Seeking life's lessons in Perin Adrianvala's Parsi chicken curry and dhansak recipes

Perin aunty's chicken curry and kachumber
With rotis made by our cook Banu

The tale of a chicken curry

The other evening I realised that the way someone narrates a recipe says a lot about the person.

Take what Perin aunty told me about how she cooked the lip-smacking Parsi home-styled chicken curry that she sent me for example. 

I am typing out how she narrated her recipe to me on the phone when I asked her for it on the phone.

Our 89 year old Perin Aunty getting excited to see
a video of my niece taking her first baby steps

This is what Perin aunty had to say:

"There is nothing special about the curry. It is very simple. It is nothing fancy at all you know.

You peel and cut onions and fry them. Not shallow fry then, mind you. You fry them properly. Fry them till they are brown.

Then you wash the pieces of chicken and add them to the onion on the pan. Fry the chicken too. The taste will be retained if you fry them.

Then add some aadoo laasoon (ginger garlic paste). You can add some jeera (cumin powder) if you like. Of course you can add some turmeric if you like. And chilli powder. Jamshed used to like spicy food so we added quite a bit of it to the curry. Of course you can add some cloves... and how do you say it....dalchini (cinnamon)? yes that too. Salt of course.

It is up to you if you want to add tomatoes. Some people like it. Some people don't. It is up to their taste.

Did the chicken curry I sent you on Sunday have tomato? Maybe. It could have.

Where did its red colour come from? Oh, that was the chilli powder.

Do add some potatoes if you like (Like us Bengalis, Parsis love potatoes too: KK)

Slow cooking the curry is very important. The taste comes from that you see. In the olden days, they would put it in a container and then to steam sometimes. Nowadays we find that difficult.

Add water? Yes, that's important. Though some people don't add water. They like it thick.

Of course if you don't add any water, it will stick to the pan.

Is this my mother's recipe? You could say so. Not that my mother was any great cook or special cook. This sort of cooking was done in every house. It was quite common. Her name was Shirin Adrianvala.

What can I tell you about cooking? You cook so much. 

Actually chicken was hardly cooked in our home when we were growing up. My dad was used to say about chicken that you take one life to feed one life.

Mutton was consumed occasionally by our family (said Perin). Vegetables, eggs and fish was what we had. Fish specially.

My father was a member of the Parsee Vegetarian and Temperance Society. Ironically, when he grew old, his doctor told him that he had to eat for the betterment of his health. He did so most reluctantly!

His name was Dorabji Adrianvala."

Perin Adrianvala and her brother
the late Jamshed Adrianvala with my wife Kainaz
Through whom I have the good fortune to know them
They don't make people like them anymore

Who is Perin Aunty? She is the elder sister of Jamshed uncle about whom you have often read here.

Jamshed Uncle would often tell us about their dog Princee who was their mother's pet when they were growing up in their house at Mumbai's Grant Road. As long as Princee was there, apparently neither of the two children got the marrow bone when mutton (goat meat) was cooked at home. The nalli (marrow) belonged to Princee.

Now only Perin aunty is left in the family in their apartment at Cuffe Parade. Yet, whenever we talk to her or meet her, she comes across as someone who is full of life and warmth and positivity and who keeps asking about our well being instead of complaining about her own life. She doesn't let the shadow of her loneliness or her old age shroud the present when we are with her. 

She shows us what it truly means to 'treasure the person in front of you' and is a great example to us of the sort of human being one should aspire to be.

89 year old Perin and her 93 year old friend Meru
Watching my then 10 month old niece taking her first steps
Lunch is served

The other day K and my mom in law went to visit her.  Perin aunty asked them stay on for lunch. At 89, Perin aunty can barely see and is hardly mobile. 

Yet, she worked with her house help  to turn out a meal of chicken curry and dar and rice and kachumber. Perin aunty called it a 'simple meal' and yet all through their meal, K kept raving about how wonderful the meal was to me on whatsapp.

I was secretly hoping that K would bring back some of the delicious sounding food for me. My prayers literally got answered as K came home bearing the chicken curry and dar and even some kachumber (salad) which Perin aunty had most thoughtfully packed for me.

Perin aunty later told me that she was glad K asked if she could pack the leftovers for me.

"I didn't know if it would look good if I would send you what was left," she said when I thanked her for it.

"What was left was very ample," I reassured her.

We ended up having the perfectly seasoned, spicy and lively chicken curry over two dinners. 

Though the curry had breast pieces of chicken, the chicken was not tough or chewy at all. I can't handle chillies much but I happily mopped my perspiring crown with a tissue and ate the fantastic curry.

Perin aunty's dhansak dar and kachumber
The rice was made by Banu as taught by mom in law
The bowl belonged to my late grandmother in law
That's a lot of Parsi mammas in one picture
That's not salli but the Bengali jhuri bhaaja in the picture

I had the her dar, which is the dal from the dhansak, for lunch. Mom in law had got our cook Banu to make some dhansak rice for me. I was so happy to see that there was kachumber. 

Kainaz is indifferent to kachumber while I, though no Parsi, can't eat dhansak without kachumber.

K had told me earlier, "eat this dhansak and you will realise why what we have at home is no patch on it."

She was right. Though the dar was vegetarian, the richness of flavours, the balance of salt, the thick and heart consistency of the dar, made it possibly the best dhansak dar that I'ver had and I have had quite a few and I say this very objectively. I didn't miss the absence of meat at all.

That's Freddy mama at SodaBottleOpenerWala
His mom, K's grandma, used to make a lovely dhansak dar
which we called 'Mamma's dal'. 

I often wryly comment that how, like Bengali men, Parsi boys too are never satisfied with the food in the Parsi restaurants. They always say that their mother's cooking was way better.

Perin aunty's dhansak dar showed me why.

Food and the Sociology of Everyday Life

Chatting in May 2017 with PR
Reliving memories of my time from 1992 - 1995
 in Presidency College

A few days back I had met PR or Dr Prsanta Ray, my Sociology professor from my college days, when I went to Kolkata. 

I told him about my journey as a food blogger. He spoke to me about how food is a great way of understanding 'everyday life'. About how recipes and the food had at home changes with time with people keep trying out new things.

Yet, when I look at a lot of discourse on food in social media, I find it to be very assertive often to the point of being polemic and that at times it lacks the evolutionary open spirit that PR spoke about.

THIS is the only war to cook this dish. How dare you make variations to it? Tchah, this is not authentic. My grandmother was the greatest cook ever and I spent all my time learning from her. We were royalty....etc etc

It comes across at times as if we only want to lecture and not listen when you see such discussions.

Life's lessons in a recipe

Perin aunty had written and given us her dhansak recipe a few years back
When Jamshed uncle had got us the dhansak masala they buy
It is stuck to our fridge

If you see the way Perin aunty gave me her chicken curry recipe, there was none of this 'my recipe or the highway approach' approach in what she said.

Her description, like that of my grandmom's when I ask her for recipes, was warm, diffident, loving, compassionate, flexible and the polar opposite of being self obsessed.

Perin aunty and didu (my grandmom) are both 89 years or so old. 

The year they were born was a vintage year you could say as they don't make people like them anymore.

We are blessed to have them in our lives.

Update: I met Perin aunty a few days after writing this. Turned out that a common friend had read it out to her. Perin aunty was most tickled by it and said that I made her seem much greater than she is. She also told me that the secret to the dhansak is a masala made by a poor Parsi lady in Nagpur. The lady's daughter and packaged it and there were folks in Mumbai who would try to help them by buying it. The Adrianvala's had given us a few packets and it is called Aunty's Masala. That's when Perin aunty had sent us her recipe.

Perin Adrianvala, a picture of grace and dignity,
Thanking the audience at her brother Jamshed's memorial service
And giving hope and courage to those of us gathered there 

My recent blog post on our Jamshed Uncle