Saturday, July 20, 2019

‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’ – A Review

The below book review first appeared in the spring 2019 issue of Hamazor (UK). 

‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’ 

(A Review by Dinshaw H. Patel)

The delight of perusing a good cookbook is that it takes one beyond the mere recipe instructions and into the realm of culinary history and ethnography.  Niloufer Mavalvala’s second cookbook, ‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’, encompasses all these qualities, and hence, it is a definitive Parsi reference cookbook for both gastronomy buffs and food anthropologists alike. 

The book is meticulously put together with an array of high resolution photographs complementing the written recipes.  The instructions on how to prepare are detailed yet written in simple and understandable language that even the most timid home cook would be able to master.  Plus, the ‘Tips’ on the unique nuances in preparing each item are very useful. This is presented in tandem with a visual glossary of ingredients, the preparation process in a series of images, followed finally by the picture(s) of the completed and garnished, ‘ready to serve’ item.  Hence, ‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’ would be of much value in the kitchens of professional chefs as well as amateur gastronomic hobbyists.

Yet, what makes this book truly interesting is that each recipe is prefaced with an explanation of  the Parsi cultural practices associated with the food, many a time its nutritional value and its origin, often tracing the recipe’s journey from its birth in Persia to the Indian Subcontinent.

Similar to the French, the Parsis too are a food-focused people.  There is a menu for every occasion, and an occasion for every menu.  While mere eating is an indispensable human activity, feasting on a sumptuous meal prepared in the most exacting way is a cultural trait.  Ordinarily, and in celebrations, Parsis are known for devouring lavish breakfasts, lunches and dinners.  In a way, the Parsi culinary culture reflects the industry and prosperity this small community has enjoyed for centuries on the Subcontinent, ever since they landed on its shores as refugees from Persia.

To highlight the gastronomic ethos of the Parsi community, Niloufer, in the ‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’, has thematically grouped the chapters, starting with ‘Mamaiji nu Pinjru ~ Grandma’s Pantry’.  The recipes in this section are rarely found in other cookbooks for they are more like family heirlooms that have orally come down from one generation to the next. However, with mass exodus of Parsis from the Subcontinent to the Gulf countries, Europe, North America and Australasia, these uniquely Parsi culinary foods are gradually heading towards extinction.  Mamaiji nu Pinjru’ revives these endangered foods which are mainly accompaniments, such as uniquely Parsi style preserves, pickles, chutneys and spreads. And without these condiments, no traditional Parsi meal would feel complete.For instance,  ‘Murumbo – Sweet White Gourd Preserve,’ though a staple spoonful companion with several Parsi dishes, is slowly disappearing for those who have migrated from the Subcontinent.  Although, at first glance, items from Mamaiji nu Pinjru’ may seem a bit intimidating by the sheer traditional aura surrounding their names, following Niloufer’s cooking instructions makes this preserve easy to prepare and still as deliciously authentic as from Grandma’s Pantry.

Similarly, there are several recipes under each of the other groupings, such as ‘Mithhu Mohnu ~ To Sweeten the Palate’, ‘Tarkari nay Daar ~Vegetables and Pulses’, ‘Jhinga Machi ~ Seafood’ and ‘Murghi anay Gos ~ Chicken and Meat.’

There is much in the book to satisfy all diets, including lacto-ovo-pescatarian and vegan.  Moreover, in the introduction, Niloufer often cites the nutritional value of the particular food. 

‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’ soars on the quality and quantity of its recipes.  Niloufer, in every recipe, emphasizes the importance of attaining the perfect sweet and savory blend to fully gratify the receptors of the traditional Parsi palate.  As she herself aptly puts it; 

"Tikkhu-Khattu-Mitthu” (Spicy-Sour-Sweet) is considered the Holy Trinity of Parsi cooking, and perfecting its balance is the key between mediocrity and perfection in any Parsi dish.

Niloufer Mavalvala, (nee Wania) was born and raised in the cosmopolitan port city of Karachi, which offered a mosaic of ethnic cuisines cooked with fresh ingredients and meats easily available from both land and sea. Moreover, she grew up in a household with expert cooks.  Her mother was her primary guide and inspiration towards her early culinary education;

“My mum Shireen in her own right is an outstanding chef who only believes in perfection … It is with her infinite knowledge and nurturing that I am able to do what I do best.”

Another influence in the Wania household was her aunt, Villie Mehta.  As an expert on Parsi cuisine,  she was very instrumental in “… popularising the food of the Parsis at Victory Stall, the Time & Talents Club.”  In Niloufer’s own words;

“She (Aunt Villie) has been my inspiration.  Sharing our passion for food, teaching and experimenting with new ingredients, she has helped me in so many ways.”

Niloufer sums up the influence her two culinary mentors had on helping her to excel in her career in gastronomy;

“My mother and my Aunt Villie have been the two greatest influences. Mum for teaching me the finer points of cooking with exacting measurements and always pushing me toward excellence. My aunt teaching me the importance of not wasting any part of the fruit, vegetable or meat and being able to create through the mind’s palate.”  

And at her parent’s home lavish lunch and dinner parties were a norm for, as she mentions;

“No one ever left our home without sharing a meal…A perfect hostess (Niloufer’s mother), she loved to entertain and always created different menus for every dinner party she ever had.”

From an early age Niloufer took keen interest in cooking.  It was her passion to shadow her elders in the kitchen while they prepared exquisite meals, working their hands in precision with the skills they had acquired  from their seniors. 

Hence, Niloufer’s culinary training and workshop were in her own home kitchen and it is here through her natural talent, an innate passion for gastronomy, and sheer perseverance,  that she became a truly autodidact chef.

Under the vigilant supervision of her elders, Niloufer, by her mid-teens, had mastered all the necessary cooking skills and knowledge to comfortably perform at all levels of her kitchen’s ‘brigade de cuisine.’   By the age of seventeen, she had become sufficiently proficient in culinary skills to independently hold her first cooking class.

Although ‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’ exclusively focuses on Parsi cuisine, Niloufer’s culinary repertoire extends far beyond the periphery of Parsi or Indian foods.  From childhood, Niloufer has travelled extensively around the world and, in the midst, her keen interest in gastronomy has led her to understand and learn about food cultures from various regions of the world.  Hence, it is not surprising that several of her cookbooks, recipe blogs and cooking demonstrations have an international flare to them.  Viewing some of the titles of e-books (for example - “Persian Fusion,” “Moroccan,” “French Bistro,” “Spanish Tapas,” “Winter - A party menu,” “Soups,” “Autumn - A fun menu,” “Gluten Free,” etc.), it becomes evident that  her expertise in food culture extends far beyond the borders of the Subcontinent. Even her experiential cooking classes offered from her own home kitchen takes one on a global journey, such as,  Chicken in mustard and balsamic, Mussels in a smoked salmon cream sauce, Harira soup, hors d’oeuvre tidbitsand much more from all corners of the world.  In addition, she frequently writes on gastronomy for the Huffington Post and other magazines.  Niloufer also maintains much presence on social media with food related articles and recipes which has a following of over half a million readers internationally. She has appeared on several television food shows and recently gave a cooking class to “forty enthusiastic foodies” at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, in the U.K. 

With all this knowledge and experience, Niloufer Mavalvala has become a celebrated chef and an authority on Parsi cuisine.  Her first cookbook, ‘The Art of Parsi Cooking; reviving an ancient cuisine’ (2016), was extremely well received with excellent reviews and continues to remain in print.  Between the two books no recipes are replicated and, while ‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’ focusses on recipes for special occasions, her first book has mainly recipes on what Parsis eat on a daily basis. 

Both,  ‘The Art of Parsi Cooking; reviving an ancient cuisine’ (2016) and ‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’ (2019) complement each other and, if Niloufer Mavalvala in the future decides to combine  the two books and arrange them alphabetically into one, it would truly be the first encyclopedic compendium of  Parsi recipes, beginning with ‘Akuri’ from the first book and ending with ‘Zereshk Berry Palau’ from the second book.

‘The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders’ is sold for USD 30.00.  For further information on retail outlets selling the book, visit Niloufer Mavalvala’s web page;   

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