Born of persecution, Parsi cooking melds Persian and Indian cuisines

Hosted by

Parsi cooking melds Persian staples such as herbs, stewed meats, dried fruits, and rice with Indian influences of coconut and spices. Photo by Sam A. Harris.

Parsi people follow the Zoroastrian faith, one of the oldest monotheistic religions, dating back 3,500 years. Around the 7th century in Persia, in the area that is now known as Iraq, an Arab uprising forced the Zoroastrian community to convert to Islam or leave the country. Many left by ship, ending up in Gujarat, India, and became known as Parsis or those who came from Persia, as London-based Chef Farokh Talati explains.

"The beauty of Parsi cooking is the fact from our origins, we have all this dried fruit and subtle spicing, saffron, rice, pulaos, and gently stewed meats," Talati says. "And when we arrived in India and hit the shores of Gujarat, that melded in with the fish, coconuts, and the harsher spices and chiles."

While sitting with a chef friend outside of Maison Bertaux, a patisserie that originally opened in the 19th century, Talati heard a three-piece jazz ensemble rehearsing in a downstairs room. He asked if he could cook his food in the kitchen upstairs and serve them in the room below, and Soho Parsi Curry Night was born. More popular dishes included mutton dhansak and rice, plus all the accompaniments that go with it. Talati also explains how the coconut replaced the pomegranate as a symbol of prosperity among Parsis.

Talati explores his roots in his first cookbook, "Parsi: From Persia to Bombay: recipes & tales from the ancient culture."

Mutton Dhansak

Serves 8

"Undeniably tasty" is how Farokh Talati describes dhansak, a Parsi dish with steamed rice, caramelized onions, jaggery, caraway seeds, braised mutton and a rich gravy. Photo by Sam A. Harris.


  • 1kg diced mutton on the bone (or use chicken), brined for 24 hours if possible
  • 3 tablespoons salt, plus extra to season if necessary
  • 3 tablespoons dhansak masala (see page 48)
  • 50g toor dal
  • 50g channa dal
  • 150g split mung dal
  • 150g split red dal
  • 4 tablespoons ghee, unsalted butter or vegetable oil, plus optional extra ghee or butter for blending
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons ginger–garlic paste (see page 43)
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon sambhar masala (see page 46)
  • 1⁄2 aubergine, roughly chopped
  • 100g red pumpkin or 1⁄2 small butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • 1⁄2 sweet potato, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 potato, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 5 small green chillies, split
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala (see page 46)
  • 1⁄2 tablespoon ground turmeric
  • a handful of coriander, leaves picked and chopped a handful of fenugreek leaves, chopped


  1. Place the mutton in the pressure cooker and add water to just cover the meat.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon of the salt, 1 tablespoon of dhansak masala and pressure cook for 20 minutes. (Alternatively, simmer the mutton in a normal saucepan for 1 hour, until the meat is tender – take care to not let the water boil vigorously as this will toughen the meat.)
  3. Take the meat out of the saucepan and set aside. Pour the liquid into a measuring jug. Make the liquid up to 1.2 litres, using tap water if necessary – this will be your stock to cook the lentils in later.
  4. (Note that if you’re using chicken, pressure cook only the thighs and drumsticks for 15 minutes – or simmer for 35 minutes in a pan. The breast will cook from raw quite easily in the finished dish.)Meanwhile, soak all the lentils together in a large container in plenty of cold water for 25 minutes.
  5. Then rinse the lentils in cold water twice, so that the murky water becomes clearer.
  6. Next, we will need to cook the lentils. Heat the ghee, butter or oil in the pressure-cooker pan or a large, heavy-bottomed pot over a medium heat. Once hot, add the onion and fry for about 10 minutes, until translucent. Then add the ginger–garlic paste and cook for a further 10 minutes, until everything is brown. Each time the ginger–garlic paste sticks to the bottom slightly, add 1 tablespoon of water and scrape up all that caramelised flavour from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to deepen the flavour of the final dish.
  7. Add the tomato and cook for a further 3 minutes, then add the remaining dhansak and the sambhar masalas, stirring them through for 1 minute to form a paste.
  8. Drain the lentils, if necessary, and add them to the pan with the chopped vegetables, chillies, garam masala, turmeric and remaining 2 tablespoons of salt. Add the 1.2 litres of reserved stock (enough to come 2.5cm above the lentils) and put the lid on the pressure cooker or pot.
  9. Cook for 30 minutes in the pressure cooker or for 1–11⁄2 hours in the pot, until the larger lentils are mushy. (If you’re making this in a pot, remove the lid to stir the lentils every 5 minutes, to make sure they don’t sink to the bottom and burn, then replace the lid.)
  10. Once the lentils are soft and all the vegetables are breaking apart, remove the lid and stir through the chopped coriander and fenugreek leaves, letting them wilt in the heat. Add a few spoonfuls of ghee or butter, if you’re feeling decadent and want a velvety smooth texture, then using a hand-held electric blender, blitz the contents of the saucepan to a smooth purée (my grandmother always used to use a whisk to beat everything to a coarse purée, but I find the flavours really come together when properly blended). Dhansak should not be watery, nor should it be so thick that it is a chore to eat – look for a happy medium, like the texture of a split-pea soup.
  11. Add the cooked mutton (or cooked chicken, as well as the raw diced chicken breast) to the pot and gently simmer over a low–medium heat for a further 10 minutes so that the meat gets to know the gravy. Adjust the seasoning with salt, as necessary.
  12. Serve hot with brown rice, kebabs and kachuber (see page 124). A vegetarian dhansak is commonplace on many Parsi dinner tables – the lentil gravy is delicious enough to stand on its own. Simply make it without the meat and use water instead of the meat stock. I like to roast off some chopped pumpkin or squash that has been lightly seasoned with garam masala and add that to the gravy instead of the mutton or chicken.

Excerpted from "Parsi: From Persia to Bombay: recipes & tales from the ancient culture." Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2022 by Farokh Talati

Dhansak Masala

Fills 1 jam jar 

Dhansak masala contains over 15 spices and is the one recipe that Talati hopes home cooks will make from his first cookbook. Photo by Sam A. Harris.


  • 100g coriander seeds
  • 50g cumin seeds
  • 8g dried bay leaf
  • 20g black peppercorns
  • 20g dried Kashmiri chillies
  • 5g black cumin seeds
  • 5g green cardamom pods
  • 8g black cardamom pods
  • 3g caraway seeds
  • 8g cinnamon or cassia bark
  • 8g cloves
  • 4g ground fenugreek
  • 1 blade of mace
  • 1 nutmeg, grated
  • 8g poppy seeds
  • a pinch of saffron
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 25g ground turmeric
  • 5g mustard seeds
  • 1 whole dried black lime (a Persian speciality)


  1. Using a spice grinder or food processor, blitz all the ingredients to as fine a powder as your grinder or processor will allow (you may have to do this in batches, depending on your grinder’s capacity).
  2. Pass the ground spices through a sieve on to a tray and re-grind anything left in the sieve to get the finest powder you possibly can.
  3. Store your dhansak masala in a clean, airtight jar for up to 12 months.

Excerpted from "Parsi: From Persia to Bombay: recipes & tales from the ancient culture." Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2022 by Farokh Talati

"My first trips to India started at the age of six," says Farokh Talati, "and that was when I was really introduced to what I was, who the Parsi community are in India." Photo by Photo by Oliver Chanarin.

In his first cookbook "Parsi," Farokh Talai explores the culinary history and dishes of his roots. Photo by Bloomsbury Absolute.