Keeping the Flame: The hearty delights of Parsi food

An article that deals with Parsi food must, in all fairness, open with a statutory warning: this cuisine is injurious to the mental health of vegetarians. For very often the only herbivorous item that sneaks onto the Parsi festive table or restaurant menu is the carrot-and-raisin pickle.

By Shabnam Minwalla | Outlook India Travel

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Of course, various ladle-happy Jeroos and Bhicoos do include the mandatory ‘vegetables’ sections in their cookbooks, but it’s soon apparent that they are better acquainted with eggs than eggplants

At the parsi wedding, as soon as the compere interrupts ‘besame mucho’ with the call, "jamva chaloji (come to eat)", a stampede ensues

. And although Parsi hosts may feel compelled to prepare vegetarian dhansaaks and istews for fastidious guests, their funereal expressions and sighs (“If only you could taste my Hilla’s mutton pulao…”) reveal their dismay. After all, this is a community that fetes icons like former Tata Steel chairman Russi Mody as much for his 18-egg-omelettes as for his managerial achievements; a religion which doesn’t bother with fasting—the four days in the year when mutton and chicken are prohibited are deemed sufficiently harsh lessons in abstinence.

To be fair, this preoccupation with succulent kababs and frilly chicken cutlets is part of the greater Parsi passion—a love for food that chomps through all barriers of class, age and sex. So while the silver-salver gang can natter endlessly about Austrian sausages and extra virgin olive oil, the melamine crowd will spend hours discussing the art of slicing a muslin-fine kachumber. Brushed and bejewelled guests at weddings feel no compunction about tormenting the waiters for a bigger piece of chicken—and the more crotchety may even spurn the saas ni machhi and demand “a tail piece of fried pomfret” instead.

It stands to reason that this collective obsession should stir up a distinctive and intricate cuisine—one which balances the sweetness of dried fruit with the tartness of sugarcane vinegar and the sharpness of chillies; which simmers meats, daals and vegetables in a single pot; and stirs together many cultures and cuisines to arrive at unique techniques and flavours. Not to mention curiosities like the smoky umberiyu, which is made by burying a clay pot full of meat, papri beans and brinjals overnight in the garden along with charcoal embers and bhoomla seera paila, which is made by dipping lightly fried Bombay duck in sugar syrup.

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While these esoteric creations linger only in cookbooks and grandmothers’ tales, the more mainstream Parsi fare has acquired a new and widespread popularity. Restaurants that have been plonking chipped bowls of fragrant mutton onto marble-topped tables for decades are suddenly finding themselves besieged by newspaper review-clutching foodies; and a host of new eateries and cookbooks have surfaced to ride the rose water-scented wave. Which happily means that one no longer has to wait for that precious and rare ‘Yasmin weds Beji’ invitation card to satisfy a craving for creamy, almond-embellished lagan nu custard. Indeed, today one can stroll across to Jimmy Boy Restaurant at Bombay’s Horniman Circle and nonchalantly order an entire wedding patra.

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The Parsi wedding feast is called a patra for a simple reason—it’s served on a banana leaf. Even as the guests enter the baug with its twinkling lights and toddlers wiggling to the Birdie Dance, rows of tables are dressed and waiting. White linen tablecloths are set with damp banana leaves, slightly foggy glasses and occasionally frayed napkins. As soon as the compere interrupts ‘Besame Mucho’ with the call, “Jamva chaloji (come to eat)”, a stampede ensues as octogenarians forget their gout and dignified matrons forget their antique embroidered saris in their haste to make the first sitting. Within minutes the tables are crowded with guests briskly wiping banana leaves with their napkins, filling glasses with cough syrup-red raspberry and wondering aloud whether the legendary Tanaz Godiwalla and her army of cook-helpers from UP will be in top form tonight.

Fortunately, the suspense is short-lived. A battalion of waiters scurries along the tables tossing spoonfuls of tangy lagan nu achar, a carrot and dry fruit pickle traditionally served at weddings or lagans, a stack of rotis and long white wafers. Next comes the fish—either patra ni machhi, plump pieces of pomfret smothered in a green coconut chutney, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, or saas ni machhi, pomfret swimming in a sweet-and-sour sauce speckled with sneaky green chillies and onion. Even before the 300 vociferous food critics can pass judgment on the fish, the waiters have arrived with the chicken—sometimes hearty fried farchas that make Kentucky Fried Chicken seem like oil-drenched thermacol, but more often sali murgi, chicken in a sweet-and-spicy red gravy which is garnished with matchstick-sized potato chips. The meal culminates in a saffron-and-white mutton pulao, often studded with kababs, and eaten with a thick daal. By the time the ice cream arrives, the next wave of guests is already standing behind the chairs and triumphantly informing the competition, “Sorry, we have reserved the next 14 seats.”

Only a Parsi could possibly consider this a bare-bones menu but many hosts feel the need to supplement it with an egg creation (usually fried eggs set on a thin layer of potato or tomato) or a mutton dish like the white, cashewnutty kid gosht. Not to forget the two delicacies that vegetarians are able to sample—a soft, smooth ball of fresh paneer floating in its whey and a portion of lagan nu custard so dense that it has to be sliced not scooped.

Mercifully, the Balasubramaniams and Parikhs on the guest list don’t have to subsist on custard and paneer alone. Aware of the shortcomings of a cuisine that equates vegetarian fare with ‘invalid food’, the Parsis have come up with a solution—outsourcing. So vegetarians are seated apart and served a ghee-filled Gujarati thaali whipped up by Thackers Caterers or the like—an arrangement which may seem strange but ties in neatly with the history of the Parsis in India.

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Parsi wedding feast

It was about a thousand years ago that a boatload of Zoroastrian refugees from Persia arrived at the tiny village of Sanjan in Gujarat. Over the centuries the little group of Zoroastrians settled down peaceably in the picturesque, lush villages dotting the Gujarat coastline, adopting not only the language and saris but also cooking techniques and ingredients. The bland Persian pulaos borrowed local spices and gratefully acquired a makeover; nut-stuffed baklavas mutated into flaky malai khajas oozing with sinful, rose water-flavoured cream. Dhansaak, which is probably an even more successful ambassador for the Parsi community than Zubin Mehta, is another example of what swish restaurants love to describe as ‘fusion food’. The Irani dish of lentil and meat benefited from the abundant vegetable patches and spice chests of Gujarat and evolved into a fragrant daal enriched with vegetables and mutton and eaten with rice cooked in burnt-sugar water. Families now guard their dhansaak recipes as jealously as they do their heirloom Chantilly laces.

Much later, when ambitious youngsters from tiny Navsari and Valsad began to shift to the new boomtown of Bombay, Parsi cuisine opened itself to the coconut-and-kokum influences of the Goans who worked as their cooks and the British who became their masters. Parsi housewives were quick to experiment with the dull and stodgy stews, custards and sauces that entered India with the British—and in their hands the vapid Béchamel sauce became the piquant saas ni machhi and pallid, grey stews acquired a robust colour and taste. Admittedly, not all the experiments succeeded, and innovations like chilli wine were given a hasty burial.

The hardier cross-cultural creations are available in a cluster of restaurants in Bombay’s Fort area, each of which has its impassioned votaries. The brokers and lawyers in the warren of lanes around the Stock Exchange swear by the dhansaak at the basic Ideal Corner. Britannia at Ballard Estate is best known for Iranian berry pulao. The relatively new Jimmy Boy Restaurant offers a wider array of Parsi fare—vivid red prawn patias, eaten with pale, yellow mori daal, vegetable stews and fish curries.

Those in the western suburbs with a craving for dhansaak and sali boti make a beeline for Snack Shack in Bandra. While Colaba favours a tiny restaurant called Paradise—beloved not only for its delectable kid gosht and sauce-topped cutlets but also for its Mario Miranda cartoons. Jimmy, the cheery proprietor, sits at the counter, one eye on the TV and another on the door, greeting regulars, including aapro Ratan (Ratan Tata), with that ultimate Parsi endearment, “Kem che, kaleja?” (How are you, liver?)

Those who want to carry home Parsi flavours can stop at Grub Corner, which stocks snacks like toddy-laced bhakras and the famous E.F. Kolah pickles, including lagan nu achar and fish egg achar. The sandalwood-and-religious-artefact shops at Princess Street sometimes have a few bottles of pickle, including the sweet-mango ambakalio and the mustard-and-mango baffena. Foodies who emerge empty-handed from these shops can seek consolation in Parsi Dairy Farm—with its malai khaja, mava ni machhi and suterfeni, sugary flour fashioned into thin strands and arranged in a whorl with rose petals and nuts.

Proficient though these eateries are, Parsi food is best enjoyed consumed with a three-finger Parsi peg and a dash of eccentricity. Those unable to get themselves invited to a Tanaz Godiwalla-catered function, or, at least, a Wednesday dhansaak lunch at Ripon Club, can compensate by checking into one of the dying breed of Parsi-run hotels in coastal Gujarat. Duke’s
Hotel, perched on the black-sand beach of Daman and run by the Oliaji family, is little more than a cluster of basic cottages with toe-curling loos. But the ceaseless procession of tiffin boxes—carrying cutlets, fried fish, mutton chops, masala omelettes the size of frisbees—ensure that it’s packed with families intent on pushing up their cholesterol counts.

Of course, the last few years have seen changes—the advent of vegetarian Parsis, salad counters instead of traditional wedding patras and gloved waiters who extricate the fish from its banana-leaf wrapping. By and large, however, Parsis remain mutton-seeking missiles—who certainly won’t let little things like high blood pressure and self-consciousness come between them and their sali ne jardaloo ma gosh and bheja na cutles.

  • Bakhtawar Pardiwala

    Very well written and accurate version of our parsee weddings and our mouth watering dishes.