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I RECEIVED an email this morning concerning the broadcast, next week, of a radio program in America on the topic of Parsi food. The email read:
"We thought you'd be interested in The Kitchen Sister's upcoming Hidden Kitchens piece. Hidden Kitchens is an award-winning radio series that explores the ways in which food, community and culture intersect. Our latest story, Sugar in the Milk: A Parsi Kitchen Story, will air on National Public Radio's Morning Edition in the United States on Thursday, March 20, and explores the world of Niloufer Ichaporia King, a Bombay-born Parsi who is preserving her vanishing culture through her cooking.
"The piece will also be available online after the initial airdate at: www.hiddenkitchens.org..."
According to their hompage: "The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia
Award-winning and James Beard Award-nominated NPR series Hidden Kitchens, and the two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project.
"Hidden Kitchens heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below the radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired their first book, Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2005 and was nominated for a
James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food.
"The Kitchen Sisters' groundbreaking national radio collaborations, in partnership with Jay Allison, have brought together independent producers, artists, writers, archivists, and public radio listeners throughout the country to create richly layered, highly produced, intimate and provocative radio documentaries that chronicle untold stories of American culture and traditions..." f e b r u a r y - 2 4 - 2 0 0 8
"DHEEKRA was the single word that started my love affair with Parsi food," writes Monica Bhide's For the Love of Parsee Food. "I had heard that word many times in Indian movies. Growing up abroad I did not know what it meant. I asked my father. It means a "child" he said, it is Parsi. What was Parsi? Who were these people, always portrayed in the movies to be a fair skinned intellectual lot? Dad told me of the legendary meals he had had in Mumbai as a child at the homes of Parsi friends. The dishes that melded sweet and sour and spicy and salty. The elaborate preparations that made each guest feel like a king. I had to learn more. Mistry and Bapsi and so many others. I began to scratch the surface of a very complex culture. I fell in love with the characters they created, living together in a multi-storey building in Mumbai...
"Their cuisine is a tantalizing marriage of Persian and Gujarati styles. Flavoring their curries with nuts and apricots, they brought the richness of Persia to the simple Gujarati food. Parsi food is not hot with chilies but has complex flavors and textures. They are primarily non vegetarians and enjoy eating chicken, mutton and eggs..."
Once a minority taste, Parsi food is fast becoming popular across India -- in part due to the stupendous feasts held at Parsi weddings. Just as the Parsi's fade from Mumbai, their cuisine is resurrected across the subcontinent -- and beyond. What is Parsi food, in a nutshell? One poster on Another Subcontinent Forum wrote: "The most famous Parsi dish is undoubtably Dhansak, a curry made from mutton or chicken, several different kinds of lentils, and numerous vegetables. It is served with caramel-infused rice and fried minced meat kebabs. Like any complex dish the recipe varies from home to home and cook to cook.
"Although I do not disagree, there are other Parsi foods that are notably worthy of attention:
Sas ni Macchi -
Patra ni macchi -
Bheja nu Cutlets -
Pork Vindaloo -
Salli Gosht -
Kid Gosht -
Lagan nu Custard &
"Their vegetables cooked with broken eggs on the top and cooked covered in a shallow pan are so cool with Soft Chapatties..."
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The unique Parsi/Irani flavor of Mumbai may still be present, but it is indeed dated, and according to many Mumbaikars, even fading. As food blogger Mahardevan wrote in one of his monologues: "The Mumbai middle class, in their forties and fifties, which today look to the Mangalore originated Shettys for their midday meals and evening snacks, in the crowded cafes, perhaps would remember with a great deal of relish that a little over two decades earlier, it was the spacious Irani Restaurants, through their double entrance street corner joints that dominated the scene. Bun maska, garam chai and kari biscuits of the Iranis have gradually yielded place to Idli Sambar and Rava masala. The dull looking fair complexioned Iranis proved to be of no match to the enterprising Sadanand Shettys.
"Unlike Udipi hotels, in Irani Restaurants we spend more time and less money. Any young boy with a pittance for pocket money would order a cup of tea, ask for a glass of water, signal the waiter to turn on the fan over his head and expect the evening "Free Press Bulletin" to be provided to him. He would then spend endless hours, dreaming about his dates, swooning over the passing ones or brooding over the married ones, with occasional glance through the papers or life-size mirrors, to smoothen the hairs. Irani Restaurants and the tea they served were inimitable and one would relish them endlessly and if one could order kari biscuits or Bun maska along with the tea, one would be transported to the realm of the Gods and to underscore the point every Irani Restaurant displayed the board 'Trust in God'.
"Irani Restaurants had no uniformed waiters or bearers to carry out orders or present bills in plates or folders. Ill-clad youths would listen to and mentally note down orders and carry them out efficiently and after finishing when one would go towards the exit, which would be normally hours later, the bill amount would be shouted by the waiter standing away from the counter. The memory power of an Irani Restaurant waiter can be measured only in GBs and was perhaps a precursor to the prodigious Pentium chips..."
Speaking of the decline of the Irani cafes, the BBC reported: "Competition, ownership problems, and the reluctance of present generation Iranians to carry on the family business are contributing to the slow fadeout of these proud cafes.
"'Most of our children are well educated and are not interested in carrying on the business. There is a also a lot of trouble between partners. So they choose to get out of the business,' says Aflatoon Shokriye, second generation owner of the Kyani cafe.
"Glancing across a busy Mumbai road at the downed shutters of another Iranian cafe, he becomes nostalgic.
"'Together we used to be a huge market for cakes. If people were not satisfied by them [the cafe opposite], they came to us and vice versa. But now they have shut down and we are also losing business,' says Mr Shokriye.
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"Most of these Zoroastrian Iranians - named after the Iranian prophet and reformer - came to India in the late 19th and early 20th century.
"The search for a better livelihood brought them to Bombay, then a global trading centre and home to another Zoroastrian community, the Parsis.
"The Parsis had been economically well settled in the city for thousands of years.
"Mr Shokriye recounts a community legend which local Iranians believe led to the birth to these cafes.
"'When the Iranians came here they had no money. They worked in Parsi homes and later met in the evenings to discuss the country they had left behind," he says.
"'One evening, one of the men served tea to everyone and charged them a little amount. And so, the idea of making a business out of serving tea was born.'
"Historian Sharada Dwivedi says at that time Mumbai was flooded with migrants working in the textile mill and the city's flourishing port.
'They usually came alone and needed places to eat. This is how Irani cafes became very popular.'
"Social anthropologist Rahul Srivastava says the food industry also provided an important source of livelihood to migrants.
"'Irani cafes became sites for cosmopolitan experience. They were pioneering eating houses,' he says.
"The cafes broke down social barriers and religious taboos to become an important part of the city's public life.
"'Even today, in some Irani cafes you can see a corporate executive, a sex worker and probably even a beggar at the same time,' says Mr Srivastava..."
p a r s i - & - i r a n i - r e s t a u r a n t s - i n - m u m b a iBrittania and Co: Sprott Road, Ballard Estate. Open from 10am to 3.30pm. Call: 30225264, 22615264.
As reported on Irani Chai, Mumbai -- an interview with Boman Kohinoor, regarding this Ballard Estate institution: "Britannia Cafe was established by my father Rashid in the year 1923 and it happened to be the birth year, the year, I was born in this year, now nearly 84 years. The Zoroastrians who remained in Iran were under attack, so they had to carry on their life in villages, and most of them became farmers, and, uh, slowly there came to be short supply of water, actually they came from Yazd, my family. And Yazd was ****** -- water was very hard to get. Slowly there was no rainfall, and the water they were getting from the mountains also was drying up. So, they abandoned the villages and go for greener pastures. So, the Parsis of India, they told the Zoroastrians of Iran if they would come to Mumbai, to Bombay, they would support them and that is why they came to India.
"Not being educated my father could not do any other work except the Parsis told him to start with some tea business, to prepare and serve tea, and uh, the Parsis helped them in the business and slowly they prospered. Actually, they gave them help to set up their stalls, and slowly the stalls gave way to small cafes, and then to restaurants and bakeries...
"Many cafes have closed; in the 40s, 50s and 60s we had about three to four hundred Irani restaurants, bakeries, stores in Bombay, but slowly they are diminishing, and now they are on the verge of vanishing. I think only about twenty, thirty Irani restaurants are left today. Eating habits have changed, in the sense that formerly in the British time our restaurant was serving continental type food, bland food, and the Europeans and high society type of people were not eating spicy food, but now, after independence, we had to change, we had to cook food according to Indian tastes Ewith spices, and masala and all those things. So, biriyani has become popular, pilau has become popular, and mutton, and gravy, gravy cutlets have become more popular than during the past. We used to have beef steak, what they call chops, fish and chips, all those things, but now they are not a part of our menu at all...
"When Iranis started coming to India, especially to Mumbai, there were a lot of vacant premises, and most of the corner premises were vacant, this may be superstitious, but the Hindus would not take the corner, saying that it was very unlucky for them, so the Iranis were coming, and they would find the corners better for business, and so they started renting them. My grandfather started Kohinoor Restaurant, just near Bombay GPO. It was one of the first Irani restaurants in the city, about 1890,'95, around that time..." Jimmy Boy: 11 Bank Street, Vikas Building, Off Horniman Circle, Opp.
State Bank, Fort. Phone: 270 0880 and 266 2503.
Just like the sugar which sweetens milk, Parsi cuisine takes a basically Indian style and enhances it to dazzling new heights. Parsi cuisine adds to the richness and color of Indian cooking. If you are in Mumbai, you should definitely give Parsi cuisine a go. Jimmy Boy, near Horniman Circle, is regarded as one of the best Parsi restaurants in Mumbai, and is full of Irani wit and quaint charms. Ideal Corner: Fort Area.
Another Parsi recommendation, this time from Anil:
"While Jimmy Boy's, Britannia are more well known parsi restaurants; Ideal Corner is better [full disclosure: I know someone from the owner's family].
Rickety, and faded, cash only, non-AC - what else to dissuade a casual tourist. Food - Just pick the Daily menu and youo will never go wrong, and wrap it with Lagan nu Custard. If Khigdi (sp?) is in the daily menu - I'd avoid it and order something else (because I do not like khigdi)." Koolar and Company: King's Circle, Matunga (E).
There is something mid 20th century retro and jivey about modern Parsi culture, and this slightly jaded but still quaint ideal of hip has rubbed off on the whole city of Mumbai, in my opinion. At the Irani restaurant Koolar and Company, one of the specialties is the double cheese masala omelette, washed down with fresh lime juice. It sounds like an Indian take on a 1950s style American burger heaven, and indeed it is. That is Irani Parsi culture for you. No wonder they produced someone like Freddy Mercury! Mocambo Cafe and Beer Bar: Fort Area23-A Sir Phirozsha Mehta Road, opposite Khadi Bhavan, and the famous and amazingly beautiful Flora Fountain.
I have never been there, but aadil recommends the Mocambo Cafe and Beer Bar as another Parsi food utopia. Aadil writes:
The restaurant is a very famous place for Parsi food during lunch hours and is basically a beer bar where a bottle of 750ml of any brand of beer is priced at Rs.65 and a pint for Rs.45 only. A small place with two levels for seating about 50 persons in all, it is generally full at all times!!! Comparatively a very cheap place considering the location in the business district in the heart of Mumbai!!!
Try the chicken or mutton dhansak which is a speciality dish of the Parsis in Mumbai!!! Also other Parsi dishes, continental dishes like Fish fillet, French fries and grilled sandwiches which are very good!!! Chinese dishes also available.
Paradise: Near Colaba Market, Colaba Causeway.
This is one of the last remaining Parsi/Irani restaurants in the Colaba area. The quality of the food has remained consistent with what it was 20 years ago. The renovation in 2001 has made the place look light and airy without changing the ambience. This is no mean feat for a renovation: it manages to pull in youngsters without turning away old faithfuls. Even the pictures on the wall remain the same as before; instead of looking dated they now have an air of tongue-in-cheek kitsch. In all, the newly air-conditioned atmosphere is quite as attractive as the food they serve. At a time when all the old Iranis are selling out to multinational food factory outlets, Paradise is exactly what Mumbai needs.
The sizzlers are good, and come with a variety of vegetables. The steaks are reasonable, although the gravy is always a little too rich. The Mexican rice is quite Parsi, and is recommended to those who can take generous amounts of red chili powder in their stride.
The spaghetti is much better than most places in Bombay have to offer. It certainly attracts a large regular clientele. They have three or four sauces, including one called, very surprisingly, a risotto. Don't be misled-- this is spaghetti!
There is one special Parsi dish every evening. Usually they run out of it by 8 in the evening, so be there early if you want it for dinner. Sassanian Boulangerie: opposite Liberty theatre lane, Dhobitalao. Call 22006198.
Writes Parsi Khabar: "The good ol' Sassanian, an Irani cafe as old as the hills, may have been given a makeover, when it was turned into a boulangerie, serving puffs, pizzas and sandwiches, but the Mawa and Madeira cakes are still to kill for.
"For lunch, try their fragrant Kashmiri Pulao Dal and Sali ma Chicken. You can't call it a day without digging into the Lagan nu Custard (sinful bread and milk baked custard served at Parsi weddings.) " Yazdani Bakery: Cawasji Patel Street, Fort.
One of the classic Mumbai establishments, with a history as rich as the Parsi people. The bakery had its origins in the pre-Independence days when its owner Merwanji Zend opened at 3am to serve the priests from the nearby fire-temples such delicacies as early morning brun-maska. Back in those days Yazdani's used to export wedding cakes to Japan, such was the popularity and world-class taste of its offerings. These days the bakery supplies bread to most of the luxury hotels in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, Marine Plaza, The President and the Oberoi. Visitors to Yazdani are invariably offered a taste of some of the bakery's goodies. They bake brown bread there and a 7-grain bread, as well as focaccia, olive bread, buns and bruns, mava cakes, khari biscuits, pudding, apple pie, mushroom and lemon tarts.
Want to recommend a good place for Parsi food in Mumbai or elsewhere in India?