Parsi cuisine: Pakistan
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Lahore: Parsi cuisine
Savouring Parsi cuisine
By Saima Shakil Hussain
Who ever heard of wanting to visit Lahore for a taste of Parsi food? Lahore Museum: yes. Badshahi Masjid: yes. Even Liberty Market and Anarkali Bazaar: check and check. A leisurely trip – or two, or many more – to the city’s ‘food’ streets is, of course, a given. But authentic Parsi cuisine on The Mall? You better believe it.
Tucked away on the upper level of the Croweaters’ Gallery, near the old Tollinton Market on the historical, picturesque The Mall, is the city’s best-kept secret: a café offering a variety of Parsi fare. While the usual café items – sandwiches, muffins, etcetera – were also available, it was the set menu, with dhansaag and brown rice as the star feature, which immediately fascinated the starved tourist out on the trail without lunch till 4pm. The price seemed a little steep at first (Rs550) but this opinion would be revised before the meal had even ended.
It should have been a little awkward. A single woman in a strange city seating herself at a table and demanding a full-blown lunch at 4pm. But food comes in Lahore as readily as a riot in Karachi, 24/7.
The only other occupants of the space at that hour were a not-so-young couple whispering to each other across the table and a Caucasian woman catching up with acquaintances on her mobile phone. But awkward hath no business when a woman’s starved; soon enough the first course arrived, or rather, as it turned out, the first appetiser.
Accourri on toast turned out to be a very moist and well-seasoned mixture of scrambled eggs with onions, served with wedges of crispy bread. It was the perfect comfort food so, not surprisingly, the dish was returned wiped clean. Delivered next was a large plate neatly arranged with vegetables and pieces of chicken. Convinced that there had been a mistake, I beckoned a member of the serving staff to inquire about the promised dhansaag and brown rice. ‘That is next item, madam’. Talk about value for your money. Bapsi Sidhwa’s croweaters are going to stuff us till we can’t walk out.
The chicken and vegetables turned out to be two types of salad. One featured bell peppers, carrots and mushrooms sautéed with chunks of pineapple. It was interesting: sweet and savoury at the same time. The other was a somewhat exotic combination of shredded chicken, slivers of almonds, raisins and toasted coconut. Definitely worth lingering over, but I was getting impatient: where’s the dhansaag?
At last the star arrived. In individual bowls came dhansaag and sweet and sour eggplant, accompanied by a serving of steaming hot brown rice. The haleem-like concoction made with chicken and a variety of lentils, dhansaag, I was sorry to note, had clearly come in the prime of its freshness. I had had much better dhansaag at a Parsi ghumbar in Karachi. The one at the Croweaters smelt and tasted stale and lacked any of its famed tangy, spicy goodness.
The serving of eggplant was much more up to par, and went very well with the brown rice. The sheer quantity of food to that point made one realise that the price tag was in fact more than fair. The set menu could well satiate two hungry tourists; the one very hungry person could not – try as she did – make much of a dent in it.
And then came dessert and the very notion of sharing was quickly forgotten. Warm chocolate cake swimming in a small sea of chocolate fudge sauce and topped with cream, it was just the right size for one very happy customer. Accompanied by a mug of strong filtered coffee, it was decidedly an un-Parsi conclusion to the meal but still a very welcome one.
A perfect meal in a quiet, air-conditioned café, while sitting next to a window overlooking the old Tollinton Market and Anarkali Bazaar, is one of the many reasons to be thankful for Lahore.
Thanks giving the Parsi way/ Cuisine
Other than at thanksgiving, it is customary to serve dhansak on the fourth day after a funeral. So while it may be a regular feature for Sunday lunches, dhansak is never a menu option on birthdays and anniversaries, writes Saima S.Hussain
There is much to be thankful for when one is fortunate enough to have a generous friend who invites you to partake of dhansak at a thanksgiving feast.
Ghambars, as Parsi thanksgiving feasts are called, were originally agricultural in nature, but as Zoroastrianism spread far and wide they took on religious significance as well. The ghambars, today, are great occasions for feasting and community get-togethers. The Zoroastrian year has six seasons and there is one major celebration in each season, but the summer ghambar in the month of Dae is perhaps the most popular.
Each Parsi residential compound in Karachi organises its own festivities. Prayers or jashan were said earlier in the evening, led by priests who visited the compound for the occasion. Participants gathered in the common area amid a strong summer night breeze, with the sound system piping soft rock music in the background.
The tables and chairs were set up in long rows so that the maximum number of people were seated facing each other. While most were local residents, a sizable number of friends and family from other compounds also joined in.
Zoroastrian feasts are elaborate affairs. In a nod to modernity, hired caterers had cooked the meal instead of a group of women as was the norm. Also, in lieu of the banana leaves that were once used as eating platters, sheets of cardboard fortified with butter paper were laid out on the tables.
A well-trained team of waiters began to lay out servings of food in front of each guest. First there came a small bun. It was soon followed by some achar, that was heavy on the tamarind; and kachumbar, which is diced onion and flecks of green chillies marinated in lemon juice and lemon wedges. Each food item that was served, even down to lemon wedges, had some traditional significance attached to it.
The first course is always chapaatis and aloo gosht. The chapaatis were slightly crisp as they had been brushed with some oil. The potato pieces in the aloo gosht had also been lightly fried before being stewed, as they had a similar slightly crispy coating which made all the difference in taste.
As a first-time eater off butter paper-fortified sheets, one was constantly concerned that the thick gravy would seep through and stain the tablecloth. This was not the case, however, and one became further convinced of the benefit of easy clean-up afterwards.
Then, without any further ado, came the main course. Waiters ladled out portions of brown rice that accompanies dhansak. Hot and fragrant, the rice was garnished with caramelised onion and whole spices such as cloves, pepper corns and cardamoms. It looked tempting enough to eat on its own, but then came the evening’s star attraction.
Made with an assortment of lentils and vegetables that are blended together into a paste, dhansak can be made with chicken, lamb or even with vegetables, but for ghambars the mutton version is a must. Dhansak is similar to what most Pakistanis know as halim or the Arabs call harissa, but with its unique spicy, sweet and tangy flavours it is probably closest in taste and texture to the delectable daalcha from Hyderabad, Deccan.
While most were eating the tasty concoction with rice; others were seen eating it on its own and some were even enfolding it into bits of chapaati. There was none of the fried onions, ginger, coriander and green chillies that accompany halim but plenty of kachumbar and lemon wedges to add to the zest. Interestingly, as a rule dhansak is never served on happy occasions. Other than at ghambars, it is customary to serve it on the fourth day after a funeral. So while it may be a regular feature for Sunday lunches, dhansak is never a menu option on birthdays and anniversaries.
By the time dessert came along –– a decidedly non-traditional mango ice cream –– the brand new dhansak enthusiast was too full to move and almost had to be rolled off the chair and out of the compound. The next summer, ghambar is only a year away, as the Parsis would say, Chalo jumva avoji….Come, lets eat.
1/2 kg mutton
1 cup eggplant, diced
1 cup potatoes, diced
1 cup pumpkin, diced
1 cup carrot, diced
1/2 cup oil
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 nutmeg powder
1/4 cup chana dal
1/4 cup masoor dal
1/4 cup moong dal
1 bunch of spinach
1 medium bunch methi
2 onions, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
3 tsp ginger-garlic paste
6 green chillies
2 tsp all spice powder
3 tsp chilli powder
Salt to taste
Soak the lentils overnight. Fry half of the mutton in oil, then add the lentils and vegetables and cook in three cups of water till tender. Blend with spinach, green chillies and salt to a fine paste. Boil the remaining half of the mutton and keep aside.
Heat oil in a pan, fry methi leaves, add onions, ginger-garlic paste and dhansak masala, fry for two to three minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, mutton pieces, dal-vegetable-mutton paste and cook for another 15 minutes. Serve with brown rice.
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