The decline in the Bombay Irani cafe culture has been the subject of regular media coverage.
In the 1950s, there were about 550 traditional Parsi cafes in South Mumbai. Today, there are less than 30. But whilst Britannia and Co Restaurant and Yazdani bakery and cafe may be some of the few still remaining, Parsi cuisine, a unique west coast Indian cuisine that captures flavors from ancient Persia with adopted Indian spices, is garnering international attention.
Article by Nabila Pathan | Al Arabiya News
“In recent years, since the Parsi diaspora spread all over the world, a new-found appreciation of Parsi cuisine in the West has made its way onto the international map” explains Niloufer Mavalvala, author and founder of Niloufer’s Kitchen. “We also have some well-respected Parsi-cuisine chefs such as Cyrus Todiwala in London, UK and Jehangir Mehta of NYC.”
Although Niloufer’s Kitchen is all about foods from different parts of the world, her Parsi taste-buds influence some of her recipes. Speaking to Al Arabiya News, she explains that some of the flavors that create a particular trait of Parsi cuisine require “a balance of flavor’s that are “khatu-mithoo”, literally translated as sweet-sour.”
“While the food is not actually sweet nor tart, this principle is used to enhance the flavor of the ingredients just as salt is used universally to bring out the taste.”
In almost all of Niloufer’s Parsi dishes, the combination of raw mango, lemon, jaggery, tamarind, cardamom, saffron, coconut, tomatoes, ginger-garlic, and chilli is used. “Some quintessential examples of this are, the famous Parsi Jhinga no Paatio (Prawns in a thick onion tomato gravy – served with a plain lentil curry and rice) and Parsi Kheema (minced mutton) both of which use a blend of spices and condiments that create the sweet-sour flavors that are distinctly Parsi.”
Niloufer, who was born and raised in Karachi and now lives in Canada, learnt Parsi cooking techniques from various members of her family. Dhansak, according to Niloufer, is a favorite Parsi dish. In her food blog, she further explains that with “food being the number one priority for most Parsis, the infamous Dhansak is…best described as a speciality. Being both tedious and time-consuming to prepare, as well as heavy to digest, Dhansak is generally left for a treat or more traditionally, for a Sunday afternoon lunch when every household gathers for their get-together and then retires for their afternoon siesta.”
“There are many versions and stories of its origins, both in name and in ingredients. But like most recipes, it has evolved over time and geography. I believe that it originates from our Persian roots, where the Khoresh or the stew was made up of lentils, spinach, plums and meat and served on a bed of rice with an array of mokhalafat or sides. Once we migrated to India, it turned to Dhansak; Dhan meaning golden/gold or wealth and Sak/sag/shak meaning greens or vegetables.”
She goes on to explain that there are many Parsi food enthusiasts, who like herself “have a passion for sharing the beauty of good Parsi food with others. And as a result, there is also a presence and awareness of Parsi cuisine in various established food magazines and even on television.”
Whilst the decline in the Bombay Irani cafe culture has been the subject of regular media coverage and documentaries such as “Inheritance of Loss,” Niloufer is positive with the growing status of Parsi cuisine. “Even if you know just one Parsi, you’ve probably eaten Parsi food at some point, or will in the near future. So, even though we are such a small population globally, our food is being savored by many.”
According to estimates, there are approximately 61,000 Parsis left in India today, 75 percent of them are based in Mumbai. Whilst an anxiety about a dwindling Parsi population continues to persist amongst the community, the growing pride in Parsi cuisine is reviving the sentiment symbolized by the often quoted remark by Mahatma Gandhi, who once reportedly said “in numbers Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare.”