An article that deals with Parsi food must, in all fairness, open with a statutory warning this cuisine is injurious to the mental health of vegetarians. For very often the only herbivorous item that sneaks onto the Parsi festive table or restaurant menu is the carrot-and-raisin pickle.
Of course, various ladle-happy Jeroos and Bhicoos do include the mandatory &lsquovegetables&rsquo sections in their cookbooks, but it&rsquos soon apparent that they are better acquainted with eggs than eggplants. And although Parsi hosts may feel compelled to prepare vegetarian dhansaaks and istews for fastidious guests, their funereal expressions and sighs (&ldquoIf only you could taste my Hilla&rsquos mutton pulao...&rdquo) reveal their dismay. After all, this is a community that fetes icons like former Tata Steel chairman Russi Mody as much for his 18-egg-omelette breakfasts as for his managerial achievements a religion which doesn&rsquot bother with fasting&mdashthe four days in the year when mutton and chicken are prohibited are deemed sufficiently harsh lessons in abstinence.
To be fair, this preoccupation with succulent kababs and frilly chicken cutlets is part of the greater Parsi passion&mdasha love for food that chomps through all barriers of class, age and sex. So while the silver-salver gang can natter endlessly about Austrian sausages and extra virgin olive oil, the melamine crowd will spend hours discussing the art of slicing a muslin-fine kachumber. Brushed and bejewelled guests at weddings feel no compunction about tormenting the waiters for a bigger piece of chicken&mdashand the more crotchety souls may even spurn the saas ni machhi on offer and petulantly demand &ldquoa tail piece of fried pomfret&rdquo instead.
It stands to reason that this collective obsession should stir up a distinctive and intricate cuisine&mdashone which balances the sweetness of dried fruit with the tartness of sugarcane vinegar and the sharpness of chillies which simmers meats, daals and vegetables in a single pot and stirs together many cultures and cuisines to arrive at unique techniques and flavours. Not to mention curiosities like the smoky umberiyu, which is made by burying a clay pot full of meat, papri beans and brinjals overnight in the garden along with charcoal embers and bhoomla seera paila, which is achieved by dipping lightly fried Bombay Ducks in sugar syrup.
While these esoteric creations linger only in cookbooks and grandmothers&rsquo tales, the more mainstream Parsi fare has acquired a new and widespread popularity. Restaurants that have been plonking chipped bowls of fragrant mutton onto marble-topped tables for decades are suddenly finding themselves besieged by newspaper review-clutching foodies and a host of new eateries and cookbooks have surfaced to ride the rose water-scented wave. Which happily means that one no longer has to wait for that precious and rare Yasmin weds Beji invitation card to satisfy a craving for creamy, almond-embellished lagan nu custard. Indeed, today one can stroll across to Jimmy Boy Restaurant at Bombay&rsquos Horniman Circle and nonchalantly order an entire wedding patra.
The Parsi wedding feast is called a patra for a simple reason&mdashit&rsquos served on a banana leaf. Even as the guests enter the baug with its twinkling lights and toddlers wiggling to the Birdie Dance, rows of tables are dressed and waiting. White linen tablecloths are set with damp banana leaves, slightly foggy glasses and occasionally frayed napkins. As soon as the compere interrupts &lsquoBesame Mucho&rsquo with the call&mdash&ldquo Jamva chaloji &rdquo, come to eat&mdasha stampede ensues as octogenarians forget their gout and dignified matrons forget their antique embroidered saris in their haste to make the first sitting. Within minutes the tables are crowded with guests briskly wiping banana leaves with their napkins, filling glasses with cough syrup-red raspberry, and wondering aloud whether the legendary Tanaz Godiwalla and her army of cook-helpers from UP will be in top form tonight.
Fortunately, the suspense is short-lived. A battalion of waiters scurries along the tables tossing spoonfuls of tangy lagan nu achar, a carrot and dry fruit pickle traditionally served at weddings or lagans, a stack of rotis and long white wafers. Next comes the fish&mdasheither patra ni machhi, plump pieces of pomfret smothered in a green coconut chutney, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, or saas ni machhi, pomfret swimming in a sweet-and-sour sauce speckled with sneaky green chillies and onion. Even before the 300 vociferous food critics can pass judgment on the fish, the waiters have arrived with the chicken&mdashsometimes hearty fried farchas that make Kentucky Fried Chicken seem like oil-drenched thermacol, but more often sali murgi, chicken in a sweet-and-spicy red gravy which is garnished with matchstick-sized potato chips. The meal culminates in a saffron-and-white mutton pulao, often studded with kababs, and eaten with a thick daal. By the time the ice-cream arrives, the next wave of guests is already standing behind the chairs and triumphantly informing the competition, &ldquoSorry, we have reserved the next 14 seats.&rdquo
Only a Parsi could possibly consider this a bare-bones menu&mdashbut many hosts feel the need to supplement it with an egg creation (usually fried eggs set on a thin layer of potato or tomato) or a mutton dish like the white, cashewnutty kid gosht . Not to forget the two delicacies that vegetarians are able to sample&mdasha soft, smooth ball of fresh paneer floating in its whey and a portion of lagan nu custard so dense that it has to be sliced rather than scooped.
Mercifully, the Balasubramaniams and Parikhs on the guest list don&rsquot have to subsist on custard and paneer alone. Aware of the shortcomings of a cuisine that equates vegetarian fare with &lsquoinvalid food&rsquo, the Parsis have come up with a solution&mdashoutsourcing. So vegetarians are seated apart and served a ghee-filled Gujarati thaali whipped up by Thackers Caterers or the likes&mdashan arrangement which may seem strange but ties in neatly with the history of the Parsis in India.
It was about a thousand years ago that a boatload of Zoroastrian refugees from Persia arrived at the tiny village of Sanjan in Gujarat. Over the centuries the little group of Zoroastrians settled down peaceably in the picturesque, lush villages dotting the Gujarat coastline, adopting not only the language and saris but also cooking techniques and ingredients. The bland Persian pulaos borrowed local spices and gratefully acquired a makeover nut-stuffed baklavas mutated into flaky malai khajas oozing with sinful, rose water-flavoured cream. Dhansaak, which is probably an even more successful ambassador for the Parsi community than Zubin Mehta, is another example of what swish restaurants love to describe as fusion food&rsquo. The Irani dish of lentil and meat benefited from the abundant vegetable patches and spice chests of Gujarat and evolved into a fragrant daal enriched with vegetables and mutton and eaten with a brown rice cooked in burnt-sugar water. Today families guard their dhansaak recipes as jealously as they do their heirloom Chantilly laces.
Much later, when ambitious youngsters from tiny Navsari and Valsad began to shift to the new boomtown of Bombay, Parsi cuisine opened itself to the coconut-and-kokum influences of the Goans who worked as their cooks and the British who became their masters. Parsi housewives were quick to experiment with the dull and stodgy stews, custards and sauces that entered India with the British&mdashand in their hands the vapid Bechamel sauce became the piquant saas ni machhi and pallid, grey stews acquired a robust colour and taste. Admittedly, not all the experiments succeeded, and innovations like chilli wine were given a hasty burial.
The hardier cross-cultural creations are available in a cluster of restaurants in Bombay&rsquos Fort area, each of which has its impassioned votaries. The brokers and lawyers in the warren of lanes around the Stock Exchange swear by the dhansaak at the basic Ideal Corner. Britannia at Ballard Estate is best known for Iranian berry pulao&mdashbut it also makes a wonderful sali chicken topped with the slenderest, crunchiest sali, a bland but enjoyable patra ni machhi and crisply fried Bombay Duck. The relatively new Jimmy Boy Restaurant offers a wider array of Parsi fare&mdashvivid red prawn patias, which are eaten alongside pale, yellow mori daal, vegetable stews and fish curries.
Those in the western suburbs with a craving for dhansaak and sali boti make a beeline for Snack Shack in Bandra. While Colaba favours a tiny restaurant called Paradise&mdashbeloved not only for its delectable kid gosht and sauce-topped cutlets but also for its Mario Miranda cartoons outlining the story of Adam, Eve and the apple. Jimmy, the cheery proprietor, sits at the counter with one eye on the TV and another on the door, greeting regulars, including aapro Ratan (Ratan Tata), with that ultimately Parsi endearment, &ldquoKem che, kaleja&rdquo (How are you, liver)
Those who want to carry home Parsi flavours can stop at Grub Corner, a food counter which stocks snacks like toddy-laced bhakras and the famous E.F. Kolah pickles, including lagan nu achar and fish egg achar. The sandalwood-and-religious-artefact shops at Princess Street sometimes have a few bottles of pickle, including the sweet-mango ambakalio and the unusual mustard-and-mango baffena. Foodies who emerge empty-handed from these temperamental shops can seek consolation in Parsi Dairy Farm&mdashwith its malai khaja, mava ni machhi and suterfeni, sugary flour fashioned into thin strands and arranged in a whorl topped with rose petals and nuts.
Proficient though these eateries and outlets are, however, Parsi food is best enjoyed when consumed along with a three-finger Parsi peg and a dash of eccentricity. Those unable to get themselves invited to a Tanaz Godiwalla-catered function or, at least, a Wednesday dhansaak lunch at Ripon Club can compensate by checking into one of the dying breed of Parsi-run hotels in coastal Gujarat. Duke&rsquos Hotel, perched on the black-sand beach of Daman and run by the Oliaji family, is little more than a cluster of basic cottages with toe-curling loos. But the ceaseless procession of breakfast, lunch and dinner tiffin boxes&mdashcarrying cutlets, fried fish, mutton curry, mutton chops, masala omelettes the size of frisbees from the busy kitchen to the rooms&mdashensure that it&rsquos always packed with families intent on pushing up their uric acid and cholesterol counts by a few notches.
Of course, the last few years have seen a few changes&mdashthe advent of vegetarian Parsis, fancy buffets and salad counters instead of traditional patras at weddings and gloved waiters who extricate the fish from its banana-leaf wrapping for finicky guests.
Ideal Corner, 12 F/G Hornby View, Gunbow Street, Fort, Mumbai 400001. (Tel 22621930) is known for the affordable dhansaak&rsquo it serves every Wednesday and Friday. Dishes like masoor gosh&rsquo pop up on other days of the week, while sali boti&rsquo and sali chicken&rsquo are daily items.
Snack Shack, 10/A Lourdes Haven, Pali Naka, Bandra, Mumbai 400050. (Tel 26004022) is popular for its sali boti&rsquo and dhansaak&rsquo. It takes orders for dishes like patra ni machhi&rsquo.
Jimmy Boy Restaurant, Vikas Building, 11 Bank Street (off Horniman Circle), Fort, Mumbai 4000023. (Tel 22700880, 22662503) is known for its lagan nu patru&rsquo, the wedding banquet. It also strays off the beaten track and offers
Grub Corner, 12 Gundecha Chambers, 9 Ash Lane, Fort, Mumbai 400023. (Tel 22673870) is good for snacks and sweets like daal poli&rsquo
Paradise, Sindh Chambers, Colaba Causeway, Mumbai 400005 (Tel 22832874) has dhansaak&rsquo on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and specialities like kid gosht on other days.
Parsi Dairy Farm, 261 Princess Street, Mumbai 400020. (Tel 22013633, 22013634) sells delicious kulfis, fruit yoghurts and mithais.
Britannia Stores and Restaurant, Wakefield House, Sprott Road, Mumbai (Tel 22615264) is an Irani restaurant which whips up delicious sali boti&rsquo, fried Bombay duck and wonderfully spiced cutlets.
The Lady Ratan Tata Institute (RTI) has outlets all over the city&mdashat Sterling Cinema, on Colaba Causeway, at Hughes Road and at Dadar Parsi Colony, to list a few&mdashwhich stock packed Parsi meals and snacks like daal poli&rsquo.