21st March was the Irani New Year, commonly known as Navroze. The Iranis are Indians who had immigrated from Persia centuries back to avoid religious persecution. Interestingly, Navroze, is still celebrated in Central Asia in places like Turkey (where its a holiday) and Kyrghistan as the onset of spring.
Parsis are what Asterix would call first cousins twice removed (re Asterix in Britain) of the Iranis. They too had come to India centuries back from Persia. Both pray to the same prophet from what I understand. They are two sects or groups of the Zoroastrian religion.
From what I understand from an ariticle in the Times of India , Navroze is technically an Irani festival as it is their new year. It coincides with the Summer Solstice and festivals such as Vasant Panchami according to my Mama in Law.
But this is a blog about food and not religious anthropology.
And Parsis, who generally love to eat, drink and enjoy life celebrate Navroze too. The actual Parsi New Year comes in August though. So Navroze is NOT the Parsi New year.
My in laws are Parsis and we celebrate both new years together. This year Kainaz, my parents in law, uncle and aunt in law and I headed to Elphinstone Club for dinner on Navroze. Elphinstone Club is located close to the Victoria Terminus at South Mumbai. Near the old cinema district which has the refurbished Sterling and the derelict New Empire and New Exelcior cinemas.
The foundation of the building, according a plaque, was laid on the 22nd of October. Our wedding date. In 1899, just a hundred and one years before we got married! Now, its a fairly ordinary six story building where the club occupies the top two floors. My in laws used some Parsi connections to get us table reservations though we were not club members.
Dinner was served on the terrace which and was quite a unique experience. There was a nice, pleasant breeze which made it unexpectedly cool up there. Quite different from the sweltering heat of Mumbai.
The terrace was full of tables of large groups of Parsi/ Irani families fully into the spirit of the auspicious day. Loud laughter, exchange of pleasantries, the odd Gujarati swear word which become more common as the night progressed, big hugs, air kisses, hearty appetites, kids in colourful dresses, shimmery tops, grandmas in their finery and grandpas high on large bottles of whisky which people smuggled and put on their tables (works out cheaper that way) were all more Parsi than Little Zizou (the new Sooni Taraporewala film on Parsis) if such a thing was possible.
I think I was the only non Parsi there except the waiters and the maids looking after the kids. A bit like what I experienced when I went to see Little Zizou in the Tata (a Parsi industrial group) owned Sterling theatre a few days back.
The meal was breathtaking. We ordered from the A La Carte menu and we had some of the best Parsi food that we have ever had. Forgive the pictures though as my new E91 has decided that it won't take food photographs as it is a business phone!
The starters were fantastic. We had lacy brain cutlets. Entire goat brains fried in an egg batter. The batter has a lacy look, hence the name. The soft, pliant, white brain with its subtle masala were amongst the best that we have had in a long time and we parceled some to take home.
This was followed by chicken farchas. This is chicken, marinated in masalas and deep fried in an egg based butter. The Parsi version of KFC. I have never enjoyed farchas in the past as I found them to be too excessively fried and consequently stiff and tough. The farcha at Elphinstone was completely different and was the king of farchas. It was extremely tender and juicy and the marinade was wonderful.
No Parsi festive dinner is complete without the legendary patrani machhi. This dish is tailor made for this fish loving race and consists of pomfret, marinated in a coconut and coriander based chutney and steamed in a banana leaf. This is different from the Bengali, machher paturi, which is fish steamed in mustard in banana leaves and looks yellow versus the green of patrani. I have had patrani at weddings and restaurants and can safely say that the one at Elphinstone was one of the best that I have had as the fish was fresh and juicy and the marinade was very well flavoured. It met the stamp of approval of all on the table.
Dhansak (a meat and lentil dish served with caramelised rice) is a dish which most non Parsis strongly associate with Parsis. However, you will never get dhansak in a festive occassion as it is a funeral dish. In festive occasions such as Navroze this is substituted with pulao daal. This is a lightly flavoured pulao with some dry fruits, meat, fried onions, sliced boiled eggs, fried potatoes and little round meat kebabs and was served with dhansak daal. The daal at Elphinstone is quite close to what Kainaz's mamma (granny) used to make and was quite nice. The rice in the pulao could have been firmer. But the mutton in the pulao was one of the most tender and succulent cuts of mutton that I have had in a while.
You think we ate a lot? Wait, there was more. This was a multi starrer. So we had another Parsi legendary dish... Sali chicken. Sali chicken is a poor cousin of the sali boti (the latter is made with mutton cubes instead of chicken). It is a slightly sweet dish and is sweeted with a dry fruit called jardaloo, a type of fig. You put potato straws (sali) in this and have it with rotis. My pa in law quite liked it though Kainaz and my mom in law were a bit disappointed. I thought it was fine.
This post can run into pages as what I described was not all we ate. The rotis were nice as were the vegetarian dishes (jeera alu, veg pulao daal) that we had ordered for Kainaz's mama were pretty good. We finished our meal with the very sweet, Parsi custard.
How good was the food? I ate all this despite a mild stomach ache which I had from the afternoon.
How happy were we? I guess the picture says it all.