Parsis are similar to Italians when it comes to obsessing about food. Not all of them can cook, but every last one (men included) is a food critic. Most cooks have resigned themselves to hearing, “Your dhansak is excellent, but not as good as my mumma’s.” It’s not meant to be a put-down, just the airing of an honest opinion. Of course, almost nothing is as good as mumma’s.
So, maybe, San Francisco-based Niloufer Ichaporia King should take any criticism to her book the same way other Parsi cooks do—in one ear, out the other. The writer of this review has only one quibble about My Bombay Kitchen: Akuri without tomatoes—how terribly shocking. King’s objection that tomatoes make it watery doesn’t hold if you roast them beforehand in a few drops of oil with the masalas. Add the rich, chunky paste to the eggs and scramble away.
King probably won’t get too much criticism for My Bombay Kitchen besides this kind of nit-picking. For someone who left India about 40 years ago, she has done a great job of writing a cookbook on Parsi food. But as she says: “A Bombay kitchen can be anywhere in the world. All you need is curiosity about food and a love for sharing it.”
So that’s just what King does. She starts out by giving a brief history of Persians and the Parsis, with enchanting old photographs of her ancestors: women in kor ni saris and men in fetas. Her writing style is chatty and keeps moving back and forth between her San Francisco kitchen and the Bombay of her grandmother and mother’s time.
There are the recipes, plus enough advice and tips to set up your own Bombay kitchen anywhere: How to get your hands on a Sumeet multigrinder, different ways to grate a coconut and where to get perfect rose syrup for faluda, in the US.
With a little help from her mother Shireen and her Mani masi, the author hands out recipes Parsis cherish the most. Here’s a test: Think of any recipe you’ve ever loved and see if King’s book has it. Aleti Paleti, check. Gharab No Patio, check. Bheja Na Katles, check. Khara Ras Chaval, check—all complete with the quirky Parsi names and spellings.
But it’s not just about nostalgia and why you don’t get topli nu paneer any more. It also portrays Parsi food as an evolving phenomenon. Let’s face it, the cuisine can’t be forever centred in and around Mumbai, when countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand have large Parsi settlements. King says Parsi food in her household is geared to her times and her tastes, so don’t expect to find a recipe where salad equals mayonnaise, much as it used to.
Proof that this book is as American as it is Parsi—a foreword by Alice Waters, the legendary US chef, who created a culinary revolution in the US by championing locally grown ingredients. King celebrates Navroze every year by cooking a special meal at Waters’ popular Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse.
If you’re pig-headed about unfamiliar tastes and ingredients because mumma didn’t use them, this book may not be the best guide for you. But, like most Parsis, if food is something that consumes you 24x7, pick up My Bombay Kitchen.
Reading Bhicoo Manekshaw’s Feast of Love is like attending a cooking course taught by a refined but finicky old Parsi lady. She’ll teach you to lay the service on damask tablecloths, get you to make a soufflé that rises perfectly, have you sipping tea from fine china with your pinkie finger outstretched, and make you repeat “croquembouche” till you say it just right.
The Delhi-based octogenarian is the brains behind the Capital’s popular Basil & Thyme restaurant and the first Indian to complete the Advanced Certificate Course of The Cordon Bleu School of Cookery, London. In this book, she seems to say that there are two ways to cook—her way and the wrong way. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most successful chefs are militant about cooking styles, and if you’re just starting out, it’s better to just shut up and listen. Or read on.
Feast of Love is Manekshaw’s third book; she’s previously authored Traditional Recipes of India and Parsi Foods and Customs. In a move away from traditional Indian cooking, this one’s based on continental cuisine of the Cordon Bleu strain.
Manekshaw starts from scratch in Chapter 1—Boring Basics.
She reveals that she wanted the first lines to say that if readers wanted to skip this section, they should shut the book, forget about cooking perfectly and give it to someone who loved the art. Her family and friends cajoled her out of it. But they should have let her have free reign—she’s managed to put it in anyway, and when you’re more than 80, remarks such as this are not rude, as her granddaughter told her, but feisty and rather endearing.
The chapter deals mainly with how to buy and prepare good produce, perfectly boil, poach, fry and scramble an egg, make varieties of basic stocks, sauces, dressings, breads, pastries and cakes. It has tips that may seem of no consequence, but the author insists details such as these make the difference. Can placing egg yolks in a bowl rinsed out with warm water really make a difference to your mayonnaise? Try and see.
Despite its title, the chapter is quite an entertaining read, because Manekshaw peppers it with stories such as these: She offered to make a cheese soufflé omelette for one of her daughter Sherna’s boyfriends. He took one bite of the light, fluffy concoction and rejected it, saying raw omelettes made him want to throw up. Manekshaw gave him some fruits to compensate, after mentally giving him two minus points. Another gem is how she chided Indira Gandhi for almost ruining a soufflé and named an impromptu dessert Gateau Indira after her, at the same meal.
The bulk of the book consist of recipes for 50 menus, each with an appetizer or soup, salad and dessert, with varieties of pastas, roasts, stews, bakes and more as mains. Menu 29, for a “Conversation-piece Dinner”, sounds quite exquisite and has one more great story to go with it.