Niloufer Ichaporia King in Conversation with Sue Darlow
Sue Darlow: Were you particularly interested in food and cooking as a child, or was it something that grew once you left India?
I taught myself Parsi and other Indian food from the first edition of the Time and Talents cookbook in combination with recipes from my mother’s cook, Andrew de Souza
Niloufer Ichaporia King: I was always interested in food and cooking. My very first memories are tied up with food, but that may very well be the case for most of us. The kitchen, from which I was banned, like many other Indian children, was always a magnet, whether at home or in school, where eventually, Sister Florence who was in charge, gave in and started talking to me.
Sue Darlow: You taught yourself to cook using the Time and Talents Club cookbook in addition to your long time cook's instructions sent from home. Would you recommend learning to cook from the Time and Talent's Club cookbook?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Yes and no. We had cookery lessons in school and at home, I did a lot of recreational cooking ( cakes, soufflés, salads, etc) when allowed. So I was not a total innocent when I entered the phase of cooking every day in a new country. I taught myself Parsi and other Indian food from the first edition of the Time and Talents cookbook in combination with recipes from my mother’s cook, Andrew de Souza. My interests in the food of everywhere else were served by devouring what was available at the library and by subscribing to Gourmet which was the only magazine of its type in the early sixties. I suppose someone could do a lot worse than trying learn to cook from the Time and Talents cookbook, especially the more recent editions since so many of the contributors are known for their marvellous food.
Sue Darlow: Alice Waters writes that she wishes you would open a restaurant of your own, have you ever considered the idea?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Yes. Briefly. Long ago. This is what I would have liked: People one likes coming to eat when one is struck with the urge to cook this or that; a place to sprawl and chat after a meal; the sense of being in someone’s house. Guess what? This is what I do all the time. It’s called having people to dinner ( or breakfast or lunch or tea).
Pages from the introduction
Sue Darlow: How easy was it to find a publisher for your book?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Finding a publisher was less problematical than finding the right publisher. I was fortunate that the University of California Press, where I should have begun, expressed a strong interest right at the point I withdrew from my original publisher.
Sue Darlow: What has been the book's reception so far?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Encouraging.
Sue Darlow: How much of the book is what you wanted and how much is compromise?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: In its present form, the book is largely what I want, although the original manuscript was considerably longer than what we’ve ended up with. Nevertheless, a lot of the stuff that my first publisher didn’t want—colour, context, information, family photographs-- got put back in this version of the book. I think there is bound to be some back and forth and compromise with any publisher. There are matters of usage, for instance. It seems truly odd to see our familiar “chilly” and “chillies” as “chiles” in the context of Indian food, but University of California Press had enough of a sense of humour to allow me to put in a disclaimer in the face of their insistence.
Sue Darlow: Was including no photographs of food a conscious decision or a matter of budget restrictions?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Yes, it was a conscious decision, though not mine at first. My original publisher was so delighted by my husband’s drawings for the annual Chez Panisse dinner menus that they asked for illustrations rather than photographs. The more I thought about it, the better the idea seemed.
Sue Darlow: Which food writers do you admire most, and why?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Anyone who writes about food from a personal, historical or anecdotal point of view. Books that are little more than compiled shopping lists are deadly. We could be specific about Parsi food, in which case I’d say Bhicoo Maneckshaw. I wish my Gujarati were proficient enough to read the older treatises. There’s a lot to be learned from them and I wish someone would undertake their translation.
Sue Darlow: How would you sum up Parsi cuisine to someone- Gujarati-Indian food with Persian and European influences, or Persian food with Gujarati-Indian and European influences, or something else?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: The second, since Persian food traditions form the foundation of our present way of cooking.
Sue Darlow: What would you say are the main strengths and weaknesses of Parsi cuisine?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: I can answer only for myself. Depth and range of flavour, big pluses. Traditional avoidance of vegetables in recognizable form a big minus, though at the same time, many of our dishes prove that vegetables can be delicious in any stage of done-ness..
Sue Darlow: Have you found much difference between the food of Parsis in Bombay and those of smaller cities and villages in Gujarat?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Not enough direct experience to answer this question. Certainly, Bombay Parsis delight in the specialities of Surat, Bharuch, Navsari, whether brought in from those places or reconstructed in Bombay kitchens.
Sue Darlow: Is there any particular reason that so many Goan cooks were employed by Parsi households during the latter half of the 20th century in Bombay?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: My guess would be that they were fluent in many culinary idioms and that made them desirable additions to cosmopolitan Parsi households.
Sue Darlow: I think the Parsi habit of adding just a pinch of sugar to many dishes is pure genius, it rounds out and deepens flavours without making the food sweet. Comment?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: You’re right.
Sue Darlow: Where did the Parsis acquire their love of eggs?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: In our Persian past, I would guess.
Sue Darlow: How do contemporary Persian and Parsi food compare?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: My answer’s based on a reading and restaurant acquaintance with contemporary Persian food. It seems to demonstrate what Parsi food grew out of.
Though we’re a tiny part of the Indian population, there’s a great range within the community from extreme conservativism to flaming liberalism, and that probably applies to tastes in food
Sue Darlow: You write that among Parsis there are no religious prohibitions - is there nothing a Parsi can't or won't eat?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Two separate issues here. I’m not sure I meant precisely that because certainly there are things we are and aren’t supposed to eat in the context of festivals, special days of either celebration or sorrow, or, in the past, in connection with menstrual customs. ( Many previous rules regarding food have been forgotten by cosmopolitan secular Parsi families though many households may still make an effort to observe them). I recently found out after my mother died that one is supposed to cook dhansak on the fourth day after a death (meat’s forbidden on the first three days) to signify a return to everyday life.
Second, who is “a Parsi”? Though we’re a tiny part of the Indian population, there’s a great range within the community from extreme conservativism to flaming liberalism, and that probably applies to tastes in food. In general, Parsis of my parents’ generation might have abhorred the idea of raw fish or undercooked meat or raw vegetables, yet contemporaries love sushi and sashimi and rare steak and salads. But I can hear an American friend saying something similar.
Sue Darlow: With more and more Parsis migrating away from India to the four corners of the earth, do you think Parsi cuisine as we know it will last for long?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Parsi cooking as we know it is different from the way our great-great-grandparents knew it, so I’m quite sure it will undergo some more changes in response to time and geography. I think we’re too fond of our basics to allow them to disappear. However, I do fret about things like topli nu panir, which I do see as an endangered food.
Sue Darlow: Was your book an attempt to present a personal "snapshot" of it as it stands now?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: Over three generations, it’s a little more cumbersome than a snapshot but certainly a look into one small area of a larger whole.
Sue Darlow: What would your last meal on earth be?
Niloufer Ichaporia King: A green salad. Or a Gâteau Succès. Or both.
Continue to Sue's notes on selected recipes.