Until a few years ago, there were only two ways to experience an authentic Parsi bhonu (meal). You either plead a Parsi friend to invite you to a Lagan (wedding) or Navjote (initiation). Or you coax them to get entry into Ripon Club, Fort, for its famous Wednesday Dhansak buffets.
Now, you can download an app (Scootsy, Zomato or Swiggy) and tap to order. A neatly packed box with bhonu essentials — patra ni macchi, salli chicken, chicken cheese croquets, and dhansak — can be delivered to your doorstep. When, and how, did Parsi food become so accessible?
Parsi Café 2.0
Thanks to new-age Parsi entrepreneurs and home chefs, the community’s well-preserved food traditions are finding global and local recognition. Whether it is in the form of modern interpretations — as seen at London’s award-winning restaurant Dishoom (a quirky take on Mumbai’s Irani cafés , or at food festivals across the city, Parsi food has made its mark. It is hip to click selfies outside legendary establishments like Koolar & Co (especially after the 2013 film, The Lunchbox) and Britannia & Co. Every fashionable new bar or restaurant in town suddenly boasts of the best dhansak on the menu; case in point: Social, Grandmama’s Café, Villa Vandre.
Perzen Patel of Bawi Bride (a popular blog on Parsi cuisine that turned into a catering enterprise) says, “Restaurants like SodaBottleOpenerWala have played a big role in popularising the cuisine. And with the advent of technology in the food and delivery space, one doesn’t need to wait for an occasion, or visit a café,” she says. Earlier this week (on Parsi New Year), Scootsy tied up with popular Irani cafés such as Ideal Corner, Jimmy Boy, and Britannia to deliver festive specialties such as marghi papeti with kesar pulao, and keema berry pulao across Mumbai.
Then there are restaurants such as Pala Fala (a recently opened “authentic Parsi eatery” in Worli) that have curated easy-to-deliver bhonu meal boxes. “Parsi cuisine is much-loved in Mumbai. But there was a gap between demand and supply,” says Marzy Parakh, owner, Pala Fala. The restaurant now claims to deliver 300 to 400 meal boxes in a day.
With the opening of restaurants like SodaBottleOpenerWala — with five outlets across the country — Rustom’s Parsi Bhonu (in Delhi) and Batlivala & Khanabhoy (in Chennai), this well-guarded cuisine moved out of Mumbai’s boundaries . “When people from Delhi travel to Mumbai, they are often taken to Irani cafes as part of the experience. They are curious about the food and the people,” says Kainaz Contractor, owner, Rustom’s Parsi Bhonu.
Mumbai-born Contractor moved to Delhi with the sole intention of introducing the city to the culinary heritage of her ancestors. Recently, along with three other Parsi home chefs, she curated a special menu for The Bombay Canteen. Traditional dishes like jardaloo ma gos (lamb cooked with apricots) and narial na dudh ma cauliflower (cauliflower cooked in coconut milk) were given modern spins. For instance, the latter comes in the form of a potpie with a khari puff on top. You break into the puff and scoop out the gravy.
However, the biggest advantage, adding to the charm of the cuisine, is that nostalgia is in fashion. Mumbai grew up on Irani chai and brun maska. And after a phase dominated by homogeneous multicuisine fare, restaurants are now looking to stand apart by exploring their roots. “Every city has food that forms an intrinsic part of its cultural fabric,” says Sameer Seth, co-owner, The Bombay Canteen. Bengaluru has its tiffin homes; Delhi its Mughlai establishments; Hyderabad its biryani. For Mumbai, it’s Irani cafes. “The trend now is to look deeper into our own food cultures and find inspiration there,” adds Seth.
This popularity of Parsi cuisine coincides with the new-found fame enjoyed by regional cuisines (such as Bohri or Sindhi cuisine). “Since Parsi food borrows heavily from other cuisines such as Gujarati and Goan, its appeal increases further,” says Contractor.
Ultimately, though, the appeal lies in comfort — epitomised by a hot bowl of mutton dhansak served with steamed rice. Or digging into salli per edu for breakfast, or sharing a plate of kheema berry pulao with generous sips of raspberry soda.
5 lesser-known Parsi dishes
Parsi chicken pattice
What: Legend has it that a Parsi gentleman was taught this dish by a Russian. It’s a dish eaten during festivals.
Where: Parsi Amelioration Committee, Nana Chowk, Grant Road
Dar ni Pori
What: Pastry filled with a mixture of sweet lentils and dried fruits.
Where: Perviz Hall, Dadar Parsi Colony, Dadar (W)
What: Juicy pieces of lamb are cooked in a cashew paste with masalas.
Where: Jimmy Boy, near Horniman Circle, Fort
What: Luscious whole-milk kulfis made in flavours like sitaphal (custard apple) and mawa.
Where: Parsi Dairy Farm, Princess Street, Kalbadevi
What: Mutton cooked with red lentils and served with rice.
Where: Cafe 792, Dadar Parsi Colony, Dadar (W)
— Perzen Patel, Bawi Bride