Step into a Parsi kitchen, meet the family, and get cooking. Primrose Monteiro-D’Souza is delighted with Chef Anahita Dhondy’s new book
There is a chapter in Chef Anahita Dhondy’s book in which she talks of her time at Le Cordon Bleu, London. It does not go as you would expect. She talks of preparing the day’s set recipe – Pork Fillet with Prunes, Stuffed Paris Mushrooms and Potatoes Dauphine – and cooking it beautifully. The chef loved it, he invited others to taste it, and Dhondy admits to being elated at their praise. And, yet, she writes of how she broke down and cried as she left the hallowed institute. She got home with her portion of the dish – on a tight budget, her flat mate Nitya and she survived on these portions – and the said flat mate administered a hug, pep talk and vodka shot. And then the young chef walked into the kitchen, rinsed the classic French sauce off the pork, and transformed it into her mom’s Pork Vindaloo.
“I was very scared about my professors reading about it in the book,” Dhondy admits as we speak of this episode. “I had wanted to go to Le Cordon Bleu very, very early on, right from the time I knew I wanted to be a chef at the age of 12. I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to go there and do that. The learnings there were huge; it was literally like MasterChef three times in a day. There’s a certain high that you get because you’re learning skills, you’re cooking, you’re using your hands, you’re in the middle of all of that, and, yet, there was something that was kind of missing. I’m so glad that, at that moment, I was able to realise that it was Indian food that I wanted to eventually cook.”
It must have been a startling revelation, even as she took out the masala kit her mother had packed for her, and put together, for the first time, a recipe that resonated with “my personality, heritage and character.” That phrase would be an apt description for both Dhondy’s culinary journey and her book, The Parsi Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family.
Chef Dhondy might be only 30 years old, but the book is redolent with her happiness at being part of a large family of food enthusiasts, as people of her community almost invariably are, and her warm and inclusive personality, so evident in the videos, reels and tips and tricks she shares on social media and YouTube.
Kalyan Karmakar, food writer and brand consultant at Finely Chopped Consulting, captured the essence of her book when he said on Instagram, “The Parsi Kitchen is Anahita Dhondy’s expression of joy and gratitude for being a Parsi and being able to fulfil her dream of being a chef.”
Dhondy has worked with single-minded determination to make that dream come true – enrolling with the Institute of Hotel Management, Aurangabad, training with the Taj Group of Hotels and JW Marriott, acquiring a Grande Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu, London, and, finally, at the age of 23, becoming Chef Manager of SodaBottleOpenerWala (SBOW), part of the Olive Group of Restaurants. It was only in January 2021 that she finally left SBOW because she had other “extremely important” things she wanted to do that were not possible while running a restaurant. “I did a Japanese pop-up menu; I launched my YouTube channel. I ran a weekend kitchen from home. And I wrote the book.”
It was a book five years in the making, Dhondy reveals. “It’s taken me so long because I had to figure out what kind of writing I wanted to do. The first two years, I did a lot of research, I did a lot of writing that I didn’t like. Only in 2019 was I really happy with the outline of the book, the story I was going to tell, the recipes I would add. The actual writing took about two years. My editor used to tell me to just take one hour every day; it sounded so simple. But it doesn’t work like that. I realised how much patience and dedication you need to have to put this together, so lots of respect for writers and authors.”
The Parsi Kitchen is a delightful window into the community through Dhondy’s memories. Each chapter tells a story of family and near and dear ones. “I always wanted to intertwine recipes and dishes with the people associated with them. I also wanted to make sure that The Parsi Kitchen was not just a cookbook, that it had stories about both the community and the cuisine. I thought of each recipe with regard to the relationship that I had with that person; the story goes into the recipe.”
The book is dedicated to the “strong women” in her life. “Honestly, it did not take me even a second to decide on that dedication,” Dhondy says. “I knew from the beginning that I had to dedicate this to the women in my family, who, over the years, have held the entire culinary fort. They are so enthusiastic about cooking. It runs in my blood. And I’m sure this happens in most foodie families who think about breakfast, lunch and dinner the whole day. These women were always very, very enterprising and independent; they were not confined to just their kitchens, they created this amazing balance. They were very entrepreneurial from a young age, I’ve written about all of them, and they are great inspirations. From them, I’ve learnt to love what I do and, side by side, play an important part in my family, because that role is also important. We’ve also got the men interested in the food. I don’t know whether it’s about being Parsi men, and the upbringing we’ve had, but everyone belongs in the kitchen. And, even though they all create a mess, and there’s always some amount of screaming and shouting happening in the kitchen, all of it is part of creating those memories with your family together.” Dhondy describes each of these family members in such detail that the reader could well believe they have made their acquaintance. It is, to quote Karmakar again, as if Dhondy were sitting across the table and taking you through the family album and telling you her story.
One chapter of that story is about the Mastiwala family, and how the men in the family put on 15 kilos in a few months upholding the Parsi motto of ‘Khavanu, pivanu, majja ni life’ (eat, drink and enjoy your life). Alarmed, Bapsi Aunty and Almeida, the household help, decide to effect a change in diet. The chapter culminates in a recipe for that quintessential Parsi delicacy, Patra ni Machchi (fish steamed with chutney in banana leaves). Dhondy writes in the chapter of how she is working at pairing Parsi flavours with healthier ingredients such as the millets and plant-based foods that she champions. “There is a misconception that Parsi food is very heavy and indulgent. Like other regional Indian cuisines, there are many dishes that will be slightly heavier, especially put out during a celebration, with extra ghee, extra cream, but there are also very simple, homely recipes, very saada cooking like a dhan dar patio – simple dal chawal. Yes, it has its big chunk of meat cooking, and it is also sometimes indulgent, but, in the book, I have made sure that, towards the end of the recipes, I’ve given enough swaps for people who are vegetarian or vegan, and anyone who would like to switch it around. I’ve also added different ways to use something. In the vindaloo chapter, for instance, if you don’t eat pork, you can use jackfruit. If you’re making the masala paste, you can make a large batch, store it in your fridge; marinate your chicken in it if you’re making a taco. That is also my approach to everyday cooking.”
The future includes a second book and opening a new place “where you all can come and eat. That’s the plan.” It’s a busy life but that’s the only way she knows to be. “When it becomes too quiet for us chefs, it becomes a bit scary, so we like to have many things on the burner at the same time. We love the rush. I hope 2022 will be a good year for a restaurant to open, because it’s been a tough two years for the restaurant industry.”
Her advice to those who want to get into the industry: “There are no shortcuts; you have to put in your time. When you’re young and you can, do all the internships that you can. You have to stand in the kitchen for x number of hours, peel onions, make so many hara bhara kababs. Gain as much experience as you can, work with as many people as you can, put in the hard work, cut yourself, burn yourself; it’s all part of being in the culinary world. And just keep loving it every single day.” As Chef Anahita Dhondy has. We can’t wait to see – and taste – what the next 30 years bring.
Five More Things To Know About Chef Dhondy
• She learned patience and self-restraint through baking. “There are many virtues you learn in the kitchen that you can apply to daily living.”
• One of her inspirations is Bhicoo Manekshaw, one of the first people to go to Le Cordon Bleu. “She was a wonderful chef and a wonderful human being. I still have her book, signed by her; it’s extra special.”
• She is an instinctive cook. “I totally immerse myself into the experience. And cooking is such an immersive experience; all your senses are heightened, you’re very present in the moment.”
• She didn’t realise until the lockdown that people would appreciate basic content. “As a chef, you always assume that people are only looking forward to the fancy stuff… I want what I put on social media to be helpful. Even if it helps just 10 people, it’s done its job.”
• She’s a chocolate tart person, “definitely not a lemon curd one, though everyone else in the family loves lemon tarts.”
Also see: Sweet Parsi Secrets with Chef Anahita Dhondy