One woman is on a mission to teach the rest of the world about dhansak, sail boti, lagan nu custard and other Parsi delicacies
You don’t have to be a chef, or even a great home cook, to appreciate the best food blogs.
A good food writer (and photographer) can transport you to a people, a place that you wouldn’t otherwise experience. She can tell a story with her words and images that is interesting whether you choose to make the recipe described at the end of the piece or not.
And that’s why Bawi Bride Perzen Patel is such a favourite with us. We’ve tried her Sali Boti multiple times, and even if some of the other dishes she describes intimidate us, we can’t help be taken by her enthusiasm, her evocation of such a distinct culture, and her palpable love for what she does.
Perzen spent a large part of her adolescence in New Zealand and was – in her own words- referred to as the Continental Chef of her family, for her ability to whip up delicious international food. It is only after coming back to India that she realized that she had ignored her own Parsi culinary heritage, and that there really weren’t enough online resources about Parsi cuisine. That kickstarted her passion to chronicle the history and depth of Parsi cuisine in her blog. Today, she not only introduces Parsi staples to a loyal readership, but also runs a catering business that focuses on Parsi delicacies, dips and desserts; and holds a full time job to boot.
We chat up with her to find out more about Parsi cuisine and the BawiBride who introduced this cuisine to us.
Perzen, could you tell us a little bit about the background of Parsi cuisine- its origins and characteristics?
The Parsis, as you probably know, emigrated to Gujarat from Iran more than a 1000 years ago. From there, over time they’ve made their way to the rest of Western India, and a little bit of this heritage can be seen in their cuisine. Their Persian ancestors inform their love for mutton and for slow-cooked food- both a feature of many Iranian dishes.
In addition, Parsi food’s flavour profile is often sweet-sour in nature. That’s why you will see a combination of Vinegar and Jaggery in so many of our staples, and most of our famous dishes from Sali Boti to Saas ni Machchi have a khatta-meetha taste.
The other distinct characteristic of Parsi cuisine is our love for eggs. We will add eggs to everything and anything from curries to mutton to leftover vegetables. Even the vegetarian Parsis can’t do without their eggs, and I often tell my readers that the easiest way to elevate the taste of any Parsi dish is with the addition of eggs!
When you started the blog, did you find any other sources of Parsi recipes that you could refer to? Are there any cookbooks or resources that are a staple in every Parsi household?
There are a few cookbooks that I got as part of my dowry - Katy Dalal’s Jamva Chaloji and Parsi Food by Gulrukh Irani. Both of these I really treasure. Aside from that, there are a few sites online I refer to but none that only focus on Parsi food alone. I also have a huge stash of recipes from my mother. But there are still so many recipes that have only been passed on orally from generation to generation, and so many that I need to uncover beyond the staples.
Do you find yourself using some of the tricks and techniques from the preparation of continental cuisine in your Parsi recipes?
I do end up modernizing most recipes a bit. For one I cut down on the fat! Also, I much prefer slow cooking to pressure-cooker based recipes.
Then, I enjoy experimenting with a few fusion recipes such as a Lagan nu custard ice-cream or a Sali Boti pizza- basically ways to replicate the older flavours in a different medium.
Perzen, do you have any Parsi restaurants that you enjoy ?
The entire culture of Iranian cafes with authentic Parsi delicacies is in decline- from more than 300 cafes in the 1980s we are now down to less than 25! Most of these cafes are great for the more breakfast-y Parsi delicacies. Some of my favourites are Ideal Corner, Cafe Military and Snack Shack. I still maintain, though, that the best way to sample original Parsi food is to get yourself invited to a Parsi wedding, or to get your Parsi friend to cook for you!
That’s one of the reasons my catering business of Parsi food is doing so well. There are other Parsi caterers in Mumbai, but because of my online presence and efforts to modernise these dishes, I am perhaps more accessible than some of them.
What are some of your own Parsi favourites?
I love Patra nu Machi, Sali Boti, and Lagan nu Custard. But my favourite would probably be the simple Dhandar ( a creamy yellow dal) and Patio (a tomatoes based sauce.). It is the ultimate in comfort food that you want to return to every single time after a hard day of work.
And some of your other favourites outside Parsi cuisine?
I love Italian food! But really, my favourites are simple dishes done well. I am a great believer in food cooked with five ingredients or less. Those often taste better than more complicated food.
Perzen, what are the ingredients one must have in their pantry (apart from the eggs!) to attempt Parsi cooking?
Well- ginger garlic paste, onions, tomatoes, red chilli powder, turmeric, vinegar and jaggery. This should be enough to get you started.
And what kind of a dish do you use for most of your cooking?
Any heavy bottomed pan amenable to slow cooking should do!
Finally, Perzen, we have to ask you- your full time job, catering business, and frequently updated blog. How do you do it all?
I work from home, so that gives me some flexibility. But really it is all about my love for cooking. I end upcooking most evenings into the night , and even on weekends whether it is to keep pace with the orders, or just for my friends and family.
As a start up that’s looking to scale up, I am looking for some part-timers who would be interested in helping out with the catering business. So if anyone reading this is interested in learning how to run a food business from the grounds-up, contact me!
Perzen suggested that we attempt one of her recipes to accompany her interview, and we couldn’t help be tempted by the thought of home-made dhansak. To find out more about how we made dhansak in the MBRB Test Kitchen, read on here!
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