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Sugar in the Milk: A Parsi Kitchen Story

Niloufer Ichaporia King prowls about six farmers markets a week in search of greens, roots, seeds and inspiration. Here, she is at Alemany Farmers Market in San Francisco on a Saturday morning.
Laura Folger for NPR
Niloufer Ichaporia King prowls about six farmers markets a week in search of greens, roots, seeds and inspiration. Here, she is at Alemany Farmers Market in San Francisco on a Saturday morning.
King cooks Parsi eggs in one of three kitchens in her San Francisco home.
Laura Folger for NPR /
King cooks Parsi eggs in one of three kitchens in her San Francisco home.

Niloufer Ichaporia King lives in a house with three kitchens. She prowls through at least six farmers markets a week in search of unusual greens, roots and seeds, traditional food plants from every immigrant culture in the Bay Area. King is an anthropologist, a kitchen botanist, a one-of-a-kind cook, and a writer. A Parsi from Bombay living in San Francisco.

Parsi culture is about 3,000 years old and goes back from India to Persia. UNESCO's Parsi Zoroastrian Project estimates only 75,000 Parsis remain, and it has begun an effort to salvage what's left of the culture — its clothing, traditions and food. UNESCO projects that by 2020, only 25,000 Parsis will be left.

King is also known for her ritual celebrations of Navroz, the Parsi New Year, on the first day of spring, when she creates an elaborate, ceremonial meal based on the auspicious foods and traditions of her vanishing culture. Often she and the chefs of Alice Waters' legendary restaurant, Chez Panisse, collaborate on this ritual feast together. On that night, the restaurant is decorated with garlands of gardenias, tuberose and fragrant flowers in the doorways. Rice flour stencils of fish and other auspicious shapes are powdered onto the sidewalk and steps of the restaurant to bring good luck. King cooks while her husband, biochemist David, chalks the stencils and designs and illustrates the menus.

King's parents are both Parsis. Parsi means a person from Persia. To be a Parsi is to be born of a Parsi father at least.

"Parsi, like Afghani," she says. Descendants of the followers of Zoroaster, the Parsis left Persia after it fell to the Arabs in the 8th century.

The Parsi Legend

There are many legends of how the Parsis were allowed to settle in India. The priestly leaders were brought before the local ruler, Jadi or Jadhav Rana, who presented them with a vessel "brimful" of milk to signify that the surrounding lands could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk to signify how the strangers would enrich the local community without displacing them. They would dissolve into life like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but not unsettling it.

Jadi responded to the eloquent image and granted the exiles land and permission to practice their religion unhindered if they would lay down their arms, adopt local dress, respect local customs, conduct weddings and other ceremonies only at night, and learn the local language, Gujarati.

Homi Bhabha, professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, is also a Parsi from Bombay. He talks about this founding myth of sugar in the milk, or as some tell it, rosewater in milk. (Still others say it was a coin that was slipped into milk).

Bhabha recounts Parsi New Year at his grandmother's house.

"We drank this absolutely delicious milkshake-like drink, falooda, made of pink rosewater and ice cream and little jelly bean-like seeds, basil seeds," he says. "As I sipped my drink, I often recalled the founding story of the Parsis dissolving like sugar or rosewater in the milk."

On Parsi New Year, Bhabha says, his mother always had new clothes made for the children and would bathe them in milk in which rose petals had been crushed. The family would then go to his grandmother's home, where a long table was laden with auspicious foods, like fish for fertility.

Magpie Cooking

"Parsi food is disappearing with us. Our numbers are dwindling," King says.

"Parsi cooking is one of the least known cuisines in the world," she adds. "Coming from desert plateaus in Iran to this incredibly fertile coastal plain with fish jumping out of the water. Coconuts, mangoes, layered on top of the Hindu influence the Muslims, the British and the Portuguese. You could call it a kind of magpie cooking. We see something appealing and we fly off with it to our nests, take the gems and make something of it that's our own."

"Parsi cooking, magpie cooking, I love that image," says Bharati Mukherjee, noted novelist, short story writer and lecturer. The Middleman and Other Stories, Jasmine, Desirable Daughters and Holder of the World, are just a few of her works. We spoke with Mukherjee about Parsi cooking and her Indian kitchen.

"I was exposed to [Parsi cooking] first in Calcutta, where I grew up, and then later as an adult in Gujarat and Bombay, where there is a larger concentration of Parsis," Mukherjee says. "Magpie to me implies keeping intact the different kinds of gems collected and then making something new out of it, whole new entities.

"Until I came to the United States, I had never really been inside a kitchen," Mukherjee revealed. Her family had four cooks. There was one for Muslim cooking. Another, for Hindu cooking, who had to be a Brahmin by caste (her widowed paternal grandmother could eat only food cooked by a Brahmin, by cultural taboo). And there were two Christian cooks: One used to cook with very-hard-to-get items like anchovies; the other was trained by Mother Theresa's nuns to be a British dessert specialist.

Mukherjee and her two sisters never entered the kitchen. That was the cook's domain. Her father was of the first generation after independence of Bengali industrialists. It was a time of national euphoria, when the lifestyle was extravagant. Her father had only daughters and he lavished his love and ambition on them. He did not want them married at age 14 and to be housewives as was custom in Indian culture.

"Until I came to the U.S. and got married and had to go cook for myself, I didn't know what different kinds of lentils looked like, what rice looked like," Mukherjee says. "I didn't know the surface of boiled water has bubbles." But cooking and food was the center of family life.

Parsi food is family-based. It is not easily available in restaurants. Almost the only place to eat it is at home. Bhabha, the Harvard professor, describes Parsi food as a rose hidden behind a wall of the family home.

"It's a food of family rituals and celebrations," he says. "It's really rather a private world of homes and clubs — one that you have to get invited into to really experience."

Parsi New Year

Alice Waters of Chez Panisse came to Parsi New Year dinner at King's house in 1989 and suggested that she might do this at her Berkeley restaurant. Alice loves New Year celebrations, and here was another one.

"It’s Navroz, the first day of spring, the old Persian New Year. And because of a calendrical miscalculation we now have two new years — one now and one in August," King says. "Some Parsis celebrate [on the first day of spring] and some celebrate the New Year as a moveable feast in August whenever it fetches up. In my mother's house there would have been plain dal and rice because it was an auspicious day. Dal was eaten on happy days, sad days, days when you passed your examinations."

Vegetable Excitement

King is a beloved regular at many farmers markets throughout the Bay Area. "The farmers market week starts on Saturday for me with Alemany Market and sometimes the Ferry market as well," she says. "Sunday there's Civic Center, Tuesday there's Berkeley. Wednesday you have another go at the Civic Center. Thursday there's Serramonte. Friday there's Oakland."

She is constantly on expedition. She trades seeds and tips, and learns the botanical names of plants, the medicinal uses and the possibilities for new dishes with new spices she might have yet to discover.

As a UC Berkeley graduate student in anthropology, King wrote her thesis about Cost Plus, an import store that sold antique Parsi sari borders. King began conservation efforts of her culture as she watched its traditional crafts and textiles being sold on the shelves of discount design stores.

King is a woman of many missions. She tends and feeds her community, preserving Parsi culture through its food, and passing on her love of greens and the huge array of food plants she thinks most Americans are unaware of. "What we need to do is make more vegetable excitement. I've always seen the great drama on the plate as coming from vegetables rather than the animal involved. What I really want to do is make exotic things seem familiar and then just put a little bit of spin on the familiar and make it exotic."

'My Bombay Kitchen'

It was the occasion of King's mother, Shireen Ichaporia's, 90th birthday that made King sit down and begin to really collect and organize her recipes and stories into a book. The book is riveting; the glossary alone reads like a travelogue of India and the subtropical world. Her recipes open a whole new world for cooks. And with these dishes, one is creating a meal while also taking part in a small act of preservation. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food in Italy, said that preserving a traditional cheese is as important as preserving a 16th-century building. So it is with King, a kind of Parsi Sheherazade, who never really cooked until she left India and came to America, and then felt compelled to cook, chronicle and preserve the food of her home.

My Bombay Kitchen: Modern and Traditional Parsi Cooking is an intriguing and unusual family story and the story of a culture that is struggling to maintain itself. In two or three generations, this culture will be down in numbers to the size of what is considered a tribe. Cook this book. Go to your farmers market and look for some vegetable excitement. Cook a green or toast a seed you never have tried. Talk to the farmer. Ask them to tell you how to prepare it, and if the food has healthful properties. You never know the stories and delights that might be held there at that table piled high with mysterious leaves. You know the motto of the Kitchen Sisters: Talk to strangers. Especially strangers bearing produce.

Music and Food

As with all the Hidden Kitchen stories, we started searching for the right music. The first thing we discovered is that the conductor Zubin Mehta and the late Freddie Mercury of Queen are both Parsi, but there is no "Parsi" music. There is music from Persia, from Gujarat, from Bombay, from India. None of these were the soundtrack of King's childhood. King loves music. Food and music are central to her world.

"I studied Western music," she says. "Classical music. Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, Chopin. I started piano at the age of 6. That was Parsi music for me. I did not grow up listening to Indian music. We never heard it in school except for right on the edges. If a village band went by, the nuns used to say 'Oh, that dreadful racket.'" King began listening to Indian music once she moved to the U.S., just as she began cooking Parsi food once she was here.

Our music search led us to Harmonia Mundi and its World Village collections of Persian and Indian music, including Shujaat Husain Khan and Aruna Sairam and the compilation, Without You, Masters of Persian Music. World Music freak Joe Boyd and Brian Cullman led us to the haunting singer Reza Shajarian and the kamanche playing (a kind of spiked violin) of Ghazal.

The music heard in the story came from several of the soundtracks of Indian film legend Satyajit Ray, and also from a collaboration of Ry Cooder with V.M. Bhatt, from their album A Meeting by the River.

"For me food and music are just completely interrelated and I see planning a menu in musical terms," King says. "When I make birthday cakes for people, what do they want? Mozart, Schubert or Brahms? Mozart may be a hazelnut meringue. Brahms, chocolate, deep and dark and orange."

King is getting ready to cook for Parsi New Year. She is celebrating and reflecting.

"Our kitchens are hidden," she says. "It's not a widely known cuisine, although our sphere of influence is wide. Parsi cooking is disappearing with us. It's cultural artifact, a dish. And in tending it and being the steward of that particular thing in your lifetime, you’re handing down an heirloom the way you would any other precious cultural artifact. I think we’ll have the souffle eggs that Parsis are so fond of. It’s one of the great tricks up the Parsi sleeve."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning Edition
The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.