With ruby berries studding a bed of glossy, saffron-tinged rice that cradles juicy cuts of chicken, this is a visually stunning special occasion recipe.
Niloufer Mavalvala, a cookbook author, is on a mission to resurrect her ancestral cuisine one recipe at a time.
“Our cuisine does not have a flag, an anthem, or a country,” said the winner of the 2020 Gourmand International Best in the World. She was referring to India’s Parsi community, a branch of the Zoroastrians who migrated from ancient Persia (now Iran) to the subcontinent between the eighth and tenth centuries.
“The Parsis were also divided by history when partition occurred,” she added. “Our tiny little community spread its wings and migrated to every corner of the globe [but had limited] access to authentic recipes or the joint family system that typically passes down skills. They were at a loss for words.”
Traditionally, Parsi cuisine would frequently feature complicated recipes with elaborate prep work, such as finely chopping herbs, hand-grinding pastes, and making numerous sauces, chutneys, and preserves to accompany meals – something that is especially difficult for members of the diaspora who are either short on time or unable to find all of the ingredients where they live.
Mavalvala aims to simplify recipes without sacrificing flavour or authenticity through her blog Niloufer’s Kitchen and cookbooks such as The World of Parsi Cooking: Food Across Borders, suggesting alternative ingredients while illustrating how the dishes were traditionally served. She also reduces the number of steps and the time it takes to clean up.
shirini zereshk palau (sweet barberry pilaf), where ruby berries stud a bed of glossy, saffron-tinged rice that cradles juicy cuts of chicken, is one of her most visually striking special-occasion recipes. Palau (pulao or pilaf) is simply seasoned rice cooked in stock, and zereshk is the Persian name for the widely cultivated oblong-shaped berry found particularly in South Khorasan, Iran. However, the term shirini in Mavalvala’s signature recipe serves three functions.
First and foremost, it means “sweets” in Persian, which is appropriate given that Mavalvala soaks the tart berries in orange and lemon syrup to plump them up and infuse them with an ambrosial flavour. It was also Mavalvala’s mother’s name, with whom she devised the recipe. And finally, It corresponds to the theme of Haftseen, a table set up during Navroz (also spelled Nowruz), or Persian New Year, with seven symbolic items beginning with the letter “s” to honour the universe’s seven creations: fire, water, air, earth, metal, and the plant and animal kingdoms, she explained. (The holiday falls between 19 March and 22 March, during Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere. In the Persian calendar, this year is 1402.)
Mavalvala frequently serves the show-stopping rice dish, piling it regally on a massive silver tray, for Navroz, as well as other family gatherings and special occasions. She associates it with the sort of mindful and gracious hospitality she saw her parents extending towards their sprawling social circle during her childhood in Karachi, Pakistan, before she moved to Canada.
“In the eastern world, people tend to put a lot of things on the [dining] table – never just one – but they have to complement each other,” she explained. “When I’m putting together a buffet, I imagine the guest’s plate. You don’t want everything to blend together. The gravies should be thicker [so they don’t overlap]. Color should be present.”
“If you cooked it, it would definitely be the star,” she said of her aromatic zereshk palau.
Despite being a shrinking community, Parsis have left indelible imprints on South Asia, from shaping India’s taste for soft drinks to establishing the subcontinent’s institution-like Irani cafes. In the meantime, The cuisine is influenced by both Indian and Iranian cuisine.
The now-iconic Mumbai-style zereshk palau is thought to have originated in August 1982 at Mumbai-based Irani cafe Brittania & Company. According to legend, Bachan, the wife of owner Rashid Kohinoor, incorporated leftover mutton and Indian pantry staples like garam masala into Irani berry pollo (a variant spelling), essentially marrying a uniquely Persian dish with Indian flavours.
“[The Brittania & Co story] makes perfect sense because it speaks to our no-waste philosophy,” Mavalvala said, speculating that Bachan may have simply used leftover meat from another Parsi favourite prepared at the famed salli boti restaurant (meat curry with potato sticks).
Many Parsi recipes, such as steaming an entire fish in banana leaves, pickling whole lemons, or preserving bottle gourd peels, adhere to a zero-waste philosophy, according to Mavalvala. “Parsis are raised in this manner,” she stated matter-of-factly. It’s not a matter of whether or not you can afford it. It’s just the way your kitchen operates.”
The use of unusual ingredients in traditional dishes also demonstrates a collective make-do spirit. “People had very large families to feed, and when you have 20-30 people living [together] ranging in age from one to 95, you have to improvise,” Mavalvala explained.
Mavalvala’s zereshk palau is milder than Mumbai-style zereshk palau, omitting garam masala and allowing the saffron and barberry notes to shine. She also cooks the rice in chicken stock rather than water, allowing the long, fluffy grains to fully absorb the delicate flavours.
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-low heat and cook the onions for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent. Combine the tomato paste, salt, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, and 4 cups water in a mixing bowl. When it reaches a boil, reduce to a low heat and add the chicken pieces to poach for 20 minutes. Set aside the poaching liquid to use as stock. Remove the chicken and set it aside.
Note: If using chicken breasts instead of just brown meat pieces like the thighs, remove them from the poaching liquid halfway through cooking to avoid drying out.
Make a simple syrup with the sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan, allowing it to boil only after all of the sugar has melted on low heat. Add the barberries, orange peel, lemon juice, and saffron once it is sticky to the spoon or touch. Simmer for a minute to infuse the flavours. Place aside.
Cook the rice in the chicken stock in a large skillet or pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium heat. When the liquid begins to boil and you can see the top of the rice, sprinkle with the poached chicken and gently press it down with the back of a spoon. Then drizzle it with the prepared syrup. Allow it to cook on very low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the rice is completely cooked, covered.