Parsi cultural history served up on a plate

Scholar and author Niloufer Ichaporia King started writing an account of the disappearing Parsi culture and food traditions when her mother turned 90. The result is an engaging cookbook, “My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking,” filled with stories of King’s personal and cultural history, anecdotes about her beloved dishes and surprisingly easy recipes.

King will be in Ashland on Oct.10-11 to share the beauty and simplicity of Parsi cooking and to talk about her book.

Parsi culture dates back to the seventh century when descendants of the followers of the prophet Zoroaster fled Persia to avoid religious persecution by Arab invaders. They settled on the west coast of India, so Parsi cuisine is a unique blend of Indian and Persian traditions.

King, who is also an anthropologist, writes that her stories and recipes are both a means of sharing her cultural history as well as preserving it. Demographic projections of the Parsi population predict that by 2020, Parsis will number fewer than 23,000, small enough to re-classify them as a tribe rather than a community. Each recipe King shares is a sort of history on a plate.

In the book’s introduction, King explains that the essence of Zoroastrianism is the belief in the ongoing struggle between light and dark forces within each human being. She writes that one way of keeping dark forces at bay is to “take joy in food and drink in happy company, and to share good fortune with the less favored among us.”

Because King is not only a celebrated cook but also an excellent storyteller, reading the book is like sitting in the kitchen with a favorite aunt who expresses her love of life and family through the food she cooks and the warm stories she tells. In addition to about 165 recipes, the book includes antique family photos, illustrations of food and cooking tools by the author’s husband David King, and one of the best glossaries I’ve ever seen, with detailed descriptions of Parsi foods and herbs, as well as their English language equivalents.

King lives in San Francisco, and knows well the busy, American lifestyle, so her recipes are quick and ingredients are often easy to substitute. One recipe, “Eggs on Anything,” is more of a list of ideas for things to put eggs on, such eggs on fried plantains, eggs on tomatoes, and my favorite, eggs on potato chips.

I recently made “Mother’s Khichri,” a rice and lentil dish fragrant with cumin, cinnamon and cloves. King describes it as an Indian risotto, eaten as a nourishing breakfast (King suggests putting an egg on it) or a comforting dinner. I’ve tried a few other recipes, including “Everyday Dal,” “Braised Greens” and a yummy cabbage salad with mint and lime. All were big hits with my family.

I picked the recipes mostly for their simplicity, but sometimes for the accompanying wisdom. For example, she says that in Parsi tradition “Everyday Dal,” is always eaten during major life events such as weddings, birthdays or a death. “The underlying lesson,” King writes, “is that life cannot be led without experiencing both joy and sorrow in some measure, and we mustn’t make too much of either, for both are fleeting.”

On Friday, October 10, from 6 to 8 p.m., King will prepare a Parsi meal of appetizers at the Ashland Food Co-op’s community kitchen classroom. Afterward, attendees may take a short walk with King to the import store Hill Station to have their books signed and enjoy some cardamom cake and wine. To register for the class visit Registration is $30 and seats are limited.

At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 11,  King will read from and discuss her book at Hill Station. Refreshments will be served and the event is free and open to the public. Hill Station is at the corner of 4th and A streets in the Railroad District. For more information, call Farinaz Wadia at 360-421-3342.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland

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