New year, old favourites

Shashwati Ghose | Updated on September 04, 2020 Published on September 03, 2020

Let there be food: The Parsi zest for life is best displayed in their attitude of khavanu, pivanu, majja ni life — eat, drink and make merry   -  IMAGES COURTESY: RUSTOM’S

The flavours of a Parsi bhonu come home to make a celebratory meal

What is it about food and a festival? A good meal is such an important part of a festival that I can’t think of one without the other. And there is nothing quite like going out to restaurants for all the special dishes that mark a festive occasion.

On Christmas day, for instance, the chicken roast, pigs-in-a-blanket and plum pudding become exceptional when you have a wood fire burning, the Christmas tree twinkling and Joy to the world playing in the background.

I was looking forward to a Navroze meal celebrating the Parsi New Year. But with Covid-19 playing spoilsport, dining out was no longer an option. However, thanks to the fine-tuned home-delivery system of Rustom’s — a popular Parsi restaurant in Delhi — it was possible to bring the festival food home. So, we celebrated Navroze and Independence Day last month with a special festival menu.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how the mere packaging would elevate the fun of eating good food at home. The food came in a big and beautiful brown box with a paper doily and a customised card. It was a charming beginning to a delectable gastronomic journey.

Parsis are a compact, lively, successful and prosperous community of the Indian subcontinent, numbering at around 60,000 in India, with a little more than 1,000 in Delhi. Followers of the Zoroastrian religion, they fled Persia because of religious persecution and took refuge in the subcontinent between the 8th and 10th centuries.

The story goes that when the Parsis first alighted on the shores of Gujarat, the women brought with them their ancient secret recipes wrapped and hidden in the folds of their clothes.

The Parsi zest for life is best displayed in their attitude of khavanu, pivanu, majja ni life — eat, drink and make merry. And that was reflected in the ample Navroze spread!

It’s a wrap: The patra-ni-machhi is a signature Parsi dish


The food package had three starters — patra-ni-machhi, bhatia-ni-marghi and keema samosas. For the mains, there were four dishes — jardaloo marghi ma salli, kolmi prawn curry, mutton pulao and masala ni dar or Parsi dal. The side dishes comprised pickles of prawn and chicken, two chutneys of mint and spring onion, saria or sabudana papad, salli or potato wafer sticks, sarka nu kuchambar or onion-tomato-coriander sliced salad and four Parsi rotlis. And there were two sweet dishes for dessert.

Dessert, please: A Navroze meal cannot be complete without sweet dishes


Significantly, two huge banana leaves accompanied the food. This is the traditional way that Parsis enjoy their New Year meal or bhonu — quite like the way many other communities in the east and the south do on special occasions.

The patra-ni-machhi is, of course, a signature Parsi dish, in which the fish — usually pomfret — is smeared with a generous amount of green mint chutney and steamed, wrapped in a banana leaf. The bhatia-ni-marghi, a dry chicken preparation cooked with onions and spices, has an enjoyable sweet-and-sour taste. The sweetness of Gujarati cuisine is an evident influence on Parsi food.

The mutton pulao had succulent pieces of meat in aromatic basmati rice prepared with fried onion straws. But what took my breath away was the jardaloo marghi ma salli, a true classic Parsi chicken preparation with strong Persian touches such as dried apricot (jardaloo), red vinegar, sugar and spices. It came topped with salli or potato straws. I enjoyed it with rotlis — Parsi flatbread smeared with butter. The chicken dish needs another ingredient when it is being cooked, and that’s patience, says Rustom’s owner Kainaz Contractor. She points out that it has to be cooked with care to ensure that the flavours soak in.

Kolmi prawn curry is another must-have Parsi dish in a Navroze meal. For this, prawns are marinated in coconut milk, grated coconut, curry leaves and other spices, and the rich and thick gravy is a blend of the tangy, sweet and spicy. Eaten best with rice interspersed with fried sabudana papads and the salad of sliced onions, tomatoes and fresh coriander leaves, it is an exquisite experience of a Parsi dish with a Southern touch.

A Navroze meal cannot be complete without sweet dishes. We — our family of three — ended our meal with lagan nu custard and the sooji-based caramel ravo.

Parsi cuisine has over time embraced the flavours of other culinary habits and preparations, while maintaining its own distinct identity. With Hindu, Muslim, British and Portuguese influences, topped with the fish, fruit and veggies of the coastal plains, Parsi cuisine is like the proverbial salad bowl — with each element adding to the taste, but not taking away from the dish’s own identity.

Parsi culture and cuisine are, indeed, an ideal example of a uniting factor for all Indian communities. The Parsis epitomise the idea that differences can be turned around into a binding force that holds people together.

Shashwati Ghose, a PhD student of sociology, is based in Delhi

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Published on September 03, 2020
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