Soaking in the spirit of India's Republic Day at Nowroz Baug, Mumbai's oldest Parsi Colony

At the Nowroz Baug Cooking competition, 26 January 2017
Memories of Republic Day in Calcutta

I have fond memories of Republic Day (26th January) celebrations from my growing up days in Calcutta.

The routine was common through the years. We would go up to the terrace of our apartment complex in Calcutta, Debjan Apartments. One of the elder residents would hoist the Indian national flag. A few patriotic songs would be sung ending with the national anthem. Then the fun would begin for us kids. The mishti boxes would be distributesd. Shingaras or samosas were a must. Usually a laddoo or a dorbesh and possibly some jilipi (crunchy jalebi) would be in it too. Occasionally a roshogolla or a pantua. All packed from the local sweets shops. 

There were two shops close by then. Gaurango Sweets and Porichito Mishtanna Bhandar. There are a couple of more now. As sweet shops in Kolkata go, none of these is famous but their sweets are the stuff I grew up on. Food finished, we would go home and watch the parade from Delhi on TV.

Moving to Mumbai and feasting on the united flavours of India

chicken sev puri from the competition

Mumbai, in my opinion, is where I fully embraced the federal spirit of India which is what the Republic Day celebrates. This is where I met people from different states of India in much larger numbers than I did in Kolkata. The agencies I worked in had people from across India, many of whom became my friends, and one I married. 

Mumbai is where I tried a variety of regional Indian food  in its restaurants in old commercial districts of Fort and Nariman Point and at the homes of friends. Mumbai is where I began food blogging and where I got to meet food bloggers and then chefs from different parts of India and tried their cuisines too. 

Ironically, as my love for pan Indian food grew, I began too appreciate my native Bengali food a lot more than I did when I was young.

Traditional festive rice kheer and a light sabudana kheer
Desperately seeking the Republic Day mishti box

What I missed in Mumbai where the Republic Day celebrations of my Debjan Apartments in Kolkata. My brother lives in an apartment complex in Gurgaon which celebrates festivals from across India. He actively takes part of them.

Thee places we lived in at Mumbai were largely standalone buildings in Bandra where hardly any festivals are celebrated as a community. So I'd not been to any Republic Day celebration in Mumbai barring the ones which would happen at work which were mainly 'come to office in ethnic clothes and gather at the reception for a dhokla and bataa vada in the evening and then get back to your desk' sort of thing at the most.

The judges get briefed by Armin Bhavin of Nowroz Baug
With me is Zenia Irani
The Nowroz Baug Cooking Competition on Republic Day

Today was a slightly different Republic Day for me in Mumbai. I was invited to be a judge at the Cooking Competition at Nowroz Baug (Navroze Bag). Nowroz Baug at Parel is the oldest Parsi colony in Mumbai

The many generations of Nowroz Baug
who got together to make the cooking competition a success

I have a bit a personal association with the place. My wife, Kainaz, had spent her college years hanging out here with friends she had made in the colony. The house of the late Dady Pastakia here was her second home during these days. I've had the honour of having eaten at Dady's house and he was a great cook and a loving host. We still go to Nowroz Baug as his younger daughter Rita is a generous host too and the cooks trained by Dady whip up some delicious Parsi food for us when we go to her place.

The future generation chefs (under 5yrs)

I jumped at the opportunity to attend the cooking competition. I had know of this competition for years as Kainaz and Rita had once won it in their college years by sticking strictly to recipes given by Dady, or Dadu as they called him.

With Zenia two of Kainaz's friends - Delnaz and that's Adil in the black tee
Thanks to whom I got invited & Armin who coordinated with me
Celebrating the depth and glory of Indian food including Parsi favourites

The contestants today, whose ages ranged from under 5 years to granny level, too, like Kainaz and Rita once were, were armed with recipes given by grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers (very few!) and now, Google and YouTube too. I had been given the opportunity to set the menu and my focus across categories were dishes involving traditional Parsi dishes such margi nu ras chawal and chicken farcha and Indian regional chicken curries and for the tiny tots there were takes on Mumbai street dishes such as chicken sev puri and chicken bhel and then there desserts such as the Parsi ravo and the pan Indian kheer. I am told that in earlier years, the focus was more on 'exotic' recipes.

The atmosphere was very homely with family favourites being dished out. What was also impressive was the research gone into preparing the regional Indian cuisines. There were dishes from Maharashtra and then Kerala, Telengana ('because they are a new state', Andhra ('I went to Hyderabad and liked it' and Assam (we should support the north east as people look at it as a different country which is wrong' and Kashmir ('we want peace and happiness in Kashmir') too. Cuisines you won't find in the average Parsi kitchen. Their reasons showing a sensitivity to the country as a whole and a desire for unity, peace and hope among the participants.

You could see the Federal Spirit of India celebrated here in the diversity of food presented and in plating too where some had used the colours of the Indian flag, others had used traditional Indian vessels for plating and a team had even recreated the Dal lake of Kashmir.

It was as if India was being celebrated across work station and I am sure the founding fathers of India, including Dr BR Ambedkar, who lived in nearby Dadar, would have approved of the feast put up today.

Kashmir ke bawis
Unity in diversity

The teams consisted of groups of people who were neighbours, friends and in some cases family members. In the case of the toddlers, you had grandparents chipping in too but frankly even the grown ups were egged on by doting mamas and papas. What struck me though was how well each time worked together to put the final dishes together. At the end of the event, there was not a single table which was incomplete or unprepared. It was as if every team worked together as if they were many in body and one in mind

This, to me, is what the spirit of Republic Day. Unity in diversity, as we had learnt in school.

Brilliant tastings

As we walked around listening to the concepts behind the dishes, one would hear cries of "switch off the gas, gas band karo,""parents please move away and let the judges taste the food," and at the end, "everyone can try the food only after the judges have eaten!!!!!!!!"

Our first stop was at under five teams who were in true Parsi spirit smiling and offering us food and saying, 'please eat' while we had to explain that there was half an hour left for the judging. They proudly pointed to their grannies who had made the bhels and chocolates on offer though one boy firmly pointed at the sandwiches and said, "I made." Another station had a Harry Potter theme and after a young boy gave us a quiz on Harry Potter (I've not read a single book or watched a single movie of the franchise) before we could judge.

Anxious parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts
look on the see how their and their wards creations had fared.
This was serious fun

I was very impressed by how well the event had been organised and how complete the cooking stations were. Everything happened most seamlessly though I know the organisers had worked very hard to put it together in terms of the logistics, team selection and balancing, getting funds and sponsors.

With the key organisers who welcomed me as if I was one of their own

The preponderance of chicken in the recipes was thanks to Real Good Godrej chicken providing the chicken.

My co-judge was Zenia Irani, a Bandra Parsi, who is audiologist and speech therapist and writes an engaging blog called Branded Bawi. She has not lived in a Baug/ colony and told me that she loved the experience today.

I had wondered if I was the first ever non- Parsi judge of the cooking competition but was told I was not.

I was made to feel at home for sure though but then that's Nowroz Bag and the Parsis for you.

So here's wishing you a wonderful Republic Day. My suggestion is to celebrate it by having food from a part of the country other than your own. We are having Banu's version of the dal mutton dhansak tonight.

I had skipped lunch after the judging. One of the organisers asked me at the end, "I hope your belly is fine after all the eating."

Well, the belly couldn't have been happier as it was today at Nowroz Baug.

Also read and see:

The cooks in action:

Margi nu ras chawal with kheer

The 5 sisters team

Tricolour sandwich from the under 5 team

Under 5.

A brilliant Italian chicken which was way better than the chicken in most
faux Italian restaurants in Mumba

Team Telengana

Team Andhra

Assam. wow!
Kashmir ke Bawis. The 5 sisters

Andhra Table with churis from lad bazar too

Parsi moms compete with Bengali moms
on doting on their bambinos
A big fat Parsi welcome from Armin Bhavin
who put a great show together with her team

Paring a tribute to Dadi Pastakia at the end
Some of the winners in the 15 plus and the 'adult' categories: