Some of us were blessed with them. Those without got a taste of them elsewhere. Goan cooks in Parsi homes have been a fine tradition.
A fistful of families yet enjoy the privilege of a few good men in their employ. Close your eyes at the Davar or Dubash dining table, tucking into vinegar-seeped vindaloo. Blended to perfection by their Jacob or Joachim, you’d swear you were sitting at Britto’s in Baga itself.
Goa to Bombay
Why did these Goan sons leave their native Varca and Vagator to stir up a culinary storm in Zoroastrian kitchens? Avi Dastoor, who still has a loyal Goan household help, offers a cultural insight. First working as cooks on ships, their native Portuguese stock readily soaked in the exposure to European, food. After learning to whip up banquets aboard
liners, they docked back in Bombay at Parsi residences.
Cementing the bond could be common factors like language and palate preferences. The two communities speak English easily. They are partial to spicy curries, Continental soups and choux pastry alike. And they are both meat-mad.
Parsis brazenly dismiss the tastiest vegetarian fare as “pelu ghaas-phus” (that grass nonsense). The mistris, as they call their Goan cooks, know this well. Hardcore prawn and pork lovers themselves, they revel in the same attitude.
Take my own kitchen. Aghast at his bastion being assailed by a dreaded guest he could serve neither fish nor fowl to, an unnerved Michael would break into beads of sweat and mutter in the direction of my mother-in-law: “Order from Cream Centre, I’ll heat it nicely for them!”
We are family
Not just like family, these chefs were family. Seventy-year-old Pesi Wadia recollects Goan cooks, butlers and nannies for generations. Those venerable men came to prepare Parsi favourites far better than the most culinary-savvy lady of the house. “No one makes as bloody superb a dhansaakh daal.
“Cooks like Francis simmered their meals on a coal sigdi. That curry-chaaval had added aroma and flavour over our gas-cooked version. As children we’d often end up eating more of their food than ours.”
As children we absorbed their faith too. It was routine to see them march to Mahim for midweek Novenas. We watched them kneel nightly before Christ on the Cross in their room to pray the Angelus’ last Hail Mary. Sundays saw them dressed best to attend mass at the corner church.
Singer Gary Lawyer has warm memories of the Bandra Fair each September where his portly, gentle cook Salu manned a wax candles stall. “It was never only about food. He made home a comfort zone like no other. Returning from school, we’d be regaled by wonderful stories about Goa. It was a lovely, secure feeling to grow up with him around.”
An extinct tribe
That this is a dedicated but dying breed is unpleasant reality. Their children come, bearing Easter baskets and Christmas sweets every year, though professionally way beyond kitchen clatter. Some are teachers, others priests or nuns. Wadia’s cook’s son even became the Kuwait sheikh’s bodyguard.
With them, their cooks are doing the disappearing act. Clustered around Dhobi Talao, these boarding-houses for newcomers to the city were retirement homes away from homes. Those without nearest and dearest to reunite with in Goa stayed on with the adopted families they lovingly fed for years. There is a hence, a part of some Parsi homes that is forever Goa.