South Mumbai is dotted with old Irani cafes. Pass by one of these and you will spot rickety wooden tables covered with chequered cotton table cloths and noisy ceiling fans. These all day eating houses selling sugary tea accompanied by freshly baked Khaari biscuits or crispy Brun pao & butter (a local bun with an almost baguette-like consistency) also dish out Parsi staples like Dhansak and Salli Boti for lunch. A generous serving of nostalgia accompanies your food and these Irani cafes can be credited with singularly introducing millions of people to Parsi food.
For most of us non Parsis, Dhansak is arguably our first introduction to Parsi cuisine. But, I am here to tell you about the “other” Parsi food that I know of. As a food entrepreneur with a Parsi partner, cooking Parsi food from our delivery kitchen daily, I get a peek into something new about this cuisine everyday.
Typically in a Parsi household, vegetables are detested. I once heard a Parsi ex colleague rue for hours about the fact that he had to endure not one, but TWO of his mom’s vegetarian dishes for dinner. On further prodding, these turned out to be dal and bhindi (ladyfinger)! This community also secretly believes that breaking an egg on a questionable dish or baptizing it with Salli (potato straws) renders it edible.
Given this backdrop, it is a delight to discover the Ravaiya. This seems like a dish that must have been accidentally discovered by someone playing a prank when he quietly replaced the pomfret in the Patra Ni Machchi with baby brinjals. To make this dish, you simply stew partially cut baby brinjals in a chutney made of coconut, coriander, mint, green chilies, ginger and vinegar. While on the subject of Patra Ni Machchi, a lesser known Parsi fish dish is the Saas Ni Machchi. The ”saas” (derived from the word sauce) is a white sauce sans milk but with the addition of beaten egg. The thick sauce is rendered slightly tangy with the addition of sugarcane vinegar. The fish is then gently poached in the sauce before being garnished with bruised cherry tomatoes and some fried onions. Simple as it may sound, it takes a little practice to get the consistency of this sauce correct.
Another dish I am fascinated with is the Chaas Payelo Sakarkand. Originally the term refers to caramelised sweet potatoes cooked in a jaggery syrup but ofcouse some Parsi thought it would be much more palatable with mutton and so was born Sakarkand ma Gosht. Here, hot and savoury mutton is cooked with the sweet potatoes making for an interest flavour contrast. The same goes for Pakki Keri Ma Gosht, a spicy mutton curry cooked with sweet ripe mangoes.
If Dhansak is the most famous of Parsi dishes, Akoori has to be a close second. But few have tasted the Bharuchi Akoori. Originating in Bharuch, this Akoori is a rich wintery delight, originally made with 400gm ghee for every 10 eggs! Not only are the eggs scrambled in ghee but then there’s also the addition of dried fruits, nuts and salli which made this an absolute carb-loaded delight.
The preferred flavoring agents for most Parsi desserts are cardamom, nutmeg and vanilla. The most famous Parsi dessert is the Lagan nu Custard, typically served in weddings. But their repertoire of desserts is much bigger. There is the Mawa Kopra Pak, a slow cooked coconut fudge made with milk and sugar. This is the same mix that forms the basis of the Bengali Kheerer Nadu or the Chhaacher shondesh. Likewise the Santra ni Kheer is made with sweetened evaporated milk that is mixed with fresh orange segments. Bengalis would call this a plagiarized version of their very own Kheer Komola!
I could go on, but here I have tried to capture the essence of this cuisine in a nutshell. The bottomline is there is a huge variety out there just waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately the same old popular favorites are rehashed in restaurants. What this cuisine needs is more proponents to spread the love of these lesser known delicacies.
Next week I will share a unique Parsi recipe called Guava Ni Curry. Before the Parsis reading this roll their eyes, don’t worry there is mutton in this dish too! So keep an eye on this space.
Photo courtesy: Alok Verma & Bawi Bride Kitchen