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Vetri Selvi P – Parsi food in fiction of Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry. Image credit -

Parsi food customs as portrayed in the fiction of Rohinton Mistry

Literature becomes the living embodiment that holds not only the happenings down the ages, but like the brook of Tennyson’s poem, it holds human life within the range of time. Literature embraces within it all that men have experienced, undergone, battled for and faced down the centuries. Literature testifies for time past and time to come. It throws man’s own frailty into the limelight through its everlasting nature. Indian literature mainly focuses on the diversities of the subcontinent and serves as a record of Indian tradition, customs which includes the dress, food habits, and religion, to name a few. The culture of India is an amalgamation of diverse sub-cultures spread all over the Indian subcontinent and traditions that are several millennia old. Various cultural groups that entered India throughout history, such as the Persians, Mughals and European colonists, have also influenced cuisine across India. In the process of entertaining the people of the time, Indian literature reflects social realities. It captures the conflicts and the struggles of the people to preserve its culture for posterity.

Despite his status as one of Canada's most successful writers over the past fifteen years, Rohinton Mistry writes very little about Canada itself. Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on India, and on the state of the Parsi community within that country. When these Zoroastrians landed on the western shore of India, 13 centuries ago they brought with them not only the sacred fire from Persia but also the belief in the age-old religious philosophy of their prophet, Zarathustra and their special customs and their culinary skills as well.

For Parsis, food, music and pleasure- all these come first. With negligible religious prohibitions to restrict their diet, Parsis have enthusiastically adopted and adapted whatever recipe that fancied them. And when the Parsis migrated from Persia to India, they were perfectly situated to develop a memorable fusion of Persian, Indian and eventually European food ways. Dhansak, Patra ni machi, Sali kheema, Khichri, Saas ni machhi, Bheeda per eeda, akuri are some of the Parsi delicacies.

Parsis are a fun loving community and celebrate every possible festival with equal zeal. They eat sweets for Diwali, dance for New Year and dress up for Christmas. Their marriages, fashions and other celebrations are accompanied by legendary feasts of meat, sweets and fish specialities. Almost all Parsi families hold a Jashan or festive celebration on birthdays, anniversaries or to mark success in business or education. Recitations from scriptures, intoned musically by priests are a highlight. The holy fire is venerated and fruit, nuts, sweets are offered in thanksgiving. Naturally a feast of typically Parsi delicacies is also served on this occasion.

Parsi cuisine is completely Indian, with the flavours of its history adding a special touch.
Their population in India is as small as a drop in the ocean, figuratively 0.007 per cent of the total population, still Parsis consider India as their home. Their culture, etiquette, food, everything stand out and speak volumes. Over the centuries, as the Parsis merged into and absorbed the rich heritage of the country, their gastronomic art experienced a subtle transformation. While keeping many recipes and methods of cooking integral, they also learnt and experimented with new means and flavours, exotic and different. In this process they combined the original flavours from their homeland with the sundry ones of India. The results are a delightful blend of the two. Because of this, Parsi cooking has universal appeal and Mistry has spent many pages on the tasty Parsi cuisine in almost all his works.

Parsis are food lovers. “Someone chuckled loudly that where Parsis were concerned, food was number one, conversation came second.” (A Fine Balance 41). Being great connoisseurs of good food, the Parsis turn gluttons by consuming a variety of non-vegetarian food, including the Indian Hindu’s sacred cow. “Lucky for us that we are minorities in a nation of Hindus. Let them eat their pulses and grams and beans, spiced with their stingy asafetida- what they call hing. Let them fart their lives away…we will get our protein from their sacred cow.” (Such a Long Journey 27)

The gamut of the Parsi cuisine includes a delicious variety of fish, poultry, meat and egg dishes along with ample vegetarian, rice and desserts. Fish is a Parsi favourite and the Indian coasts feed their recipes with delight. Pomfret, sole fish, halibut and plaice find a special place on the Parsi dining table along with prawns and Bombay duck. Khari Machli, a versatile dish can be served on its own or with khichdee or sweet turmeric rice. Fish and chutney bake and bhujeli kolmi (prawns) are popular bakes. Kolmino sahs, bhinda-ma kolmi and bhaji kolmino patio are contrasting prawn dishes. Tarapori patio is a traditional Bombay duck pickle.

Chicken and mutton form an indispensable part of Parsi cooking and have diverse innumerable recipes and find application in mince, cutlets, kebabs and curries. The basic and very popular preparations find meat cooked with fried onion and ginger-garlic paste, which give a delicious flavour to the brown gravy. Chicken dhansak is found in menus all over the world, aleti paleti is chicken liver and farcha, the amazing chicken chops. We could find a beautiful passage in Such a Long Journey where in the birthday party of Roshan, her mother cooks a delicious chicken gravy in a brown sauce. Mistry portrays the banquet served on the occasion as:

The brown sauce in which the chicken swam, was perfect and to Dinshawji it could make even a corpse at the Tower of Silence sit up with an appetite. Besides chicken, there was a vegetable stew made of carrots, peas, potatoes and yam, liberally spiced with coriander, cumin, ginger, garlic, turmeric and whole green chillies. And there was rice, studded with cloves and cinnamon sticks: fragrant basmati rice…(53)

Parsis do not limit eggs till breakfast. They have some of the most delightful recipes with egg as main course. Attractive to look at and exciting in taste, whole or beaten and frothy, cooked over a variety of vegetables, they make unusual and delicious combinations. Bharuchi akuri(scrambled egg), baked akuri, creamed eggs on mince, luggan-na-eeda (festive eggs), sali malai pur eeda (eggs with straw potatoes) are memorable. In A Fine balance Dina reads the letter from Mrs. Kohlah that had arrived with the first rent cheque, postdated to Maneck’s moving day. The three pages listed instructions concerning the care and comfort of her son. There were tips about his breakfast: “fried eggs should be cooked floating in butter because he disliked the leathery edges that got stuck to the pan; scrambled eggs were to be light and fluffy, with milk added during the final phase.”(224) This shows how for Parsis only food is the priority. Parsi cooking includes vegetarian dishes which are imaginative and interesting and have taste and appeal for all, brinjal salnoo and bharta, moong dal with dill, khatti mithi dal, stews cutlets and curries are plentiful.

Mistry depicts in a humorous way in his Family Matters how food can pacify a Parsi even when he is in a serious and foul mood. In the novel Dr. Fitter scolds Jal for his incompetence and expresses his concern for the young Parsis who are not capable enough to save their dying community. He was seen enraged and shouting at heights of emotion. At that time his wife serves him his dinner and we could see his immediate transformation thus:

He kept complaining, pacing between kitchen and dining room, till Mrs. Fitter told him to sit. She brought the dinner to the table and served him a generous helping. The aroma of her masala mince, and the egg beaming with its round yellow eye, cheered him up at once.
“Whatever’s going to happen will happen,” he said after chewing and swallowing his first morsel. “In the meantime, eat, drink, and be merry. Absolutely delicious kheema, Tehmi.” (65)

Parsis are a close-knit community. Celebrations spell a time when the members of the community come together and have a great time. Mistry gives us a detailed picture of how close their familial bonds are and how food plays a major role in their family reunions. We could find instances in A Fine Balance when the family members celebrate the wedding anniversary of Dina with pulao, Dandar Paatiyo and Strawberry icecream and another in Family Matters where Coomy, the step daughter throws a party with fish curry and raspberry sherbet to Roxanna and her family to mark the birthday of her father Nariman Vakeel. There is a scene in the novel where the spinster Villie is reminded of the childhood get togethers of her family.

As the dark green rexine unfolded, Villie let her memories unfold with it.
“Such happy times, Yezadji, we had around this tablecloth. Every Sunday afternoon, the whole family together, for dhansak lunch. Bavaji was fanatic about it—curry-rice okay for Saturday, but try to cook anything except dhansak on Sunday and heaven help you. So Maiji never argued. And at one o’clock uncles, aunties, cousins would arrive and start chattering as though we hadn’t met for months.” (Family Matters 150)

Food and its trappings are often found in this story. One paragraph in Family Matters is really funny and the reaction of Yezad Chenoy, the Parsi protagonist in the novel proves how the author is inspired by the rich Parsi cuisine. Roxana's sons Murad and Jehangir read the story books by the English author Enid Blyton and dream of the food oft-mentioned in Blyton's books: "Muffins, porridge, kippers, scones, steak and kidney pie, potted meat, dumplings. Their father said if they ever tasted this insipid foreign stuff instead of merely reading about it in those blighted Blyton books, they would realize how amazing was their mother's curry-rice and khichri-saas and pumpkin buryani and dhansak. What they needed was an Indian Blyton, to fascinate them with their own reality"(140).

The Parsi family bondage is very strong. In ups and downs and even in times of great difficulty the members of a family will stand together and aid one another. Mistry records not only the rich variety of Parsi cuisine in his works but also goes philosophical about food. In Family Matters Roxana lives in a tiny apartment with her husband and two boys and has her elderly injured father come to live with her. Though there are so many problems to tackle like lack of space and lack of money, the family faces everything with only one weapon that is ‘love’. One of her boys offers to help feed him. Jehangir filled the spoon again and raised it to his grandfather's lips. A grain of rice strayed, lingering at the corner of his mouth. Jehangir took the napkin to gently retrieve it before it fell. Roxana was attending the washing in her balcony. She shook out the clothes, fretting about the wrinkles already settled in the fabric, and kept glancing inside the room to make sure Jehangoo was behaving himself. “The balcony door framed the scene: nine-year- old happily feeding seventy-nine.” (135). And then it struck her like a revelation and she felt she was witnessing something almost sacred, and her eyes refused to relinquish the precious moment, for she knew instinctively that it would become a memory to cherish, to recall in difficult times when she needed strength. “Roxana felt she understood the meaning of it all, of birth and life and death. My son, she thought, my father, and the food I cooked…A lump came to her throat; she swallowed."(136)

Parsi food by far is the subtlest of the lot. Like its mild mannered people, it has had no overpowering influence on any other cuisines. If the food habits of a community is indicative of the nature of its people, then the cuisine we sampled left us in no doubt of the liberal spirit of the endearing Parsi community. Mistry has beautifully portrayed all minute details about Parsi food customs in his works. After reading the works of Mistry, one would definitely take interest in the Parsi food.

Works Cited:
Dubey, Krishna Gopal. The Indian Cuisine. New Delhi: PHI, 2011.
King, Niloufer Ichaporia. My Bombay Kitchen. London: CUP, 2007.
Mistry, Rohinton. Such A Long Journey, London: Faber and Faber, 1991.
---. A Fine Balance. New York: Rosetta Books LLC, 2004.
---.Family Matters, New York: Rosetta Books LLC, 2004.


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