Renowned chef and entrepreneur Anahita Dhondy manages to do the impossible with her recently launched cookbook – The Parsi Kitchen . The former chef-partner at SodaBottleOpenerWala, the Parsi cuisine chain, makes you reminisce about the taste of childhood, the food memories we hold close to our heart, and above all she makes you want to enter the kitchen and recreate those memories. This unique memoir-cum-cookbook hits the right spot. It expertly weaves in nostalgia and a passion for cooking to bring forth a sizzling serving of taste and memories.
My introduction to Parsi cooking was through my aunt’s dhansak . A family favourite – the dish is a hit even after all these years. Somehow I have never had the patience or courage to replicate it in my kitchen, much as Dhondy initially termed it as something that is “complicated and best left to mom's cooking”. Just as Dhondy, a Le Cordon Bleu Grand Diplome holder, finally gathered her skills to take on the most Parsi dish of all, a reading of her book prompted me too to enter the kitchen and finally try to replicate my aunt’s flavoursome dish.
This is what I liked most about the book. There are cookbooks galore out there, but most fill you with too much awe and reverence. While you appreciate the process and marvel at the way a recipe is presented, seldom do you find yourself heading to the kitchen midway reading the book, determined to recreate the flavours on your own. The last cookbook of sorts that pushed me to experiment in the kitchen as I progressed with my reading was the brilliant Julie & Julia by Julie Powell.
It is perfectly alright not to be encouraged to replicate recipes from a book as you read along… but the moment that happens is when you realise how deeply the writing has resonated with you. As Dhondy learns more about her culture and cuisine and shares her story candidly with her readers, I find myself as a reader rooting for her each time. Culture is always defined by its cuisine. As people of a community settle far and wide across the world, their cuisine is what they carry with them. It is what sustains them in a new land. Even as they learn and take on the traditions and ways of the new world around them, they steadfastly hold on to their roots through the food they cook and eat proving time and again – we are what we eat.
The way Dhondy presents each recipe in her book – be it Ravo that is accompanied by the story of the Parsis entering Gujarat ages ago and settling there, or her love for mangoes that she developed at her paternal grandparents’ house, or even a simple vegetable like bhindi that in a way define her own connection and relationship with her Punjabi husband – is like presenting a relationship. Anecdotal and nostalgic by takes, the book will definitely define the way cookbooks are written.
The difference between good and great cooking is that while the former rigidly adheres to the way it is supposed to be cooked, the latter is not afraid to be tweaked according to the cultures and communities it encounters. In doing so, it absorbs the best parts to emerge into a stronger and tastier version. This is the biggest takeaway for me from the book.
As Dhondy tweaks her Ravo to suit the taste of her Punjabi household or the way the Parsis added pumpkin and some more herbs to their original dhansak recipe to arrive at the robust lentil and meat curry that it is today or even the repeated experiments that Dhondy undertook to satisfy the cravings of her patrons at SodaBottleOpenerWala – one may not always agree with all the changes, and that is just fine – but the cuisine is all the richer and lasting for it. If certain foods remain rigid, there is a fear of them getting lost. It is in the evolution that food retains its rootedness and embraces new elements to stun your taste buds – there is the taste of familiarity merging with something new and unique. This is what makes all the difference.
Of course, some things are sacrosanct. For example, the spice mix that Dhondy’s mother inherits from her grandmother. The base remains the same, what changes are the way a dish is prepared or maybe the ingredients. Like Dhondy tells us how she, her mother and her grandmother make Akuri in different ways. Also, unlike many chefs, Dhondy is not afraid to share family recipes. As she herself says, “being selfish can result in the recipe getting lost forever”. These are the hallmarks of a passionate cook and a foodie-at-heart. What matters most is that the recipe is carried forward in its various forms rather than dying a slow death into oblivion.
Just as enjoyable as the recipes, is the way the book is written. It oozes love and warmth, and that infectious laughter of good times. Here’s hoping Dhondy returns with more such offerings to satiate the taste buds and memories.
(Medha Dutta Yadav is a Delhi-based journalist, and literary and art critic. She is on twitter @primidutt )
About the BOOK
The Parsi Kitchen
Pages: 196; Rs 999