How to cook up a character

A novelist recounts a culinary adventure that helped her re-discover Mumbai from across the ocean

Updated - April 20, 2018 02:56 pm IST

Published - April 19, 2018 05:42 pm IST

Readers are not only armchair travellers. They are also armchair eaters.

I write from my home on the East Coast of the United States, but my novels take place in Japan, Hawaii, and India. Readers want to vicariously enjoy the tastes of these places. They let me know what made them salivate and also ask for recipes to cook at their book club meetings. Food for thought takes on a special meaning in novels.

parsi restaurant

parsi restaurant

The heroine of my latest novel, A Murder on Malabar Hill, is Perveen Mistry, a young woman solicitor living in 1920s Bombay. Perveen grows up loving good Parsi food but never having to cook it herself. When she’s brought into the kitchen to prove her womanly skills, she fumbles and makes a huge mess. Nevertheless, she appreciates the delightful meals prepared by the family’s cook and her mother and sister-in-law. Sumptuous curries and lots of eggs are a daily occurrence, and a cup of milky tea flavoured with lemongrass and mint is the Mistry family recipe for stressful times.

When I started this book, I knew that having Parsi characters would take me into an unfamiliar culinary world that linked the India I knew with the Persia I didn’t. Parsi foods were not part of my own background, and I was eager to try them. The biggest city near me is Washington DC. While there are a lot of Indian restaurants, there are no Irani cafés. The only way to taste the world I was trying to create was to cook.

Books are a girl’s best friend

My most important source turned out to be Parsi Food and Customs by the late food writer Bhicoo Manekshaw. Her book gave so many old-fashioned recipes and also tips on what kinds of food must be included at a wedding or a New Year’s celebration. I also relished My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking by Niloufer Ichaporia King, a Bombay native who has introduced Parsi dishes to the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. Niloufer had a fusion approach and incorporated Parsi cooking style with some ingredients local to me.

It was divine to eat Parsi food while my head was in a Parsi colony, but I quickly learned that this cuisine usually meant a big shopping trip and hours in the kitchen preparing just one dish. I’d be too overwhelmed to take on a second one! For me, dhansak was too tedious and complicated to make more than once. However, Parsi poached eggs on stir-fried vegetables has turned out to be a favourite that I improvise and eat about once a week.

Perveen Mistry eats eggs daily. However, she often takes a quick breakfast like brun maska and tea rather than a full, late-morning family meal. She has to be at the family firm in Fort by eight because she handles both solicitor and clerk responsibilities. But she’s found that mornings are good. Perveen can get through more contracts without distraction, and she never knows what mysterious people she might see out of her window.

Rise and shine

Being an early-bird is a trait of mine that I gave to Perveen. I’m not just a novelist, but also a mother to teenagers who need breakfast and a gentle push out the door. I begin my day feeding and walking our two dogs, who must go out many more times during the day, and I assist my husband with his business.

With so much morning activity, breakfast is my most important meal. It is not the largest or most interesting meal, but is the one providing good fuel for mind and body. Every morning, I have a quick solo meal sitting at the kitchen island while I write notes in my bullet journal reminding myself of all the things I need to do. One classic Parsi egg dish is a powerhouse in terms of protein and good vegetable carbohydrates. ‘Poached eggs on gingery spinach with tomatoes’ was inspired by a basic recipe by Bhicoo Manekshaw. My recipe is for two people, but can easily be expanded depending on the size of your frying pan.

There’s another simple breakfast I eat when I have only a few minutes to fortify myself. My savoury, protein-packed ‘carrot breakfast spread’ emerged from my love of sweet root vegetables and tahini paste. For breakfast, I spread it thickly on brown toast or a roti . I also use the spread as a dip for raw vegetables or a sauce for buckwheat soba or other hearty noodles.

If Perveen time-travelled to 2018, I believe she’d at least be able to toast bread and put carrot breakfast spread on top.

Carrot breakfast spread

180 grams raw carrot pieces cut in approximate 3-inch lengths

30 grams finely chopped red onion

A handful parsley, finely chopped

¼ cup sesame paste (tahini) including some of its oil

¼ cup pine nuts

½ teaspoon chia seeds (optional, adds crunch and protein)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil

¼ teaspoon mild red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice or to taste

Sprinkling of salt and pepper to taste

1. Using a steamer rack set inside a covered pot, steam the carrot pieces over simmering water until tender.

2. Carefully roast the pine nuts in a dry pan on the stove until they are light golden and give off an aroma. Shake the nuts onto a plate and let them cool while you continue with the recipe.

3. Coarsely grind the nuts either using a food processor or mortar and pestle. Add the carrots and all the other ingredients, mixing it by hand (in which case you must mash the soft carrots) or by putting everything in a blender or food processor to whiz for a few seconds. When you see a chunky paste, you are done. Add a few extra drops of oil to get the consistency you like.

4. Carrot breakfast spread can be used immediately, but if you chill it overnight in the refrigerator it will have a thicker texture and the flavors will blend to become even more delicious.

Parsi Poached Eggs on Gingery Spinach with Tomatoes

2 tablespoons coconut oil

½ cup diced onion

4 fresh curry leaves

2 teaspoons grated ginger root

1 minced garlic clove

5 chopped small red tomatoes (to make about 1 cup’s worth)

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dhania

½ teaspoon turmeric/haldi

¼ teaspoon chili powder

1 bunch of fresh spinach or other greens, carefully washed so there’s no dirt or sand and coarsely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

4 uncooked eggs


1. Heat oil in a wide, deep skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and curry leaves and sauté until onion is translucent. Make sure the skillet has a lid that completely covers it, or make your own lid out of a couple of pieces of tinfoil.

2. Add the ginger, garlic, tomatoes, dhania, haldi and chili powder. After the tomatoes have broken down (about 2 minutes), add the spinach and a few tablespoons of water. Cover with a lid, or if you don’t have a lid, make one out of two thick sheets of tinfoil. Cook for 5-7 minutes with pan on low heat or until the spinach is soft. Remove lid and add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Turn the burner to a low flame. Remove the lid and make 4 depressions, each about the size of a yolk, in the greens. Break an egg over each of the depressions.

4. Cover the pan again with the lid. If the lid has a curve on the underside, put the lid on upside down and pour a teaspoon of water in the curve. The addition of water atop the lid heightens the steaming effect of the eggs poaching in the pan.

5. Peek at the eggs after 3 minutes. If the yolks are almost set, turn the pan off. The dish is served by scooping out the gingery greens and eggs to put on individual plates.

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