Jamva chalo ji: A notorious love for eggs is among the idiosyncracies of Parsi food!
The Parsis have an assimilative culture but are fiercely protective of their individuality, which is reflected in their cuisine
Published: 26th March 2023 07:04 PM | Last Updated: 26th March 2023 08:03 PM | A+A A-
Sometime back, a newspaper wanted me to review a new book on Parsi food. But between the publisher and courier, the book never reached my little nest in the Nilgiris. In the following weeks, returning to the dreary life of a travelling salesman, I forgot all about it. So did the commissioning editor who took off on a junket to Las Vegas. But soon came Navroz – the Spring Equinox, also celebrated as New Year by Parsis, though their Indian calendar starts sometimes in August – rekindling nostalgia for Parsi food. I happened to be in Delhi and on an impulse decided to visit Rustom’s – the Parsi restaurant inside the Parsi Anjuman guesthouse complex on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. But only to find, much to my disappointment, it had shut down after Covid. Somehow I had missed the news. When I asked the watchman if it was going to reopen again, he replied in a nonchalant tone, “Maalik ka marzi”. Hope they reopen sometime. There is a Soda-water Bottle Opener Wala franchisee in Khan Market. I am told the Farzi Café in Connaught Place too has some Parsi dishes on its menu. I have been to the former and found it pretentious. As for the latter, the name itself does not inspire confidence about authenticity. So, I had to give up the idea of a Parsi lunch and fall back on memories.
Kolkata, where I grew up, has a motley Parsi community. There were more than two thousand of them in the eighties. Now I believe the tally is down to triple digits. The older generation has passed on. Among my contemporaries, many have moved overseas. I was an article clerk in a Chartered Accountants Firm – the then favourite berthing ground for young Parsis after school. Some of them made it to becoming CAs. Others dropped out along the way. My friend Darius, whom we called Daru, was a brilliant student, a good hockey player and a charmer. They lived in Saklat Place, near Chandni Chowk close to our office. I would often visit his home for Dhansak lunches on Sundays. He was much sought after by the girls of the community. We would hang out with him and sometimes accompany him to Parsi community functions at Olpadwala Hall in the hope of befriending some of his cousins. There I was introduced to Parsi Bhonu (meal).
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Much later, I read Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry series Murder Mystery – A Murder on Malabar Hill. In the novel, the principal protagonist, Cyrus Sodawalla’s family also lived in Saklat Place. By his description, I was convinced that the character had been fashioned after Daru – smooth, sharp and a ladies’ man. I accosted Darius on one of his trips to India – but he vehemently denied any connection. It was at Daru’s brother Pervez’s wedding that I had my first full-scale Parsi feast at the Rutt-Deen Hotel which was owned by his uncle. But the food was from a Bengali caterer – Sushil Guin. Honestly, I cannot recall how good it was. But knowing how fastidious Sushil Babu used to be about the quality of his fare, I can vouch it must have been pretty close to the real stuff. I still remember the Chicken Farcha, which I thought was a close cousin of the Bengali Kabiraji Cutlet – with its coating of semolina and egg.
But my introduction to Parsi cuisine happened in Mumbai. Across our office on Pherozeshah Mehta Road in the Fort area was Mocambo which served a mean Dhansak - that we relished with a bottle of London Pilsner beer on many a Saturday afternoon. Mocambo is still around though it no longer attracts the old office-going clientele. It has become more glitzy in line with its once humble now turned fancy neighbours like Mahesh Lunch Home. It serves a mix of “Indian and Continental” but has Dhansak on weekends. I believe some good Parsi restaurants have come up in Bandra but my go-to Parsi eatery remains Jimmy Boy at Horniman Circle near Flora Fountain. Opinion is divided on whether the iconic Britannia at Ballard Pier, famous for its Berry Pulao and Sali Gosht, is actually Parsi or Iranian. According to my friend Farhad Wadia, who now lives in the United States, Parsis and Iranis are of the same stock and can only be differentiated on a scale of eccentricity. Probably the right explanation is - the original owner was Irani but his wife was Parsi - so it is the best of both worlds as it were.
However, for the best Parsi food one has to attend a wedding or Navjot. As soon as dinner is announced with the call “Jamva chalo ji” (let us go and eat), starting from an array of eclectic snacks one runs through five courses of Patra ni Macchi, Mutton Pulao, Jardalo (Apricot) Ma Marghi and three kinds of desserts - Lagan Nu Custard, Kulfi and Falooda in glasses. The best Parsi banquet I have had was at the wedding reception of a former boss’ daughter. My Twitter buddy Vistasp Kaikobad vouches for Tanaz Godiwala as the “No 1 Parsi Caterer” in Mumbai. Katy Dalal (Katy’s Kitchen) too is very good, he adds. When we lived in Mumbai, I would sometimes pick up food from Godiwala’s place on the way home to the suburbs, which was available on pre-ordering. I'm not sure if they still do it. My current place for Parsi Food is the Royal Bombay Yacht Club which has Dhansak or Patra ni Macchi a couple of days in a week.
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My favourite Parsi dish, however, is the humble Akuri. The Parsis are notorious for their love of Eedu aka Eggs. Tamatar per Eedu, Bheeda (Okra) per Eedu, Salli per Eedu, Kanda (Onion) Papeta (Potato) per Eedu are some of the variants -- so much so that some make fun of the Parsi omelette “Eedu per Eedu''. But the Akuri is no simple scrambled egg. The medley of masalas in it -- ginger garlic paste, diced tomato, turmeric, cumin, coriander, chopped coriander and chillies make it unique. Dhansak should not be too dry. The right consistency is a bit sticky so that there is a hint of the raw yoke’s taste. To that, add a pinch of Dhansak Masala and you create magic. But there are more fun Parsi foods like the Aleti Paleti (sounds to me like Ulta Pulta) made from chicken liver and gizzards, Lamb Kidneys, Trotters with Black-eyed Beans, Lamb Tongue with Dal and Spinach. The Parsi style Kheema Pav is equally interesting. But, I leave the best for last -- Bheja (Mutton Brain Cutlets). For that, there is none to beat Dorabjee (though Irani and not true-blue Parsi) in Pune’s Camp area.
Coming back to the book, it is by Farokh Talati, a Parsi in London who is trying to find his roots by taking a culinary journey from Persia to Bombay. In the foreword, Homi and his daughter Leah Bhaba quote Bapsi Nariman, the grand dame of Parsi cooking who wrote, “A good Parsi cook rebels against the constraints of a defined method.” I would say that is partly true. The Parsis have an assimilative culture but are fiercely protective of their individuality, nay, idiosyncrasies. They have imbibed the food traditions of the places they settled in. For example, many of their vegetarian dishes have a Gujarati and Maharashtrian influence like Chutney Varelu Vengu (aubergine stuffed with coconut and coriander chutney) and Patrel. But they all have a distinct character. Talati writes about his pilgrimage to Udvada in Valsad, Gujarat, where the sacred Fire Temple is situated, which is the throne of the “Iranshah Fire” believed to be burning for nearly 1300 years. He talks of the several Parsi hotels serving traditional Parsi food. Not as a religious tourist, but as an itinerant gastronome, it is in my bucket list of places to visit before calling it a day.
(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. Twitter handle @SandipGhose.)