Pineapple as pubic enemy number one? We all know how divisive it is as the Hawaiian Pizza topping alongside its sidekick, ham. Not just Neapolitan diehards rail against this perversion of the One True Pizza. This version was created in Canada 60 years ago by a Greek immigrant called Sam Panopoulos (the ‘Hawaiian’ comes from the canned brand he used). Yet it’s not being ousted from our supermarket chill cabinets any time soon.
Similarly ‘old school’ curry house menus still feature Dhansaks given a sweet kick by the addition of pineapple chunks to the chicken/lamb and lentil template devised by its creators, the Parsis. As with our lager lout Anglicisation of Vindaloo, that subtle Goan vinegar and garlic driven pork dish, into the tonsil-cauterising ‘hottest curry on the menu’, so too our Indian restaurant ‘soft option’ Dhansak’ is a culturally appropriated travesty.
Give them their due, most Indian cookbooks omit the pineapple, but rarely put the dish in its Zoroastrians-in-exile context. Parsi – From Persia to Bombay: Recipes and Tales from the Ancient Culture (Bloomsbury, £26) does. All the more surprisingly, its author works at the heart of a very British culinary stronghold. Farokh Talati’s day job is as head chef at Fergus Henderson’s St John Bread and Wine in London’s Spitalfields.
One Parsi recipe that definitely straddles that restaurant’s ‘nose-to-tail’ ethos and Farokh’s heritage is Masoor Ma Jeebh (lamb’s tongue, masoor dal and spinach) It’s definitely on my kitchen bucket list. Less so a little chicken gizzard number, another nod to authenticity.
I was drawn to his new book because I envisaged it as a companion piece to Dishoom: From Bombay With Love, one of the most glorious cookbooks on my shelves – inspired by the Irani (Parsee) cafes of Mumbai. I was eager for a bit of back story. The Dishoom tome is a celebration of a much-loved London (and Manchester) brand via an evocative homage to its creator’s home city, but its recipe roster strays across the Sub-continent.
Equally personal, Parsi, is more specific, offering historical context from the introduction onwards… “Around the seventh century, during the Arab conquest of Persia, a small group of Zoroastrians fled persecution by sailing from what is now known as Iran and found themselves on the shores of India. The community that originally settled in Sanjan became known as the Parsis because of their Persian heritage, and throughout the centuries they spread across India”.
Bombay (Mumbai) was for many the final port of call. The newcomers assiduously learned English to become indispensable to their imperial masters, but the Indian assimilation started in Sanjan a few miles inland from the Gujarat, coast. Regard it as a landing stage for a resourceful, adaptable religious group, who brought with them the remarkable flavours of their homeland – dried fruits, nuts, saffron, and rice. In Gujarat they learned to fuse these with Indian spices and extended their cooking range to include fish.
The result many Parsi dishes are balanced between sweet, sour, savoury and salty. Traditionally that balance was achieved with the use of brewed cane sugar juice, affectionately nicknamed ‘Parsi vinegar’ and jaggery (reduced cane sugar). Native coconut fitted into the scheme of things, but maybe canned pineapple was a sweetener too far.
Which bring us back to Dhansak, which is the quintessential Parsi dish. In Farokh’s recipe – sourced, like so many, from his family – the meat is mutton, brined first, and on the bone. Four types of lentils are slow cooked with vegetables, squashes, spices, onion, ginger, and garlic for a long time until the mutton is tender. It is then served with caramelised onion rice and jaggery.
What sets it apart from your Rogan Josh or your Dopiaza is the effort needed to make the Dhansak Masala – involving 15 spices and counting. Farokh’s dishes generally require a beyond fast fix degree of attention. No bad thing. The lockdown was a boon for this busy professional chef in perfecting dishes for the book.
He recalls: “Even though it started a couple of years before the pandemic, the majority of the book really got going during lockdown. I got very bored in the first two weeks, so every Wednesday, I’d go into St John, when it was closed. I’d type up a three-course Parsi meal, cook it that day, and finish and hand-deliver it to the locals on Thursday. That helped me refine the recipes and get feedback.”
When I’ve filed this piece I’m beginning preparations to cook my own Dhansak. The mutton is merrily defrosting. All the spices for the Masala are gathered in rank, just awaiting the belated arrival of the black cardamom.
Check: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, bay leaf, black peppercorns, dried Kashmiri chillies, green cardamom pods, caraway seeds, cinnamon (or cassia bark), cloves, ground fenugreek, mace blade, grated nutmeg, poppy seeds, saffron, star anise, ground turmeric, mustard seeds, one whole black lime.
That latter element is the cultural giveaway. It is essentially Persian, reminding us how far the Parsis have travelled. I’ll alert you to the success or otherwise of my personal, pineapple-free Dhansak voyage of discovery via social media. Now where in the store cupboard are all those lentils?