Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Chef Farrokh Khambata: Eat Drink and Be Merry

By Dipti Nagpaul D’souza

khambata For a true foodie, there isn’t a feast bigger than the Parsi New Year. On the day of the feast, you’ll find a non-follower for every Zoroastrian queued up outside city restaurants offering Parsi cuisine to the patrons. With merely a handful of days left for Pateti, Mumbaikars are already making dinner plans for August 19. Complying with the ritual is Mumbai’s celebrated chef Farrokh Khambata. “There’s a name been given to us Parsis— khadra— which means perennially hungry,” he laughs. “We aren’t that in the literal sense but our zest for life and everything good inspires our craving for good food.”

The mere mention of Pateti is enough to get one salivating. Instantly, visions of delectable red-gravy mutton salli boti and rotlis, the sinful cheese-and-chicken farcha, the coriander-coconut based patra ni machi, steamed to perfection, dhansak rice with sweet and spicy kachumbar salad flow into the mind.

For a religion where abstinence from food is considered a sin, no wonder it inspires one of the most scrumptious cuisines and nurtures some of the biggest foodies. According to the chef, there are two big events in any Parsi’s life—Navjote is the first and the food served at the Navjote is the second. “I’ve heard from my grandmother that in the early years, if you went for any Parsi function, you didn’t have to hand over the pariku (the envelope with cash) if you didn’t like the food.”

If abstinence does not feature in their culture, neither does refraining from meats. “Anything high on cholesterol suits our system. Anything that a layman will avoid—bheja, gurda, kaleji—we lap it all up. We even treat fish and eggs as vegetarian. So when there isn’t any chicken or mutton available, we top our food with eggs. You must have heard of salli pe edu,” he enquires. Of course. Crisp-fried potato strips, topped with half-fried egg, this is the quick snack—equivalent to Maggi — you will find in any Parsi household.

“I own this 100 plus-year-old Parsi recipe book with 1,000 recipes of Parsi dishes. Of these, nearly 300 recipes alone have eggs as the key ingredient. One dish even suggests topping egg on masoor dal,” Khambata smiles, reminiscing: “My grandmother tells me that till 50 years ago, Parsis would often have egg-eating competitions in the colony. Maybe the rich diet is what keeps us Parsis going till 90 years and above,” he laughs.

As the 36-year-old chef recounts these stories, he describes the menu for Pateti at home. A lavish spread of mild-gravy pilaf with succulent chunks of mutton, lamb chops prepared in a sweet-and-sour paste of tomatoes, cashews and coconut milk, lagan nu achar — carrot and dry fruit pickle preserved with sugarcane vinegar, and rice crisps.

“My eight-year-old son Hushaan is as passionate about cooking as I am. So we often spend a part of the feast day in the kitchen,” says Khambata. The rest of it is spent following the traditional customs, like visiting the fire temples in the neighbourhood, meeting and greeting friends and family, and of course, eating good food and drinking good wine.

Most of the community, says Khambata, has a very refined palette for alcohol. “Just anything won’t do, especially of the day of the feast. So we combine our food with good wine. Those who don’t drink go for Raspberry,” he winks at the red beverage made by Dukes solely for their Parsi fans.

But drinking isn’t as the food, the gourmet admits, “It’s to whet the appetite before you relish the meal. There’s a popular saying—tran-char peg pevi, daba ke khavu.” (Have three-four pegs to relish your food.)

Essentially considered a lovable and eccentric community, many Parsis consider Pateti incomplete without a trip to the theatre with their family for a natak. Khambata admits, “Many of us will book tickets for the natak before we head to the nearby restaurant. It’s another of our kinks.”

Having made plans for a traditional celebration with family, he is, at the same time, gearing up for a special Parsi food festival he is hosting at his popular, otherwise Asian cuisine restaurant Joss at Kala Ghoda. “We are offering a traditional sit-down meal at the restaurant and our banquets this year since there aren’t many restaurants offering authentic Parsi fair in the city.”

Bon apetit. Or as the community says, ‘Jamvaa Chalo’.