Vasanu: Parsi winter warmer


February 2, 2015

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Not even Google, in its infinite wisdom, can spell out what precisely goes into vasanu, an exotic Parsi fudge. We hear its ingredients -chaar jaatna magaz, baval nu goonder, cummar kakri, jabar jas and karlu batrisu -tease the tongue just as does its potent blend of flavours. Prepared exclusively when the mercury drops, the sweet-spicy “Parsi equivalent of Chyavanprash,“ vasanu is a herbal recipe that fortifies the immune system and energises it, Parsis will tell you. Now of course, most families have long since traded in the tedium of preparing it for the luxury of ordering in.

Article by Anjana Vaswani | Mumbai Mirror



That wasn’t the case 12 years ago though, when Mahim resident Katy Gotla, 65, first set off with a handbag filled with three winter specials -vasanu (Rs 1,100kg), badam paak (an almond pudding) and gajjar achar (a sweet-spicy carrot-and-dried-fruit pickle) -and the ambition to sell these door-todoor to make ends meet, her daughter Mahafrin tells us.

Mahafrin, who started assisting her mother with cooking when she was a teen, remembers, “Back then, my mother would spend her evenings pounding each herb and root herself. Now, thankfully, the powdered spices are available.Each ingredient still has to be fried individually so as to fully extract its flavour before it’s stirred into chashni (sugar syrup) once it arrives at single-thread consisten cy.“ Once all the ingredients are stirred in, the mixture is cooked on low flame for almost an hour.

Elaichi (cardamom), two other herbs and nuts are finally sprinkled atop just before serving,“ she says.

Perzen Patel, whose website Bawi Bride is a paean to Parsi cuisine, says, “From start to finish, vasanu’s preparation could take a whole day, depending on how much you are making.“ Yet, Cusrow Baug resident, 40-year-old Furrokh Ragina, who is just as well known for his dal ni pori (Rs 450 a piece) as for vasanu (Rs 850kg), prefers to slow down the cooking process further. This he does by using an antique kakra no chulho, a kerosene stove with about as much thermal power as an old lamp. He inherited it from his grandmother along with the recipe for the invigorating winter fudge.

“The slower you cook it, the tastier it turns out,“ Furrokh asserts, opening a window on the device to light a wick, as his 80-year-old mother Katy recounts, “He was 14 when my mother began entrusting him with the stirring. That’s how he picked up the recipe.“

Furrokh doesn’t mind using prepackaged spices either. “When my mother would buy whole spices from a Grant Road store called Hemani, the staff would sit around and pound it in front of her,“ Katy recalls. That closed down some years ago. “But since Grant Road was predominantly occupied by Parsis back then, stores like Amiri and Motilal Masalawala continue to stock Parsi ingredients.“

For Perzen, who also runs a gourmet Parsi catering service (she charges Rs 1,200kg for vasanu), a partnership with Motilal Masalawala, simplifies things. “I use their vasanu kit of pre-weighed masalas,“ she tells us. The Rs 1,000kit that turns out about 3.5 kg of fudge doesn’t include dried fruits or sugar; just the 30 essential spices.

Clearly, this is an expensive dish, not least because of exotic inclusions like screw pine and chilgoza pine seeds, two of the four components of, “chaar jaatna magaz“. But it’s still one that many believe is a winter must-have.Dadar-based cookbook author and Parsi culinary maven, Zinobia Schroff won’t compromise on the quality of her product (Rs 1,100kg) even if it means squeezing her profit margin like she does the cream out of wheat grains (ghau nu doodh or “milk of wheat“ is another integral ingredient). She therefore uses all the ingredients that the authentic recipe calls for, a list that columnist and writer Bachi Karkaria once wrote, “is almost as long as the journey in that stormtossed boat from Persia over a 1,000 years ago.“

Parsi food caterer, Niloufer Talati, who prepares another rare winter speciality called eeda paak (egg and dried fruit pudding) in addition to vasanu (Rs 1,000kg), attempts a translation: “Sooth is dry ginger, singora are water chest nuts, baval nu goonder is the gum of the baval tree, cummar kakri is lotusroot and gokhru…“ But here, her voice trails off and her confidence melts into a warm smile.

Despite how it must complicate her grocery shopping, Schroff still sources all ingredients because, “The dish was devised by our ancestors to serve as a tasty tonic, to keep the body energised through Gujarat’s winter, or perhaps even before that, through the severe winters of Iran. Each item therefore has some medicinal attribute.“

Schroff, whose other seasonal specialities include badam paak, kharia (trotters) and rabri powder (a mix of chestnut powder and dried fruits, to be prepared like a porridge) cautions, “The dried ginger, herbs and dried fruits make it so heaty, you can’t eat this in the summer. You’ll break out in boils.“

“Vasanu was traditionally a breakfast item, to be washed down with a warm milk or mint tea,“ adds Malcolm Watcha, food columnist for Parsi newspaper, Jam-e-Jamshed, who fears the intricacy of the recipe, effort and expense, “will drive it to extinction.Making vasanu is a dying art,“ he says.

Yet, the rush at the stores tells a different story. Perhaps the dish is being revived by its own miracle herbs.