A New Day: Navroz in Freny’s Kitchen

#1000Kitchens is a series that takes you into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this instalment, we meet Freny Bharda who teaches us to make falooda on the eve of Navroz.

We have been sitting in Freny Bharda’s living room for an hour. In this time we have been fed several slices of marble cake, more than two helpings of homemade chocolate (‘no sugar or butter, dear, but there’s lots of cognac in there’) and a tall glass of cold coffee, topped with homemade ice cream.

It is a few days to Navroz and Mrs Bharda, like she does every year, is making falooda for the residents of her building. In Bangalore’s small community of 600 Parsis (or thereabouts), Mrs Bharda is well known and respected as a guardian of the community’s traditional recipes, observing the old ways and authentic flavours of the the Parsi kitchen.

But despite this, she is incredulous when we ask to meet her, and more so when we ask for a photograph. “Of me?” she exclaims. “Oh god, what will people think when they see my kitchen!”

Mrs Bharda’s kitchen is compact but cosy, lined with white cupboards fitted on pistachio green walls. There is a pretty white kettle patterned with tiny flowers that sits on the hob. An overhead lamp casts a warm yellow glow on her teacups and pictures of the Farohar (the Parsi guardian angel) on her wall, faded from years of scrubbing. Mrs Bharda herself is bustling with energy, now and then sweeping the hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand as she talks to us. “I’ve just cut my hair. Sherry is going to be mad when she sees the photographs,” she chuckles about her daughter in Mumbai.

“You see,” she explains, as she finally settles in with a cup of tea. “Navroz is celebrated by the Zoroastrians of India – the Parsis and the Iranis. It is a very big festival for the Iranis, the changing of their calendar year – they follow the equinox calendar very closely. And for us Parsis – our new year is in August, but in solidarity of our shared heritage, we celebrate the spring equinox with them, like they celebrate our New Year.”

The Parsis were the first wave of Zoroastrians to seek refuge in India, during the time of the Muslim conquest of Persia, in the 8th century. The Iranis arrived much later, fleeing the political tumult of the early 20th century. Navroz, the Persian New Year, coincides with the vernal equinox, and while it marks the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one, it also symbolises the beginning of a new season; a rebirth of earth and a renewed cycle of life. As the sun crosses the equator on the 20th of March, the Spring Equinox equalises day and night, marking the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it, longer hours of daylight and shorter hours of darkness. So also, Navroz, meaning ‘a new day’ symbolizes the victory of good over evil, the revival of nature, the end to harsh winter, and the beginning of a new life cycle on earth.

The celebration of Navroz goes back 3,000 years. As one of the most ancient religions of the world, Zoroastrianism predates Christianity and Buddhism, and Pre-Islamic celebrations of Navroz spanned elaborate traditions and customs over a fortnight.

Interestingly, the equinoxes and solstices have historically been central to many non-Persian communities around the world as well. Deeply embedded dates and traditions from pagan customs carried through to modern faiths and their festivals. Holi, Easter and Jewish Passover rituals can be traced to the equinox celebrations of spring, new beginnings and fertility. The Baha'i faith, the Nizari Ismaili Muslims, and communities in North Africa and Southeast Asia, including Japan, mark their religions by the equinox.

The Parsis observe Navroz with new clothes and spring-cleaning. The house sparkles with rose and jasmine. “We start the day with rawa, a dish made of semolina that has been cooked in milk for a long time over a slow flame, topped with nuts and raisins – to start the year on a sweet note. And we have falooda when we return home after prayers at the temple, to cool down after being out in the afternoon sun. The family gathers and we cut a watermelon together, to keep illness away in the New Year. And then we feast! Lunch is usually berry palao, or sali boti, fish pathia and of course, dal chawal. We love our dal.”

We follow Mrs Bharda into the kitchen. “This is where all the action happens, in my small kitchen,” she says, half-apologetically. From the sofa in the living room her husband Phiroze calls out, “In our next home, we’re going to have the kitchen attached to the bedroom for her.”

Mrs Bharda and her husband will be married 50 years in June. They are cheeky and kind and thoughtful of each other at every turn. We melt a bit when we hear him call her babe, and ask her the secret to her happy marriage. “What you young folk need to know is that a little patience and tolerance will see you a long way.” She sparkles as she describes their relationship.

On the eve of Navroz, we are again at Mrs Bharda’s door. She is making her falooda today, with milk and rose essence, sabja seeds and 'white pearls' of corn-flour, and of course, lots of ice cream. She spoons the black seeds into a bowl, adds chilled milk and stirs in a tablespoon of Mala’s Rose Syrup. Phiroze peeks over her shoulder as she pours us a glass. Aren’t you going to have any, we ask? “You betcha!” he roars. “Although I’m sure mother and daughter will conspire to give me a tiny portion. I will eat till my heart is full,” he assures us.

“Philly is diabetic,” Mrs Bhadra whispers to us as we take our first sip. The falooda is cold and delicious. Outside, the sun is setting, and through her balcony the pink-streaked sky glows vividly, reflecting the pastel colours in our glass. The delicate flavour of rose evokes a strange sense of romantic nostalgia and deja vu, transporting me somewhere I’ve never been, and yet, strangely familiar.

We spoon in the last of the falooda, and ask her to tell us again the story of how the Parsis came to India. It is a story we both know well, but one that always makes us sigh with each retelling, at how food can be such a beautiful metaphor for life itself.

“When we fled Persia and came to shores of Gujarat almost 1,400 years ago, we asked king Jadi Rana for safe asylum. We had weathered many storms to come here, fleeing persecution, our priests fighting desperately to protect the sacred fire through our journey over the seas. King Jadi Rana in response, sent a vessel of milk to our leader, filled to the brim, meaning that his kingdom was full and he could not accept any refugees. But our Zoroastrian priest added a pinch of sugar and sent the vessel back, without letting a drop of milk overflow – a symbolic promise that if he would let us stay, we would only add to the sweetness of life in his kingdom. We promised to adopt the sari, the kumkum, rangoli, the coconut and flowers of pooja. We promised that we would not disturb their way of life, would not proselytise, but please, let us stay? And of course, Jadi Rana said yes. Since then the Parsis have been part of India.”

Recipe: Freny Bharda's Falooda
Serves 6

Ingredients
1 litre milk, chilled
Rose syrup, to taste
3-4 tbsp sabja or sweet basil seeds
1 cup rose water
4 tbsp cornflour
Ice cream, 6 scoops

Method
Soak the sabja seeds in rose water using a sieve. They will swell up within a minute.
In a non-stick pan, cook the cornflour in a cup of water until it becomes a lumpy mix. Push the mixture through a sieve into a pan of ice below. It will fall through like tiny white pearls. Allow to remain in cold water until it is time to assemble the drink.
In a bowl, combine the sabja seeds and white pearls.
Pour in the milk, and slowly stir in the rose syrup. Mala's or Kissan will do. The rose syrup will turn the milk a pretty pink colour.
Pour the pink mix into a tall glass and top with a generous dollop of ice-cream. Serve immediately.

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen and photos by Aysha Tanya; Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin.

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