It's the shared meals, more than the bricks, that make a city feel like home. An immigrant food story.

Mutton and Russian cocktail kevabs
Chicken curry rice
A very Parsi Sunday lunch courtesy Rita Pastakia

My immigrant food story

"I see that you have posted another piece on Kolkata. Nothing on Mumbai?"

So said my friend Sandy when I met him last week. This was before I posted my next post. That was on Kolkata too!

Yes, my recent posts here on the blog, barring the one on Yauatcha, have been about my trips to Kolkata and to Mangalore too.  Mumbai has got a bit neglected of late for sure.

In the case of Mangalore, the idea was to trace the food DNA of the Mangalorean immigrants in Mumbai who are integral to the city's eating out culture thanks to the restaurants that they have set up here.

In Kolkata I indulged in the flavours added to the city's food culture, by folks from Lucknow and Varanasi in what is now called Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Odisha and even Tibets. Folks who had migrated to Kolkata themselves, or whose forefathers had.

I am an immigrant too, as were my parents and grandparents, as are so many across the world today driven by the rhythm of socio-political and economic ripples.

As a child I moved with my parents from the UK where I was born, and where they had migrated to themselves from India, to Iran. And then, with them again as a kid, to India when we had to escape from the political unrest in Iran. I grew up in Kolkata and then moved to Mumbai for economic reasons, in search for better job prospects. Plus I was a bit bored in the city with most of my friends having moving out too.

I stayed on in Mumbai and eventually settled down here. Got married to a local. Set up house. I now call myself a Mumbaikar though I guess I am a Kolkatan at heart too.

My trips back to Kolkata are all about nostalgia now. I also root for England, the country of my birth, in the football world cups, and identify with its literature and sense of humour and spelling. I am married to a Parsi ,whose ancestors once lived in Iran, a country I had spent a year in myself.

How's that for a fairly convoluted immigrant story? Albeit a slightly privileged one compared to those who come to the city with next to nothing.

Parsi cutles (made by my friend Veera) which I stuffed in wholewheat buns sourced from a modern
baker here. The immigrant food culture is a perpetually evolving one and follows no rules

I did have a few great meals in Mumbai after I returned from my travels and I want to tell you about two of them here.

Of dhansak promises and lacy cutlet dreams

Having the dhansak made by my friend Veera

One of them was at the house of my friend, Veera Bhacka's mother. Like K (my wife), Veera is Parsi too. One of the earliest Parsis that I knew of.

Veera belonged to the very first set of 'work friends' that I had made in Mumbai. That was twenty years back. Veera then moved to Oman with her husband and her daughter. Thankfully we have been in touch over the years and try to meet when she is in town.

A PR professional by training, Veera had taught herself to cook years back out of necessity. That was when her mother had gone abroad to look after Veera's newly born niece. It turned out that the dabba (lunch service) that she had arranged for Veera and Veera's dad (who is unfortunately no more) didn't work out. Veera  then took up the onus of cooking and feeding her dad and herself and taught herself how to cook.

Veera did a professional chef's course recently in Oman and has even worked in five star hotel kitchens there for a short while and has done Parsi food pop ups in a restaurant in Dubai.

Last heard, her daughter Rhea, a most lovely young lady, wants to be a chef too once she is done with school.

The dar (dal with meat) of Veera's dhansak dar (dal with meat as against the
masala na daar which is sans meat)
For long Veera had been promising to feed me her dhansak. She stuck to her promise finally and invited and K and me over to her mom's during a recent family visit to the city.

On the menu that night, was a most amazing dhansak which truly lived up to the high billing that it had got over the year from Veera, but wait there was more. 

She also made a brilliant kolmi nu patia, prawns cooked in a thick tomato based salsa like sauce. The prawn patia was my late grandmother in law's favourite dish and she would have approved of Veera's one I am sure.

Veera made Parsi lacy mutton cutles too. I have had many cutles over the years and let me tell you this, and with no bias, that this was the best I ever had. In case you are wondering, some say that the Parsi cutlets are referred to as cutles because of the lace-like formation that the egg batter is is coated and fried in takes.

Veera's mutton cutles

Veera's Prawn patia

Veera packed generous doggy bags of the food for us and we woofed our way through them over all three meals at home the next day.

At chef Veera's table with her mother,
her daughter and her husband and K 

The curry that sang a song of joy

Rita Pastakia dishes out the curry made famous by her father,
the late Dadi Pastakia

The other meal that I want to tell you about happened two Sundays back. Once again at a Parsi home.

This was when  K and I had joined some of her friends at our Perin aunty's place for lunch. You might recall our Jamshed Uncle from my blog if you have been a reader for a while. He is someone who was like a godfather and Father Claus for K an had adopted me too when I came into her life. He passed away last year and this left a huge hole in our lives. Perin aunty is his sister and some of us caught up at her place on Sunday to give her company and to celebrate Jamshed uncle's memories.

With Perin aunty, K, and her friends, who are mine too
and M, who is my friend, and is now a fellow non-Parsi
member of the club. That's Jamshed uncle in the pic
The food for the afternoon was brought by over by Rita Pastakia. There is a bit of a back story to this meal and it goes back in time a few years.

The story dates backs to when K was in college. She and a few other girls used to hang out together, everyday after college got over. They would usually meet at Rita's house at Navroze Baug. Navroze Baug happens to be the oldest Parsi colony in Mumbai. Rita's father, the late Dadi Pastakia, was a very close friend of Jamshed Uncle. Dadi, who was known as Dadu among the girls, would feed them lunch every afternoon. The food would be served in really ample amounts and  was customised to the needs and whims of each. He would cook the food himself and pour his heart into it while doing so. It was no wonder that the food was so legendary and so loved.

I had the good fortune of meeting him and tasting his food after I got married to K.

Russian kevabs on top,
mutton kevabs at the bottom

Both Dadu and Jamshed uncle are no more, but I am sure that they would have been smiled from the heavens above that Sunday afternoon, thanks to Rita. Turns out that Rita and the Pastakia family cook, Manju, had taken care to preserve dadu's memories through his recipes and had made us a lunch based on them

The afternoon started with a billion Russian kevabs (stuffed with shredded chicken and cheese and mashed potatoes) and mutton kevabs (minced goat meat) . The Parsi version of kebabs, pronounced kevabs from what I gather, are shaped liked meatballs. The kebabs could also be stuffed with prawns (kolmi nu kevab) or fish. They are fried in a thin egg coated batter and are delicious. They are rather different from the rhe chelo kebabs (rice with butter and minced meat on skewers) kebabs that my mother had learnt to make from her friends in Iran and would make for me when I was a kid. I loved those. We still have the skewers. I should learn the recipe from her and make them someday. 

For our mains, Rita had got us chicken curry rice. At the heart of this curry lies a masala mix of crushed cashew nuts, dried chillies and whole spices. Same add grated coconut too. The mix is dry roasted together and kept in the cupboard till used. Every Parsi granny, and Dadi Pastakia, had their own recipe for the curry masala.

My fellow Bengalis will be happy to know that the Parsi curry has potatoes too. This possibly explains the number of Parsi and Bengali mixed marriages that you would have heard of.

Rita's rendition of Dadu's chicken curry rice

The curry that Rita had got us on Sunday was clearly the best Parsi curry that I have had so far. Including at her house in the past. It was seasoned perfectly. The spicing was intense but not intimidating despite the fiery red colour. The chicken  was juicy and the potatoes firm and yet soft. Just perfect you know.

I was so glad that Rita had preserved her dad's recipe. I regret the fact the neither K nor I had never done so with the recipe of the special masala mix that K's granny would make and send for us every other week till she passed away.

We do miss her a lot. Yes, it is the family that I found in Mumbai through K and her family and friends that eventually sealed my Mumbai story.

That peaceful easy feeling after the lunch at
Perin aunty's

Thanksgiving meals

As I sat down to write this post and remembered these two lovely meals, I realised once again how much I owe to the kindness of the people of Mumbai for making me feel at home in their city. 

It also struck me that food has been such an integral part of many of these welcomes. Let me tell you about some of them.

There was my PG aunty (landlady), Kamlesh Agarwal, who figured out what I liked from her repertoire and ensured that I got my fill of alu pararthas and pohe for breakfasts, pakoras and dal rice  lunches on weekends, chhole bhatoores on Sunday nights and most importantly, hot food every night when I returned home from work. Then there was Tokaidi and Kalyanda, a Bengali couple related to our neighbour in Kolkata, who had almost adopted me when I moved into the city. They would often ask me to come over and spend my off days with them and where they would feed me the best of food and let me recharge myself. My friend from B school's sister, Tini and her husband Gora, a comparatively younger Bengali couple from Kolkata, would also ask me to come over and stay with them and unwind over good food and some stiff drinks when the going got tough. There were Amar and Nita too, who worked in advertising and who lived in Bandra, who would feed me breakfast, lunch or dinner when I dropped in at their place during my PG days.   We were connected through a Buddhist organisation I had joined. Then there was  Kinnari and Dhrupal, a brother and sister duo from the same organisation, whose mother would ask me to stay on for home cooked Gujarati meals when I dropped in to chant at their place during my early days in Mumbai.

Basking in glow of the meal that Veera cooked us

Then there were some friends from work back in the day, who were married and who had set up home and who would call us single folks over to their tiny apartments, Kumar and Anna for example...and then there was Daisy and her husband Farrokh from my office who would ask me to join them for a meal at their bungalow in Bandra. Or even Veera too who had once me invited me over home for choi. and dar ni podi (the Parsi teatime treat)

Yes, many meals have gone into making Mumbai my home too and I feel so grateful to the people behind them. It is thanks to them that I survived my early years in the city as a migrant who had no-one here.

And thank you for all the fish

Heera Bai and her daughters Poonam and Sangeeta at the Khar Station fish market

As I said earlier, Mumbai and Bandra are home for me now though I have left a piece of my heart in Kolkata and nothing illustrates this better than my very #BengaliInMumbai Sunday yesterday.

I had gone to the Khar station market to Poonam and Sangeeta's shop to buy fish yesterday. Their mother Hira Bai, who set up the business forty years back, was there too. I got my stock of the fresh water fish, that we Bengalis love, from these Koli ladies. Kaatla, the much prized ilish (hilsa) and some chhoto maachh (small fish) pabda and tyangra which to be honest, K loves more than I do even though she is Parsi and not Bengali.

Mangshor jhol

While not all Bengali men dig fish, what we do love unequivocally is meat and lunch this Sunday afternoon at home was mangshor jhol with red rice. Mutton or goat meat is a rare treat for me now due to health reasons and I really enjoyed the leniency of this Sunday.

The more famous Bengali mutton dish, kosha mangsho, where the meat is slow cooked with lots of onions and garam masala and oil, is a dish that is more at home at the cabin restaurants of Kolkata and in wedding menus too. At home, it is the thin goat meat curry with potatoes, the mangshor jhol, that rules on Sundays. You will rarely find this dish in restaurants apart from the pice hotels of Kolkata perhaps.

Manghsor jhol is best paired with bhaat (rice) on a Sunday afternoon and the most apt dessert is a nap after that. Snaring the marrow bone makes the picture perfect and I did so this time.

It was as if the marrow in the bone that I had on my plate jumped up to say 'hi' when I sucked at it .

Bengali mangshor jhol with Keralite red rice

For dinner, I made jheenge posto but without alu as I am trying to avoid potatoes as much as I can. I fried us a couple of pieces of hilsa too. I did very little to it just as didu (my grandmom) and Marco Pierre White (who is not my grandmom) would approve of. 

Ilish maachh bhaaja, jheeenge posto and red rice

Didu (my granny) says that there was abundant ilish available in Dhaka during the rainy season when she was a child. The fish was so fresh that they would just lightly saute it with a touch of oil (shaatlano) and barely add any spices to the fish so that taste of the fish was not compromised with. The 'fancier' ilish (hilsa) preparations ,which have mustard or even coconut or tamarind in them, and are which so talked about today were apparently resorted to back then only when the fish was not fresh she said.

Hilsa in focus
I smeared the slices of ilish on Sunday night with a sprinkling of turmeric, chilli powder and salt, heated some mustard oil, added a slit green chilli to season the oil, and then slipped in the fish and gently fried it.

The fish was nice and juicy when done and not too crisp (kor kora). I added a bit of the oil in which the fish was fried to the rice and sat down to have dinner in the city I call home.

For once I didn't even mind going through the minefield of fish bones that the fish offered and which scare me no end usually.

Happiness is a state of mind as they say.

The happy plate of food at Perin aunty's house
Please write in if like me, you too had moved out of home and were made to feel at home wherever you have moved to by its people and especially the meals they fed you. I would love to hear such stories and the world definitely needs to.


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Recipe time

Here are a couple of my recipes from Sunday and then one more. I have already told you about this fish. Do keep in mind that the recipes are self taught and my might not match your grandmom's.

Jheenge posto

  • Heat a teaspoon of mustard oil in a wok
  • Add in half a teaspoon of panch phoron spices and a dried red chilli
  • Add in 2 jheenges (ridge gourd), partially skinned and cubed
  • Add 1/2 a teaspoon of turmeric and salt and let it cook for a while
  • Then add a 50 g of crushed posto (poppy seeds), soaked in a couple of tablespoons of water
  • Let this slow cook till the water dries up and the posto becomes creamy

Mangshor jhol

Here’s my recipe (250 g mutton)
- Heat a tablespoon of oil. We alternate between Canola or rice oils. Mustard is more ‘authentic’
- Add whole cumin, 1 dry red chilli, 1 bay leaf
- Add 1 roughly chopped onion
- Add 1 teaspoon ginger paste, 1/2 teaspoon garlic paste
- Add 1/2 chopped tomato (not all do)
- Add mutton plus 1 teaspoon each of turmeric, cumin and coriander powders and 1/2 teaspoon each of red chilli & garam masala powders. Salt to taste.
- Add potatoes peeled and halved and stir contents for 5 min (koshano)
- Add water and let it cook. We do it in the pressure cooker (6 whistles and another thirty min on simmer). Open kadai was traditional from a time before my mother’s.

A nap is the best dessert to go with it. My mother in law found the taste of the curry similar to that of a Parsi dish called kharu gos.

PS: The one Bengali dish that most Bengali men know to cook, even if nothing else, is a version of mutton curry.

Ilish maached mudo diye lau

Machhed mudo diya lau with bajra roti

And here's a meal from today which represents two phases of my life. An example of nose to tail eating, Bengali granny style. Lau with ilish maachhed mudo (bottle gourd with hilsa head). Plus hat tip to Maharashtrian grannies too in the form of bajra rotis made by our cook.

My recipe for the lau?

Smear the fish head with turmeric, salt and red chilli powder and lightly fry and set aside. Note, the ilish head, unlike that of kaatla is a mine field of bones. Heat a teaspoon of oil, add panch phoron and a dry red chilli, then chopped and peeled lau and a bit of turmeric and salt (you can red chilli and cumin powder if you want) and and after it’s semi cooked, add the fish and let it cook together so that the flavours of the fish permeate the lau.

A Bengali granny would slice the peels of lau and shallow fry it and serve it with the meal too. She believes in a zero waste policy you see.

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