Circa 1965, when Villie Mehta would feverishly cook in the kitchen of the Victory stall at Apollo Bunder, her biggest worry was the dhansak going out of stock. Mehta, now 78, was terrified of a customer turning up only to find the Parsi delicacy missing in the fare.
"Oh, the way they would start catfights in the hotel if that were to happen! ‘Send a golden handshake to the blessed cook,’ one would say. Another would yell that the food was fit to be sent to a hospital," she remembers with a chuckle.
Not that anyone would dare question Mehta’s culinary skill today – she’s editor of the cookbook, Millennium Recipes 2004. Mehta and members of the Time and Talents Club have, in their own way, documented old Parsi cuisines their mothers and mothers-in-law published 1934 onwards, when the club was founded.
Prior to Millennium Recipes, Mehta edited the newest edition of the Classic Recipes, which has around 2000 recipes. "The dishes in Classic Recipes date right back to the 1930s," she says with a hint of pride. "And, mind you, not one has been tampered with."
As she blends mushrooms, cheese, milk and eggs to make mushroom cheese pudding, Pilloo Cooper, Avi Dastoor, Delara Jejeebhoy, Sanober Irani, all members of the Cookery Demonstration and Recipe Book Committee of the club, peer over her shoulders to observe how she goes about it.
You can’t miss how the ladies revere Mehta. She swiftly moves around, giving out instructions about how it’s the cheese that can make or mar the pudding or how baking it in a pan of water leaves a scrumptious crust at the bottom of the serving bowl.
The Time and Talents Club, quite literally, was founded by wives of wealthy Parsis in the city who had free time on their hands — and believed they could do something worthwhile with it. But one cannot write them off as the Page 3 type socialites of yesteryears. These ladies worked hard to involve their community in cultural and charity events.
Cooper, 71, remembers large dinner parties hosted by her mother. "My mother would entertain 1000 guests at a time in our sprawling bungalow. There was no concept of hosting parties at banquet halls then, you see." Perhaps, she feels, that was how the idea of documenting old Parsi recipes may have come up and the first ‘cookbook’ was printed — on a single sheet of paper in 1935.
Mehta opens the recipe book and points out recipes with ingredients that "would make our eyebrows disappear in our hair." Stomach this — dishes that use twelve tablespoons of ghee, and cheese, eggs and flour — all blended together. However, that hasn’t diminished its popularity. Ask any Parsi lady with even remote gastronomical leanings and they know of Mehta’s cookbook.
The new Millennium Book, which has more than 500 recipes, has also been written to suit the leanings of today’s homes towards the health conscious, the minimalist and the I-am-too-busy-to-lay-out-a-fare sort. Soups, breads, curries, salads, meat, beverages, cookies, pastries — you name it and it’s there.
Ask the bustling ladies about who they think will carry on this Parsi tradition, and Mehta seems a tad pensive at first. She shrugs her shoulders to say that their daughters or daughters-in-law don’t really have the time for this. "This club was my calling," she says, looking around at the group that nods in agreement. "Our girls have found theirs in careers and homes."
But Dastoor remains optimistic. "Do you mean to ask whether the club will ever shut down? Well, the answer is no," she smiles and adds with an air of finality: "I am sure someone from our younger lot will want to pick up from where we leave…"