsis were introduced to chillies in India. 

Interestingly, the dish has quite a few coastal renditions in the country. On the west coast, it is traditionally made with pomfret which is covered in a marinade of delicious green coriander chutney and a flavorful mixture of spices, herbs, and tangy ingredients like lemon juice and vinegar. The marinated fish is then wrapped in tender banana leaves, creating a parcel that seals in moisture and flavour during the cooking process, much like the Bengali paturi.

The banana leaves impart a subtle, earthy aroma to the dish, infusing it with a distinctively tropical flavour, while the coconut lends it a subtle sweetness. In the east, the recipe often features a bhetki instead of a pomfret or kingseer, while in some parts of Goa, the green chutney is swapped with a red Rechaedo-style chutney, which stays true to the Parsi tradition of introducing unique fusion.