Only children from the 1990s will remember Anaida’s Indi-pop hits, such as Oova Oova, Oonchi Neechi and my personal favourite, Hoo Halla Hoo. Since then, the singer has undergone a metamorphosis and remerged as a chef de cuisine – this month, the singer is hosting a Persian pop-up kitchen at the Parsi restaurant in New Delhi, SodaBottleOpenerWala.
Brand head and cuisine director at SodaBottle Mohit Balachandran explained that the Parsis came to India fleeing from the 7th century Arab conquest of Persia. “This Persian pop-up,” said Balachandran, “therefore goes well with SodaBottleOpener’s Parsi theme.” Anaida is half Iranian and is the moving force behind this operation, working with the restaurant’s chefs’ – and also acting like a food mule transporting ingredients from Iran – to produce the Persian menu.
India has age-old links with Persia. The Mughals and the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate before them were Persiophiles, looking up to the wider Persian world as a cultural lodestar.
While America might have replaced Persia as Delhi’s cultural beacon, vestiges of the old infatuation survive in nooks. Urdu decks itself up with Persian words, to work as a language of Bollywood romance. The Hindi-Urdu proverb “haath kangan ko aarsi kya, padhe likhe ko Farsi kya” – like you can see a bangle on your arm without the help of a mirror, an educated person can learn Farsi – captures this admiration for Farsi still. Hindustani classical exists today as a fusion of Persian and north Indian musical styles, put together by 130th century Delhi nobleman Amir Khusro.
Of course, the other Persian influence is food – specifically Mughlai cuisine. More often than not though, this influence is overblown. While there are certainly Persian influences in north Indian cooking, the extent of borrowing is often overstated. Mughlai’s star dish, the biryani for example, has no equivalent outside of the Indian subcontinent. It is quite unlikely that, say, Mughal Emperor Akbar would recognise any Mughlai curry today given how much it depends on red chillies – a New World spice near unknown in India during the 16th century.
Anaida’s pop-up therefore, exists in an interesting goldilocks’ zone: it’s a cuisine familiar to the north Indian palette. There are pulaos, curries and halwas. But the resemblance is faint, almost a tease.
Doogh to walnut curry
In the first course, is the doogh, a Persian salty lassi (familiar), with rose petals and mint (not so familiar). This is followed by a vegetable and chicken soup called “magic soup”. This is the joker in the pack, explains Anaida. It’s not a Persian dish; it’s her own recipe and it’s called “magic soup” because it’s heals anyone who drinks it. While I was unable to verify the healing properties of the soup myself, the broth itself was rather ordinary – the vegetables overcooked – soggy even. The chicken soup paled in comparison compared to the pilafs and meats to come, and could easily have been avoided in favour of something less mundane.
The haleem is familiar to Indian tastebuds. Except the Persian haleem served as part of SodaBottle’s menu was cooked without the dals and most of the spices found in the desi version. Without any disrespect to the spicy Indian haleem, the pop-up pulled this off well, cooking the ground meat with wheat and topping it off with a sprinkling of deep-fried onions – also a staple in Mughlai (where it’s called the birishta/birista). The lack of dal was refreshing, allowing the flavour of the meat to come through, and reminded one of the Yemeni Hareesah, also a meat and wheat porridge, available in the Arab quarters of Hyderabad city.
The workhorses of the meal were three meat polos – as the Iranis call their pulaos. The pop-up, though, modified these a bit serving theirs layered, meat upon rice, like a desi biryani, rather than mixed as a traditional pulao would be. The stand out dish was the the mutton tahchin polo, suffused with saffron, topped off with the crispy rice layer from the bottom of the pot – the tahdegh – which the Iranis love so much.
My personal favourite, though, was the fesenjan – a chicken korma made in a thick sauce of ground walnut and pomegranate molasses. The ground walnut provided a rich, mealy base and the molasses a tangy, sweet-and-sour edge.
A small little surprise was the kashk, a sort of Irani sour cream, sold in desiccated little balls. Soaking the balls in water produced a sharp dip which could – if made easily available – be put to a variety of excellent uses.
The meal ended with a wheat flour halwa, similar to a basic north Indian aata halwa, and the shole zard – literally yellow flames – sweet aromatic rice flavoured with Persian saffron. The shole zard also exists in Mughlai food, where it is more modestly called the “zarda” and is a staple dessert at weddings.
The pop-up is on till the end of April and is a reminder that Delhi – a city which until a hundred years ago had a Farsi-speaking elite – needs more Persian food to connect with its history.
Where: The SodaBottleOpenerWala restaurants at Khan Market and Noida.
When: March 18-April 30.
How much: The a la carte: is Rs 1200++. The vegetarian thali comes to Rs 550++ and the meat thali is Rs 650++.
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