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February 7, 2017
The Best Californian Food I Ever Ate Was Indian

Many years of eating, cooking, and writing about food have left Scott Hocker with an ever-growing cookbook collection. In this occasional column he cracks one open to re-create a dish tied to a distant, though fond, food memory.

I’m a child of California. I love a salad. I love avocado toast. I love a carne asada taco served on a double layer of warm corn tortillas. From a restaurant, from a truck. It does not matter. I also love all the ways in which the iconic restaurants of northern and southern California—the Chez Panisses and Zuni Cafés of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Lucques and Spagos of Los Angeles—have put the state’s unique and vast bounty to use in dishes inspired by the traditions of France and Italy.

But none of those celebrated temples of high gastronomy have changed my understanding of the transformative power of freshness, that linchpin of California cooking, like the cooking of Niloufer Ichaporia King has. It first happened at a meal offered once a year at that keystone of California cuisine Chez Panisse. Later, King’s book, My Bombay Kitchen, would become a kind of rulebook in my own kitchen.

When I lived in San Francisco, the region’s savviest cooks, food writers, and diners stammered, with stars flickering in their eyes, anytime King was discussed. Every year for Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebrated on the spring equinox, King would take over the kitchen at Chez Panisse for one night. The meal was a set menu. A not-cheap one. I went.

This was in the late 2000s. Probably 2007. I don’t remember the exact dishes I ate. I was no doubt hungover before the meal. And after. (That’s just how that period in my life was.) But that one dinner shifted my thinking—and my cooking. Her food slapped me awake. I had eaten a lot of Indian food in restaurants in the U.S. Some dosas and uttapam at south Indian restaurants, a whole lot of chicken tikka masala, stewed okra and naan at north Indian spots. King’s food was a swerve. The ginger, the garlic, the cilantro, the lime, the heady spices: all there. Her cooking tasted like that other food’s snappy cousin. Same bloodline but with a clean shave, a pressed shirt, and handsome shoes.

I ate King’s Nowruz dinner at Chez Panisse again the following year, and around that time her cookbook was published. It captures everything about why her food is so singular, so influential on my own cooking.

The sharp pop of fresh ginger and lime in a cucumber salad. Fish fillets slapped with a coconut-herb chutney and steamed in banana leaves. A sweet and fiery tomato chutney.

The author in his kitchen in New Orleans

King’s lineage comprises Parsi, emigrants to India who left Persia centuries ago because of religious persecution. Parsi food exists at the intersection of Iranian and Indian. It’s a cuisine that’s lavish and humble, delicate and forceful.

It’s also a food culture obsessed with eggs. And potato chips—or as Parsis call them, wafers. If you love two foods that much, why not combine them? The Parsis have, with particular joy. They call it wafer par ida. Sounds like a joke. It isn’t.

You cook onions and fresh chiles and then add cilantro. You could add chopped ginger and garlic, too. You don’t have to. But you should. Then you destroy a few handfuls of potato chips with your fists and toss them in. Crack eggs into the pan and cook until the eggs are set. That’s it. Part of the allure of this recipe is its ease. Better still, the recipe harnesses the ability of fresh ginger, garlic, chile, and cilantro to transfigure a dish that could be satisfying but also one-dimensional into something truly transcendental.

Yes, you want this for a stabilizing meal the morning after a debaucherous night—which is most nights in New Orleans, where I live. Yes, you want this if/when you are stoned. Yes, you want this pretty much anytime.

Or I certainly do, at least. Because it reminds me of the power of one meal to steer a lifetime.

RECIPE: Parsi Eggs with Potato Chips

Scott Hocker

Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author, and content and editorial consultant. He has worked in magazines, kitchens, newsletters, restaurants and a bunch of other environments he can’t remember right now. He has also been the editor in chief of both liquor.com and Tasting Table.