Parsi food stories…Notes from the second Parsi Finely Chopped Mumbai Food Walk

Feedback from the walkers: My husband and I really enjoyed our Parsi food walk.  It was great getting an insight into the Parsi way of life through the food and stories : Patricia Isinger

A post on the walk

I think I get most excited when I do Bengali food walks as I get to introduce people to my food and culture.

The Parsi walks come pretty close up there too.

I have had Parsi friends ever since I came to Mumbai. They were very kind to me and made me feel at home. Then I married a Parsi and became a Parsi son in law. Since then it has been great getting an insider’s view into the lives of Parsis, their food, their cultures, their world views, customs and rituals. Being interested in food and heritage, an interest in Parsi food was but natural for me to have. The first big development in the public dining scenario of Mumbai after all was through the establishment of Irani cafes and the Parsi food served there.

My understanding and knowledge of Parsis will probably never match that of a baug (Parsi colony) grown Parsi but I do like to share whatever I have learnt about Parsis over the past few years with people at large. Hence the plan for the second walk after I did one Parsi Finely Chopped walk last year. You can read about that here.

This time’s walk was also special because the weekend before it I had gone to Fort with my brother, sister in law and my Parsi uncle in law, Freddy mama (maternal uncle). Freddy mama used to work in Fort and told us many stories from his town (south Mumbai) days when we met and pointed out architectural structures one shouldn’t miss. He even introduced me to the singwala from whom he used to buy sing (groundnuts) way back in the 60s. ‘Best groundnuts in town’ said Mama as he introduced us to Mohammed who has been selling groundnuts near the Bombay Stock Exchange since the 1950s.

A week later we set of on the second Parsi walk and the walk turned out to be all about the stories of the Parsis and a tasting of their food.

As usual we had an eclectic mix of folks in the walk. Expats from the US and Canada who have made India their home. Ironically the Canadian lady had a Parsi hair dresser back home in Vancouver. Then there were Indians from Bengal and Kerala who had shifted base to Mumbai. There was a Maharashtrian Hindu who grew up in Parsi colony. Even better, we had a live blue blooded Parsi with us, and all of us pounced on her with questions on her past diminishing race.

Benaifer sportingly said, “take a picture with me. It will be valuable when we become an extinct race’.

We stopped first for breakfast at Pervez Irani’s Ideal Corner. My favourite Parsi restaurant and regular stop when I used to work in Fort. Pervez was a Yezdi garage owner who converted his garage into a restaurant more than two decades back. Parsis are know for their love for vehicles. A Parsi owned bike or car is much prized in the Mumbai second hand vehicle market.

We had an akoori to start with soft pav at Ideal. The akoori, creamy British styled scrambled egg made with Indian spices such as garam masala, an example of the confluence of cultures that the Parsis had imbibed. The creaminess of the akoori, Parvez told us, was thanks to cooking it on a hot sauce pan taken off the flame. As a counterpoint to the moderately spicy akoori was the sweeter, salli (potato straws) and raisin embedded Bharoochi akoori named after Bharooch in Gujarat.

Incidentally, Parvez is a an Irani. Unlike caterers such as Godiwala, Kurush Dalal and Perzen, most Parsi restaurant owners are Iranis. Both are Zoroastrians from Iran who came to India. However, Iranis were the second batch of people to come to India and came here a couple of centuries after the Parsis did.

Next up was a non Parsi stop. I told folks about the great vada pavs that one gets in the lane down Ideal Corner. Seeing the interest of the group, which doesn’t get to have street food too often, I decided to take them to Suresh’s. We had some piping hot batata vadas and kanda bhajias (onion pakoras) which evidently gave the group great pleasure. For whatever it is worth, the Parsi in the group quite enjoyed it too.

Our Parsi breakfast then continued, or, given the love for all things British, it was time for elevenses. So we headed to Yazdani Bakery. A 60 year old bakery that came up where a Japanese bank once stood. Hence the pagoda like look of the structure. A fact that the owners didn’t know till a Japanese gentleman dropped in ten years back and told them. In the word of Rashid Irani, one of the owners:

A Japanese man came here one day. He bowed. I bowed. He bowed. I bowed. He bowed. I thought we would keep bowing all day when he told me that there was once a Japanese bank where the bakery stands today.

I pointed to the picture of the lady playing hockey stuck on the walls. I had heard the story behind it last time that I was there. She was the cousin of the owners of Yazdani and the captain of the Maharashtrian hockey team once. Her picture had come out in a magazine so they bought a copy. She couldn’t stop complaining about this though as the magazine cost a princely amount of 38 naya paise then.

Yazdani never shuts. Food writer Vikram Doctor once told me that during the Mumbai riots, he and a group of volunteers would take bread from Yazdani for folks in curfew affected areas. There is a letter on the wall at Yazdani from the government thanking them for supplying bread for the Mumbai flood affected.

Parsi entrepreneurs are known to believe in charity and it’s not just the big guys like the Tatas who do it.

At Yazdani we had steaming hot Irani chai into which we dipped some crusty brun bread slathered with maska (butter) and khari biscuits on the side along with the oat and raisin cookies my brother so loved when he came with me to Fort.

When I announce my Fort walks I always mention that if we are in luck we can see the bakery too. Every time I have been fortunate enough to be allowed in. This time too we went in and marvelled at the deep wood fired oven from which the Biblical breads of Yazdani come out.

Late breakfasts done it was time to walk a bit and we went to the impressive Dadysett Agiary (fire temple) and halted by the sign which said ‘Non Parsis not allowed’. The intentions behind this disbarment were noble. Apparently when the first Parsi Zoroastrian settlers came to India seeking refuge they told the local king that they didn’t want to disturb the social equilibrium. Not allowing non Parsis to marry Parsis or enter Parsi temples was their way of ensuring that locals didn’t want to get converted to Zoroastrianism. Which is why we had to look at the fire temple from outside during the walk.

We then walked around the Fountain area bit and saw the Parsi themed architecture around including the monoliths in the New India Assurance building which was once the Air Indian building.

Blogger, Sassy Fork, who had come to the walk pointed out that some of the statues of freedom fighters in the Fort area were sculpted by her uncle. She has written a blog post on the walk. You can read it here.

It was time for food again. The time we headed to Military Café. A favourite with Parsis for no fuss, inexpensive Parsi food. Military Café is owned by Mr Behram Khushravi, a genial grandpa when I met him sometime back. A terror in his younger days apparently according to Freddy mama who told me once about how Mr Behram had snubbed a Parsi gentleman who had timidly complained about the lack of sugar in tea. A far cry from the Starbucks of today where they offer to remake your coffee till it is perfect.

As I once said, head to a modern café if you want to write to a story and to an old Irani café if you are looking for one.

You can read the story of Behram and his colourful customer complaint handling methods in the post here.

Behram wasn’t at Military this time but when he next is we will ask him why the café is called Military Café.

At Military Café we had two dishes that Irani cafes were famous for. One is the kheema ghotala with bread, a version of the iconic kheema (minced meat curry) pav (bun). The kheema ghotala has an egg scrambled into the minced meat which takes the dish to the next level. Parsis, of course, love eggs and add eggs to everything. The other dish that we tried was the caramel custard which Aritro had once told me was one of the best caramel custards around. I agree as do most whom I have offered it to.

Breakfast, elevenses and brunch done it was time for lunch and we headed past Horniman Circle for Jimmy Boy.

Jimmy Boy was once known as India Hotel and was a kheema pao and Irani chai place. The current owners, in the late 1990s, decided to convert it into a full fledged Parsi restaurant where, among other things, one could try a lagan nu bhonu (Parsi wedding feast).

The name, Jimmy, was a reference to the Anglicized pseudonym one of the owners used while placing trunk calls to Australia. I have seen a distinct improvement in the food in Jimmy Boy ever since Sherzad Irani, the owner’s nephew, took over as the manager. He told me this time that he has changed the supplier of meats and I saw the results of this in the chicken and mutton in our lunch, which were more tender than before.

I got some dhansak from Jimmy boy home. K loved the daal and the tender mutton while my mom in law noted how the dhansak reminded her of what she has had in Surat.

What did we eat? We had a typical Parsi wedding feast – raspberry and ice cream soda, sarya papad, lagan nu achar pickle, sali murg (chicken curry with potato straws), patrani machhi (fish marinated in a coriander and chilli marinade and steamed in banana leaves with rotli (rotis), mutton pulao daal (and a story on why you don’t have dhansak in an auspicious occasion) followed by a lagan nu custard.

Folks quite liked the meal and ganged up on Benaifer to get married soon so that we could get invited to her wedding.

Benaifer quickly put in a word on how to give gifts to Parsis during weddings – you multiply the estimated cost per person for meal and divide it by the number of people you are gifting to – bride, groom, parents, grandparents, etc – and give the cash to them in envelopes called ‘covers’.

Later the folks at Jimmy Boy’s got jugs of water so that we could wash our hands the way they are in Parsi restaurants. Someone from the group asked Benaifer what this ritual is called in Parsi.

“Washing your hands,” pat came the answer.

 

 

Come to think of it I enjoy conducting the Parsi Finely Chopped Walks as much as I enjoy conducting the Bengali ones!

 

Talking of Finely Chopped Walks, I am trying out something different next week. This is the Finely Chopped Table, a curated lunch at Ling’s Pavilion. You can read about it here

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