A Parsee New's Years Dinner
by Susan Scott
For the Irani household, New Year comes twice, if not three times, a year.
“As Parsees, we celebrate Nowruz, the beginning of our year, but we also take part in the festivities on December 31,” says Yasmin Irani, who, with her husband Jamsheed (Jimmy), and daughter, Shireen, is a member of Calgary’s Zoroastrian community. There’s yet a third celebration in August.
The Parsees arrived in India in two waves from their homeland of Persia, present-day Iran. The first group of Zoroastrians fled in the 8th to 10th centuries, after the Muslim invasion. They landed on the shores of Gujarat and settled in and around Mumbai. They were called Parsees in recognition of their homeland. The second group arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after another bout of persecution, and frequently take the last name Irani.
Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, is the ancient faith of Persia and has influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in turn. The Prophet Zoroaster’s teachings tell of Ahura Mazda, or the Wise Lord, and that the world is formed by a ceaseless struggle between good and evil.
Originally Nowruz coincided with the spring equinox, but the complicated calculations required to keep this going fell apart in both Persia and India. In 1925, Iran – including both its Muslims and its remaining Zoroastrians – adopted March 21st as Nowruz. However, in India, the Zoroastrian calendar has fallen completely out of synch, so that the start of the New Year is now in August.
The Parsees quickly adapted to their new country. Although their numbers were small, like many immigrants, they quickly gave back to the wider community and absorbed some of its influences, including its cuisine. Parsee cooking is a supreme example of fusion food, combining the flavours of Iran with the sweetness of Gujarati cuisine, which is very different from the curries we tend to consume in Calgary, most of which hail from Punjab.
Parsees take pride in being omnivorous. “We eat everything,” says Yasmin, mentioning that goat trotters are a delicacy. “Food is very important to us. It’s all about food.”
In Calgary, Zoroastrian families still cook the traditional dishes. Those who arrived from India, like Yasmin and Jamsheed, prepare Parsee food, and those from Iran, Persian food. Yasmin’s roots extend back to the first wave to reach India, so her family’s customs are a little different from Jamsheed’s, whose family arrived in the second wave to reach India.
Yasmin and Jamsheed are very health conscious, so in Canada she’s made adjustments to the recipes handed down from her mother. Instead of ghee, she uses olive or canola oil and has cut back on quantity. The food, however, still has a distinctive zing on the palate.
Yasmin says a typical Nowruz menu includes chawal (rice), dal (lentils), a spicy shrimp dish with a bit of sweet/sour taste, and either a rich custard or a semolina-based dessert. They’re all easy to prepare and the ingredients are readily available at larger local super-markets or at East Indian stores. For vegetarians, she has included an eggplant recipe that bursts with flavour. As Yasmin would say, “Nowruz Mubarak!” (Happy New Year!)
The menu serves 4.
Read entire article in the digital issue of City Palate.