Khavanu, peevanu ne majha ni life jeevanu
Parsi cuisine is steeped in tradition and culture and over the years has evolved and adapted to local nuances
“Khavanu, peevanu ne majha ni life jeevanu (eat, drink and live a happy life)”. This is an age-old adage the Parsi community lives by. A religion and culture rich in history and traditions (both social and culinary), dating back to the early-10th century in India, Parsis have always prided themselves on living in harmony and integrating themselves into the local and existing ethos of the prevalent surroundings. Legend and history have it that when Parsis landed in Sanjan, Gujarat, after fleeing Iran and were presented to the king, a Parsi priest stepped forward and requested for a bowl of milk filled to the brim and some sugar. The priest mixed the sugar into the milk without spilling a drop and then promised the king that similarly, Parsis would merge into the local community and sweeten the lives of those around them. Interestingly, even then they used food as the medium to state their point!
Parsis went on to thrive and spread their wings across India, all the while embracing harmony and adapting to the local culture and traditions. A perfect example of this is the way their cuisine has evolved over the centuries. While they have stayed true to their traditions while celebrating their festivals, they have also adapted themselves according to the local society and customs. This history is encapsulated in their food and general way of living. One of the most important Parsi festivals is the spring or vernal equinox, also known as Navroze. Celebrated on March 21, vernal equinox is, according to the Parsis, the dawn of a new year. The actual time when the change takes place is recorded in Iran and then the information is sent all over the world. Navroze, as all Parsi festivals, is a day of celebration, spending quality time with family and meeting friends. But no Parsi celebration is complete without food. Hence, platters full of delicious food are cooked with tables creaking under the weight. The day starts with sweets like ravo (a semolina pudding) or sev (a vermicelli dessert), both generously topped with fried dried fruits or falooda (rose-flavoured milk). Lunch is usually either a pulao daar (a Parsi version of a mutton or chicken biryani served with a spicy lentil curry) or dhun daar ne patio (rice, plain daal or lentil and a sweet-and-sour curry made with fish or shell fish). Fish is considered a sign of good luck in Parsi culture to such an extent that one would actually find sweets shaped like fish at a traditional table. Navroze is the time when Parsi housholds are filled with the delectable aromas of traditional food being cooked, doors being decorated with garlands and torans (ornamental garlands) and on the floors are drawn horse shoe, fish or flower depicting prosperity, happiness and luck.
A beautiful tradition practised by Parsis in India, is the laying of the Navroze table. In this tradition, a table is covered with a white table cloth, as white indicates purity, and is then loaded with food and various food items, each with a deep meaning. Among these are seven food items beginning with the letter ‘S’ – sirka (vinegar), sumac (spice), samanu (halwa), sib (apple), sir (garlic), senjed (berry of the sorb tree) and sabzi (herb) – along with seven food items beginning with ‘SH’ in Persian – sharab (wine), shakar (sugar), shir (milk), shirini (sweetmeat), shirberenj (sweet), shira (syrup) and shahad (honey). Also kept are painted eggs (much like the proverbially famous Easter eggs), fresh fruits, dried fruits, vegetables and grain (signifying abundance). The lady of the house invites her guests to look into a mirror so that they may have a year of good reflections, offers them a coin each for prosperity and sprinkles rose water on them before leading them to the table. Nothing spells happiness and contentment more than a group of friends and family, sitting around, laughing with extreme merriment and breaking bread.
The most common Parsi dish is dhan saak. This dish, made with a variety of lentils, vegetables, mutton and spices, has become synonymous with Parsis across the world. It is served with caramelised rice and kachumbar (an onion and tomato salad). However, dhan saak, though a staple at most Parsi Sunday lunches, is never prepared on an auspicious occasion. Served on the fourth day of a person’s demise, one will never find it served on a birthday, Navjote or Navroze. A traditional festive meal will include pulao or a spicy chicken served with fried potato straws (salli ma marghi), a carrot and dry fruits pickle (lagan nu achchar), saariya (papad), thin chappatis (flatbreads)and ravo, sev or lagan nu custard (Parsi custard) for dessert. Served on Banana leaves, the entire community eats together, traditionally. Parsi cuisine is steeped in culture. Most of the dishes have a story to them. These time-honoured recipes have been passed down through centuries from one generation to another in families and modified over the years, yet their core has stayed intact. Parsis try their best to maintain their individuality and uniqueness, to teach children and inculcate in them a part of the rich cultural and culinary heritage. A heritage that is rich in spice, flavour and is a perfect blend of ancient origins and modern adaptations.