The greater Parsi passion

Their wedding feasts and Sunday lunches are a tour de force. Apoorva Sripathi discovers an esoteric cuisine that is more than just dhansak

Updated - February 11, 2016 03:06 am IST

Published - February 10, 2016 03:57 pm IST - chennai:

The recently-opened Batlivala & Khanabhoy in Chennai has got a head start at serving Parsi cuisine. Photo: R. Ravindran

The recently-opened Batlivala & Khanabhoy in Chennai has got a head start at serving Parsi cuisine. Photo: R. Ravindran

Parsis don’t take their food lightly. There is almost an intense obsession with it. The quiet Parsi writer Rohinton Mistry makes a reference, in fact, many references to Parsi food in his books,  A Fine BalanceFamily Matters  and  Such A Long Journey . He writes, “Someone chuckled loudly that where Parsis were concerned, food was number one, conversation came second.” Zarin Mistry, a Chennai-born Parsi and chronicler of the community in the city, agrees. “Our food is definitely on the heavy side; it’s tasty. As a community we love to eat and be merry.”

To understand Parsi food, it’s imperative to know what goes into it; the integral components. Meats, lentils and eggs claim first place. Fish and desserts come second. Occasionally, these positions are interchangeable. But what usually come last are the vegetables that they jazz up, from time to time, with eggs. It’s perhaps the only way they’ll consume their veggies! That isn’t to say that the vegetarians are ignored. One of the most popular cookbooks ( Jamva Chaloji ) chronicling the community’s cuisine lists at least 30 vegetarian recipes. 

With few religious restrictions in diet (fasting, which can be a religious exercise for some, is almost unheard of in this community), Parsis have experimented with and dissected recipes to the hilt, while adopting the many cultures and cuisines around them. Take for example the eggs: there’s akuri, a spicy scrambled egg dish that resembles the humble egg bhurji. Put a spin on it and you get Bharuchi akuri, which calls for the addition of nuts and dry fruits. Or consider their love for deep-fried juliennes of potato they call sali, which makes its appearance in dishes such as sali boti, sali murghi and sali par eeda. Potatoes were introduced to India by the Portuguese through Spanish explorers and the Parsis adopted it along with practices such as adding vinegar to balance the sweetness of Gujarati cuisine, which was again borrowed.

For a community that loves its legendary feasts, and numbers around 200 in the city, it’s surprising that there is no restaurant serving Parsi cuisine. There are, however, small Irani teashops off Mount Road — Conran-Smith Road and Woods Road — (and one on Walltax Road) serving bun maska and chai to hungry, curb-smoking customers.

The wedding feast A typical wedding menu includes lagan nu achar, rotli, kachumber, sali gosht or sali murgi, patra-ni-macchi, pallav-dal and ends with a lagan nu custard, says Shroff. What desserts do the Parsis consume? “We have sweet vermicelli that is dry roasted, cooked and topped with nuts and raisins and sweet curd. Then there’s a rava kanji-like dish cooked with condensed milk. Our weddings include the lagan nu custard that is custard with milk, cream and eggs and baked. Tea time snacks include sweet fried snacks resembling doughnuts,” says Zarin.

Parsis and Iranis follow Zoroastrianism; the former migrated to India between the 8th and the 10th Century and the latter in the 19th Century. How different are the two cuisines? Writes B.J. Manekshaw in  Parsi Food And Customs , “The Iranian influence is seen in the meat and chicken dishes cooked with vegetables... Dhan sakh, the best known of Parsi dishes has probably evolved from the Iranian khoreste esfannaj, a dish cooked with meat, lentils and spinach... The flavour of rose water in most Parsi sweets — rao, sev, falooda, and in their murambas and sherbets, has its origin in Iran...” 

The recently-opened Batlivala & Khanabhoy in Chennai has got a head start at serving Parsi cuisine. Climbing up the stairs to the restaurant, vintage advertisement signs, on the left, greet you, and once inside, to the right, several pictures of Parsi families adorn a wall. An old-time radio nestles itself between a row of tables. The windows are painted a bright green and the blue-green menu is served on a clipboard. The place is decidedly hipster but incredibly laidback.

It’s unexpected that the place is started by two Coimbatore-based brothers, and one of them, Uday Balaji, who runs the place, says that this isn’t their first venture. “We wanted to take South Indian food outside and so we started Savya Rasa in Pune. Similarly, our idea was to bring in a couple of cuisines here from the North. It’s our take on an all-day, casual dining Parsi restaurant.”

But why did it take so long to open a Parsi restaurant in the city? Although they are somewhat of a dying legacy in Mumbai, the city boasts at least four to five restaurants. There’s the quirky SodaBottleOpenerWala in a few cities that serves Parsi cuisine among Irani and Mumbai street food. Maybe it’s the age-old complaint that Chennai isn’t cosmopolitan enough that doubles up as an answer. Perhaps it’s the unfamiliar dishes that won’t really strike a chord with locals here.

Zarin is of the opinion that “there is no idea about Parsi food here. The only thing people know is dhansak; that’s the only word that comes to mind. Parsi food is basically just non-vegetarian and lacking in choices for vegetarian that aren’t quite appealing anyway. A standalone restaurant that’s mainly non-vegetarian in Chennai (and in South India) seems a little difficult.” She also adds that biryani is the one thing that sells here and she may have been right. Chennai’s Parsi community has just one person for a wedding caterer, Mahir F. Shroff, whose main business is cooking biryani for other community weddings. Fifty-eight-year-old Shroff, who came to Chennai in 1982 on work, started catering for weddings, making biryani and taking care of the Parsi guest house after he “miserably failed in the textile business. There are around 75 families in the city and very few of them opt for a Parsi wedding feast. Most go to five-star hotels. We do community lunches at the guest house every month.”

Uday, however, chalks it to them being a small community who live in small pockets in the city, whose cuisine could never take off that way. “The specialty restaurant scene is new in the city. There are a lot of new cuisines coming in; the obvious one isn’t Parsi, that’s all,” he says. Batlivala & Khanabhoy has a trial kitchen in Coimbatore, which is their base. Recipes have been sourced through their many Parsi friends and consultants from Mumbai. Even as the cuisine may come across as alien — barring the dhansak that some of us may have tasted at a Parsi friend’s place — Uday is sure that it’ll work. “At the end of the day, this is a place to sit back and relax. The food is relatable: there are cutlets, kebabs and rice. We’ve planned everything in theme — from the music {Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra} to the service ware.”

There’s no denying that the Parsis were one of the first to reach out to the British. T.M Luhrmann describes them, in her book The Good Parsi, as a group that prospered because of the British rule. Zarin recalls a time when they used to “love getting English crockery when it used to come from abroad. All Parsis have crockery sets in porcelain and crystal.” At Batlivala & Khanabhoy, Uday says that he has taken pains to recreate vintage crockery, train the staff in the details about the dishes and, most importantly, include a host of vegetarian dishes, so as to not make a bare-bones menu. “I can’t alienate half the population. It was pretty hard but it wasn’t impossible. We have around 40 vegetarian dishes that are all uniquely Parsi.”

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