A Woman of Steel

When one thinks of Rhea Mitra-Dalal, one quickly conjures up an image of a no-nonsense, matronly lady, one of the oldest members and moderators of the Chef at Large Facebook group. However, behind that stately demeanour, is a lady with the kindest of hearts, a love for food which replaces her usual stern look when a plate of delectable food lands in front of her. A brilliant writer on all things food especially Parsi and Bengali cuisines, not to mention everything porcine. 

When one thinks of Rhea Mitra-Dalal, one quickly conjures up an image of a no-nonsense, matronly lady, one of the oldest members and moderators of the Chef at Large Facebook group. However, behind that stately demeanour, is a lady with the kindest of hearts, a love for food which replaces her usual stern look when a plate of delectable food lands in front of her. A brilliant writer on all things food especially Parsi and Bengali cuisines, not to mention everything porcine. Her extensive knowledge on food and quick wit make her delightful company with whom one can carry on conversations for hours on end. Needless to say, whilst she and her beloved husband Kurush F. Dalal have been successfully running Katy’s Kitchen in Mumbai for years, Rhea has recently reached new heights by being a successful and an important part of Hokus Porkus, by bringing in innovative pork recipes to the lucky people of Mumbai. Sid Khullar recently spoke to Rhea Mitra-Dalal and you will find this an interesting read. 

Parsi Food, the words evoke images of Dhansakh and Patra ni Machhi in most people’s minds. But there’s much more to the cuisine of this much beloved community epitomised by philanthropy and eccentricity in equal measure. The Parsis arrived in India as refugees from Iran, a little more than a thousand years ago and first settled on the Gujarat coast. Legend has it that the leader of the earliest groups went to meet a local chieftain to seek asylum. The chieftain showed him a bowl brimming with milk and said his land was like that bowl, with no room for more. The leader of the refugees sprinkled sugar into the milk and said, like the sugar, he and his people would not only blend into the milk but would improve it too. And thus the Parsis remained in India, and not only did they blend in, they certainly added plenty of sweetness to the land.Rhea Mitra-Dalal

Sid Khullar (SK): You’re a Bengali, a culture with a prominent role for food. Yet, you appear to be more enamoured with Parsi food. How did Parsi cuisine win your heart?
Rhea Mitra- Dalal (RMD):
My exposure to Bengali food was relatively limited and I wasn’t that interested in food as a kid. I just preferred non vegetarian over vegetarian and since I liked a very limited range of vegetables and ate no fruit, meals were something to get through. My mother was a good cook but she didn’t like cooking so her repertoire was also limited. The fact that she was a single working mom also made the elaborate multi-course Bengali meals impractical.

Though I started cooking when I was around 12 years old to help her, I only did the simpler stuff like boiling the daal and rice in the pressure cooker, prepping vegetables, etc. I became quite fond of baking as mom used to bake a lot, and took greater interest in cakes and cookies than in the daal, chawal, roti, subzi side of food. My real hands on cooking started when I moved to Pune to pursue an MA degree and began hostel life. That’s where I met my husband and my real interest in food started as we cooked with friends and ate out on a budget.

After I married into a Parsi family I was exposed to Parsi food every day. The fact that the family ran a well-known catering business only increased my exposure and as I joined the business I learned more and more about the cuisine. My mother in law, Katy Dalal, was a walking encyclopedia and she was always happy to explain nuances of a dish, recipes, preparations, and she also shared many of her own food memories with me. It’s not surprising at all that I’m so enamoured with Parsi cuisine!

Rhea in her cooking avatar!

SK: How would you describe Parsi food to someone who hasn’t the faintest idea?
  Meals are simple, in that, there will be one main dish accompanied by rice, bread, or rotlis (rotis), a simple side dish, an occasional kachumber depending on the main dish of the meal, and dessert. Like Bengalis, most Parsis like a little bit of something sweet at the end of every meal. Eggs are a huge favorite and there’s probably no other Indian cuisine that has so many egg based dishes like Parsi cuisine.

Parsi cuisine is a robust and joyful cuisine. Even everyday food seems celebratory – elaborate, somewhat rich, and predominantly meat-based. But don’t assume that there’s no vegetarian element to this cuisine – there’s plenty!Rhea Mitra-Dalal


SK: We know a few iconic Parsi dishes like Dhansak, Salli Murgi and so on. Did these exist initially or did they evolve due to Indian influences?
Versions of these dishes exist in Persian cuisine even today – aab gosht (meat cooked with chick peas) can be identified as the original idea from where Dhansakh came about. The two are quite distinct but the similarities are very much there. Sali Marghi also has its roots in Persian food where the use of dry fruit is very common. Dried apricots or jardaloo are an important ingredient in Sali Marghi.

A typical Parsi meal that Rhea whips up for her clients!

SK: You and your spouse run Katy’s Kitchen, a well-known, even beloved caterer of Parsi food. Have you found many non Parsi folks ordering in? Is this number increasing? How about those from conservative or orthodox non Parsi cultures? While they’ve adopted some international cuisines in the form of fast foods like burgers, pizzas, pastas and the like, have they also moved towards experimenting with Parsi food?
Katy’s Kitchen has been around for nearly 40 years now and we’ve seen many changes in the client demographic. Initially we had nearly exclusively Parsi clients but even 20 years ago we had non Parsi clients on numerous occasions. Barring weddings and events that mark religious sacraments people are generally open to exploring different foods. We’ve catered innumerable birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations for non Parsi clients, and as of the last 10 years we’re doing corporate catering, film catering and all manner of events too. Exploring new cuisines is the in thing these days and Parsi cuisine is very popular so yes, the number of non Parsi clients has definitely increased.

As far as conservative non Parsi clients are concerned we have a few of those too. Since there is a significant vegetarian clientele out there we have a substantial vegetarian menu that includes Parsi vegetarian dishes and a wider non Parsi selection. Having Jain clients who place their confidence in us has certainly been a big feather in our cap. These days everyone experiments with food and we do too. We have adapted quite a few standard Parsi dishes to suit clients’ needs. One of the most successful experiments has been the ‘mini farcha’ where we adapted a classic farcha – a spiced fried chicken (on the bone) – into a bite sized boneless version. This is one of our most popular party snacks.

SK: Which Indian cuisine would you find Parsi food most comparable to and why?
I think the closest ties are to coastal Gujarati cuisines because that’s where the Parsis first landed and settled before their numbers grew and they started spreading further out. Since the deal was to blend in without disturbing the people of their adopted country, the immigrant Parsis adopted the language, dress, and food of their hosts and these initial adaptations form the foundation of Parsi cuisine as we know it today.

SK: Is there a street food menu component in Parsi food?
Not really.

SK:What do you believe Parsi food has acquired after its arrival and subsequent stay in India? Or to rephrase, what would we find different about Parsi food in its earliest avatar and its contemporary version?
Parsi cuisine as we know it was born in India after groups of Zoroastrians fled Iran around the 8th Century and arrived on the western coast of India. Every cuisine adapts and changes as the influences around it change – initially the cuisine would have been influenced by coastal Gujarati food and as the Parsis travelled and spread they picked up influences from Maharashtrian and Goan food. Since the Parsis consorted with the British and other foreigners with ease thanks to the absence of any taboos, they also adapted many European foods into their repertoire. While there are vestiges of Persian cuisine still visible in the form of pullaos, the use of dry fruit, the fondness for barista or fried onions, Parsi cuisine in its current form has flavours from the entire western coast (the use of coconut, local produce, dishes like Parsi curry, Umbariyu, the use of souring agents like kokum, etc.) and influences from Europe seen in dishes like lagan nu Custard, Sahs, the variety of cutlets, etc.

So, for example, before the Europeans arrived the cuisine wouldn’t have had cutlets or lagan nu custard, but probably had ravo, the Parsi version of sooji ka halwa, a dish that is present in some form or other in nearly every cuisine in this country.

SK: Would it be fair and accurate to describe Parsi food as an Indian cuisine?
Yes absolutely! Parsi cuisine was born here in India and has been around for more than a thousand years. It is quite different from Persian food though some influences do remain.

SK: Does Parsi food use any hard to find ingredients?
Not really. There are a few things that are laborious to make – like wheat milk  which is used in falooda. In the old days some ingredients like rose water were a little hard to procure but not anymore.

SK: Please share a recipe?
This easy to make Parsi Prawn Curry makes for a delicious recipe to try for beginners to Parsi cuisine.

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Rhea Mitra-Dalal in conversation with Sid Khullar.