Just one plate of Bun Maska is never enough. The aroma of freshly baked soft bread smeared with slowly melting butter makes the mouth water and crave for one more plate to be dipped in the steaming hot cup of creamy Irani Chai. The humble and comforting Bun Maska has acquired a legendary status at the iconic Irani cafés in Mumbai, redolent with centuries-old fond memories. Chequered flooring, battered seats, grandfather clock, instruction boards, the endearing ‘Uncle’ at the counter are a common scene at the Irani cafés that opened years ago in erstwhile Bombay. Once the hub of food, culture and socialising these slowly vanishing Irani cafés still hold a special place in Mumbai’s bustling social life.
Until a decade ago, I didn’t even know about the irresistibly delicious buttery Shrewsbury biscuit. Yes, I got introduced to Parsi food rather late in life and try to make up for the lost time by looking around for the most authentic dishes and the fables behind them.
From nostalgic references of every day and festive food in books by Parsi author Rohinton Mistry to Netflix movie Maska, what I’ve realised is that food holds a special place for Parsis and Iranians based in India. Perhaps slightly more than many other cultures due to their steadily dwindling population. There is almost an intense desire to protect the legacy, history and traditions through their food. On the bright side, however, there is a sense of revival of that bygone era through food served at cafés and restaurants run by the new-generation Parsis and Indian-Iranians not only in Mumbai but across many parts of India and the UAE as well.
How travel influenced the Parsi cuisine
Over 1,200 years ago a group of Zoroastrians landed at Sanjan in Gujarat, marking the arrival of a population who came to be known as Parsis. These are people from the Pars province of modern-day Iran who came to India by boat. Unsurprisingly, travel has had a strong influence on the Parsi cuisine. And the beauty of Parsi food lies in its mild flavours, every spice perfectly balanced, quite like blending love and warmth into food.
“There is a strong Gujarati and Koli [fishing community] influence in our food. The infusion of meat with lentils and vegetables is reflective of how the Parsi cuisine has evolved in India. Papri Ma Gosht (broad beans with mutton), Masoor Ma Gosht (red lentils with meat), Chora Ma Gosht (black eyed peas with meat) are all non-vegetarian versions of vegetarian Gujarati dishes,” explained Roshni Mithaiwalla Siddique who along with her brother Zubin Mithaiwalla runs a Parsi restaurant in Dubai called Café Funkie Town.
Sweet is another distinct flavour in Gujarati food, which has also influenced many Parsi dishes. “Our Prawn Patiya (prawn dish made with onions and tomatoes) and Gravy Cutlace (chicken/mutton cutlets in tomato gravy) have a distinct sweet flavour. While a lot of our fish-based dishes have a strong Koli influence. However, besides these cultural influences we don’t really tweak the authentic Parsi dishes. A recipe will vary from one family to another only based on tolerance of spice level,” Siddique added.
A tribute to the Indian-Iranian or Irani origin
With subtle differences, the Irani cuisine bears a testimony to their mountainous origin and travel from the Yezd region in Iran to India [many years after the Parsis arrived] mainly by foot and on mules.
Stressing on the cultural nuances, Anahita Gustaspi explained, “Being Zoroastrians, we strongly believe in … the purest forms of Nature. As such, we also respect seasonality in the way we cook our food. Having beetroots in summer and cauliflower in winter modifying our dishes according to seasons. From the days of grinding spices to perfection using stone mortar and many challenges went into developing our cuisine. What we see now is the developed form.”
Iranis are the pioneers of quality and consistency, Gustaspi added, who is a chef by profession. Things like baking Pav (bread) and Khari (puff pastry biscuit) must be done in a consistent manner using the same quantity of ingredients and at the same temperature. “You couldn’t experiment, especially back in the days when measuring scales were not much in use. While some recipes have remained true to the origin, some have been modified according to the local flavour and culture. For example, I believe Patra Ni Macchi (fish cooked in banana leaves) is one such dish influenced by the Gujarati culture due to availability of coconut and banana leaves. Of course, we too eat meat like Parsis, as grilling and barbecuing have been an integral part of the food culture in Iran.”
Over the generations, as Iranis settled in Mumbai and adjoining areas, there has been a beautiful blending of cultures and cuisines. For example, Gustaspi talked about how she is learning to make pickle from used lemon and lime skin with ginger-garlic paste, jaggery and vinegar. Something that her aunt learnt to make from her Maharashtrian housekeeper.
Large families bonded over food
Try imagining a brass cooker with different dabbas (steel tiffin boxes) placed in a manner where dishes that needed maximum time and heat were placed at the bottom with ones on top that required less cooking time. One of Gustaspi’s childhood memories is of her Bapaiji (paternal grandmother) cooking for the family in a traditional brass cooker. “My early childhood was spent in a joint family based in Mumbai. The whole family lived in the same building and every afternoon the children and women of the household spread out on the floor and had lunch together at my paternal grandmother’s place.
“Coming from the mountainous region, lentils play a key role in our cuisine. My mamaiji (maternal grandmother) used to educate us about the healing properties of vegetables and how produce should be consumed. During summer, masoor daal would be cooked with beetroot for its cooling properties, and we’d have it with cutlace or sauteed shrimp on the side. As such when I was growing up our everyday meal would comprise Vani (vegetable) and Roti, Chawal (rice) and Rasso (gravy) along with salads made with mint [for its digestive properties], spring onion and so on. My mother fed us a lot of vegetables, compared to what traditional Irani and Parsi families normally consumed,” Gustaspi added.
“My fondest memories are of Meheryaan, the Irani equivalent of Eid Al Adha. We performed the sacrifice after sunrise and consumed freshly slaughtered meat on the same day. A large portion of the meat would be roasted, and the family consumed it with Sauzi containing mint, spring onion, boiled eggs, boiled potato, chilies and fermented Irani naan.”
Old homes and their cuisines
Siddique also reminisced about their sprawling ancestral house in Mumbai and how her joint family of 18 members ate together at the “big dining table with two family dogs always around”. Regular meals included Papeta Ma Gosht (mutton curry with potato), Dhansak (yellow lentils cooked with meat, served with white rice, cucumber salad and lemon slices on the side), Dhandar (yellow daal), Prawn Patiya with rice for lunch and pav for dinner [preferred over roti] with a lighter curry and fish fry.
“My fond childhood memories are of savouring every bit of the delicious Keema Pav served in a quarter plate at the legendary Yazdani and Kayani cafés,” Siddique fondly recollected. “Although I must say that having grown up in a rather large Parsi joint family where my grandmother and great grandmother were in the catering business, we already had access to delicious food every day. The duo at one point delivered thousands of dabbas (meals) every day to the Parsi community. Their dabbas typically included a starter like Keema Patties (cutlets made with boiled potatoes and minced meat) or Chicken Farcha (Parsi style fried chicken), Kathor (pulses), mutton curry, rice and roti or pav. So, our home meals also used to be quite elaborate.
“We Parsis don’t understand the concept of pure vegetarian meals,” she continued. “If there’s no meat, there will be egg. And some of our favourite egg-based dishes are Sali Par Eida (eggs on potato straw), Bheeda Par Eida (eggs over okra), Bhaji Par Eida (eggs poached over a bed of sautéed greens), Tamota Per Eida (eggs cooked with tomatoes), Papeta Par Eida (eggs are cooked over thinly sliced potatoes sautéed with lightly spiced onions and tomatoes) and of course the popular Akuri Pav (spicy scrambled egg). My grandmother was a gifted cook who ensured that we grew up knowing and appreciating an authentic Parsi meal.”
Traditions kept alive through food
Like most cultures, food is at the centre of all celebrations for Parsis and Iranis be that Lagan (wedding) or Navjote (initiation ceremony). Anyone who has ever attended a Parsi Lagan will acknowledge the grand nature of the feast. A six-course meal called Patra Nu Bhonu is served on banana leaf, said Siddique. This includes all the popular dishes such as Chicken Farcha followed by Patra Ni Macchi. Then comes Lagan nu Achar (Parsi style pickle) with roti, followed by Sali Marghi (Parsi style chicken curry served with potato crisps), Mutton Palao Daar and finally the famous Parsi dessert Lagan nu Custard (caramel custard).
“Today the world knows Parsi cuisine through Sali Boti (Parsi style mutton curry served with potato crisps), Dhansak, Akuri Pav and Keema Pav but there’s much more to our food than these,” Siddique stated.
“For example, during a Parsi birthday or wedding anniversary there’s always Dhandaar Kolmi No Patiyo comprising white rice, yellow daal, prawn cooked in a tomato gravy and fish fry. It’s our celebratory food, simple yet so special. On festivals like Nawruz (Iranian and Parsi new year) our home-cooked festive meals include Palao Daar with mutton or chicken, Dhansak Masala Daal (without meat) with fish fry or Sali Boti and Sagan Ni Sev (dry vermicelli made with ghee, sugar and dry fruits) for dessert. Importantly, every recipe that we cook now has been passed down through the generations, from my paternal great grandmother to grandmother to my father and now to us.”
Weddings and funerals
Among Iranis, too, wedding is a big communal affair with an elaborate menu for the feast, excluding Dhansak. “In our community when someone passes on, we mourn for four days praying for the departed soul. On the fourth day prayers are offered before sunrise and then Dhansak is cooked with fresh meat for a feast where the family gets together and eats non-vegetarian food together for the first time in four days. That’s why Dhansak isn’t served at weddings,” Gustaspi explained.
Parsis too don’t serve Dhansak at their weddings for the same reason. “However, without the meat the same dish is an amalgamation of lentils and vegetables that’s served at weddings,” she added.
Commenting on how traditions are kept alive through food, Gustaspi talked about how her maternal side of the family shaped her culinary understanding and skills. “My maternal grandmother Mitha and her sister Banoo were legendary for their culinary skills. They would make things like freshly baked Seerog, a traditional but largely forgotten Irani bread. And when their other sisters would come over from Iran where we still have family, they would have serious conversations on how recipes can be perfected and passed on to the next generations.”
Highlighting another largely forgotten traditional Irani dish Gustaspi shared, “Since we believe in utilising by-products and leftovers, my grandmother would make various dishes with the offal. One such dish is Ghepu made of tripe scrubbed clean and cut into pieces, stuffed with soaked rice, small meat cubes along with whole spices such as cumin, black pepper all stitched it up in small pouches. Then the animal head is boiled in a big pot for 12 hours along with stuffed tripe. The resulting nutritious soup is consumed with pav. Ghepu is one of the forgotten [non glamorous] Irani dishes that showcases the origin of a cuisine, marked by consumption of various soups as we came from the mountainous region.”