Bye bye to the baklava


August 18, 2008

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The food here was legendary with more than a hundred dabbas going out every day. But the authentic Parsi flavour, and ‘no-nonsense’ Parsi ladies have gone missing from the Ratan Tata Institute, finds Derineh Cooper

Join the queue winding down Hughes Road on August 19 to buy the Parsi-Pateti goodies when the Sir Rattan Tata Industrial Institute (RTI) opens its doors at 9 am.
Through the huge glass panes see Banoo Adarian with Nellie Patel, Hutoxi Deolaliwala, Rati Patva, Maneck Pitha, Bakhtavar and Parvin Irani all togged up in starched white aprons and scarf eagerly serving their creations from behind the glass counters laden with sinful cream cakes, stacked over shelves of heady liquor chocolates sedately resting in brown paper cups alongside the humble dal pori, patrel, and killer packed lunches.

“The cakes just fly off the shelf almost as soon as we open on papeti/navroz,” said Zubin Rupa, the new pastry chef for RTI while working on the Rs1 lakh chocolate order received for this Navruz.

The RTI building on Hughes Road houses the flagship food outlet and kitchen, which distributes their trademark goodies to six other outlets across Mumbai. Festivals are busy times at RTI (1600kgs of confectionery sold last Diwali) unlike the rather slow pace of an ordinary day. Rising costs, competition, dwindling number of Parsees, ‘corporate–isation’, increasing taxes and changing tastes have eaten into the daily footfalls at RTI. The bustle of delivering hundreds of daily tiffins has dwindled to a quiet 21 ‘dabbas’ a day and despite the staunch corporate and institutional clientele RTI still depends on donations to meet its costs.

RTI is a self-help movement that started in 1899 when Naoroji Patuck formed Stri Zarthosti Mandal (SZM) to counter the helplessness of housewives widowed by the bubonic plague of 1896. He started a ‘work class’ to make ladies self-sufficient and self reliant without being subjected to the indignity of alms. “RTI was born when Sir Ratan Tata Trust (RTT) donated the Hughes Road RTI Building to Stri Zarthosti Mandal (SZM) in April 1928,” said Zenobia Adajania — treasurer (RTI managing committee), “In keeping with its raison d’etre the underprivileged including spastic and physically challenged, are still trained to produce exquisite clothes and RTI remains a repository of Parsi culinary delights.”

To the Mumbaikar, RTI is still a quaint old Parsi joint despite a modernised kitchen with constantly updated recipes and product mix. But the notion is soon dispelled when one discovers that those lovable grumpy old ‘no nonsense’ Parsi ladies keeping teenage customers in their proper place at the six RTI outlets in the city, replaced by crisply uniformed black-trouser-white-shirt attendants. “But this is due to non-availability of Parsi staff,” said administrator Shernaz Acharia while explaining that the older Parsis claim they are too old to work and the young now have greater education and job opportunities nearer home.

“The hostel we run for the small town ladies who come to work with us is almost empty,” said Acharia, “Our 300-strong workforce of ten years ago has dwindled to 150. Only 35 per cent of these are Parsis.”

“The typical touch of a Parsi housewife is missing,” says Shireen Wadia, who lives in the neighbourhood. “But then there are no Parsis available to cook any longer. My children practically grew up on RTI meals. After the dabba service stopped, we would often buy a la carte. With the retirement/ passing away of these ladies, the art of making delicacies like chapat (pancakes), sandhnas (steamed bread leavened with toddy), waradhvaru (dough pastry) and kumas, was lost. Today, though I still buy from RTI, we find the food is doused in masala. My grand-daughter goes into hiccups after biting into their cutlet. But I suppose they have to keep up with changing tastes.”

Original article here.