Parsi: From Persia to Bombay – Recipes & Tales from the Ancient Culture

Farokh Talati oversees rustic, British-inspired food at St John Bread & Wine, but his first cookbook explores his family’s Parsi recipes

London’s St John Bread & Wine, founded by chef Fergus Henderson of Nose to Tail Eating fame, is not known for a menu bursting with masalas. But while head chef Farokh Talati capably oversees its elegantly rustic, British-inspired plates of meats and veg, he has also been exploring his own family’s Parsi food through pop-up dinners, and now his first cookbook. Conceived during the pandemic, Parsi: Recipes & Tales from the Ancient Culture is a charming, personal introduction to the cuisine by someone who discovered it from the outside-in.

Based on family dishes gleaned from Talati’s trips to India (he was born and grew up in the UK), as well as his own experimentation, Parsi includes over 150 recipes. Not all of them are traditional, but they feel at home flavor-wise among the classics, and seem in in keeping with the Parsi spirit of adaptation.

Avoiding authoritative claims, Talati describes the provenance of recipes as they came to him: from his Dinaz Aunty, his uncle Adil, a Tirgan festival tradition in Iran, or simply a moment of inspiration during a rushed catering gig. After all, Talati writes, “that is what Parsi cooking has always been about, taking the best bits from here and there to create something wonderful.”

This is a book to savour as much as cook from. Talati’s writing is evocative and unpretentious; just sample his personification of dhansak masala as “the older sibling, more refined, more experienced in life and quietly confident” as opposed to sambhar masala, the “younger brasher sibling”. The book’s styling and photography reflects a playful approach to cooking and ingredients, embracing splatter and gesture.

The recipes range from easy (mango pickle mayonnaise) to more advanced; but, from appetizers, masalas and pickles to biscuits and desserts, they are all a pleasure to read and tantalizing to contemplate making. Home cooks who are new to the cuisine will benefit from carefully reading Talati’s context-setting sections, where he explains, for example how making of masalas in Parsi cooking is as foundational as “the use of stocks in European cooking”.

Talati believes that “a cookbook should sweep the leaves away to reveal the path to a certain outcome, but how you choose to walk that path should be down to you.” While the recipes are easy to follow, a little bit of knowledge of basic Indian cooking techniques is helpful in recreating them; small tweaks, such as changing the type of vessel or portion size, may necessitate experienced adjustments. With some adaptation to available ingredients, a test of several recipes (roast leg of lamb with garlic and turmeric; kolmi no patyo; papri; mooli and cucumber salad) turned out varied and delicious, leaving the book well-speckled with turmeric — the mark of a successful practical guide.

There are plenty of wonderful Parsi cookbooks out there, from the historic Vividh Vani, to thenear mythical Time & Talents Club Recipe Book, to modern classics like Bhicoo J Manekshaw’s Parsi Food and Customs, and more recent memoirish fare, like Anahita Dhondy’s Parsi Kitchen — just to mention a few. With its diasporic perspective on the cuisine, Talati’s Parsis adds a new dimension to this collection.

This story was originally published in India Today.

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