Bhonu to pick: An RTI effort is reviving lost Parsi recipes
At Mumbai’s Sir Ratan Tata Institute, dishes from the distant past are being archived and served up on seasonal and monthly menus. These include British-era Continental desserts and unlikely combinations such as mango and meat
When Manek Pithawalla started working in the kitchens of the Sir Ratan Tata Institute (RTI) 30 years ago, Parsis would bring their own tiffin boxes to the Mumbai eatery, so they could pick up dhansak, khichdi and frilly fish cutlets to take home. Those who opted for the institute’s packaging (aluminium boxes) had to bring the boxes back, washed and cleaned.
Pithawalla is now 56. She still works at RTI, which is now 94, with seven outlets across Mumbai. The Institute was founded in 1928 by Navajbai Tata, wife of the first Ratan Tata (who was the son of Tata Group founder Jamsetji Tata). Its mission was to offer Parsi women a way to earn a living from their cooking, stitching and embroidery.
The number of dishes on offer when RTI opened was about double what’s on offer now, Pithawalla says. The women cooked gigantic portions without referring to any written recipes. Then tastes changed, demand for some dishes dwindled, competition grew, and the RTI menu was whittled down to a list of puffs, pastries and staples.
Some of the older recipes, lost over time, are now being revived and archived, as well as served up on seasonal and monthly menus. It’s a revival that began in the lockdown.
As demand for comfort food shot up in early 2020, and help became harder to access, RTI began supplying meals to 22 Parsi baugs or colonies in Mumbai. It was a way to help out, and to keep going, using a new model of pre-orders and mass home delivery. To mix things up as the lockdowns stretched on, the RTI team began to pull out old recipes, says head of operations Shernaz Buhariwala, 56.
They began by putting together a list of 15 once-popular dishes that old clients had been asking for over the years. These included British-era Continental desserts and traditional Parsi dishes that combined, for instance, mango with meat. “It’s hard to say when these dishes were last made at RTI. But going by our clients’ and oldest women employees’ age, we would guess the dishes were forgotten about 30 to 40 years ago,” says Kaiyosh Keravala, 53, head of marketing and sales.
RTI has sought help from members of the community too. Key contributors have included Daisy Mehta, 75, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and her son Boman Mehta, 55, head of the Darashaw financial services company that’s about as old as RTI. Daisy helped RTI revive an old bestseller, the French religieuse, a meringue cake made with puff pastry, almond cream and lemon curd. “We have no idea how a French cake became so famous at RTI. Our best guess is the close relationship the Tatas had with Europe or the influence of a French chef,” says Buhariwala.
The Chicken Maivala, a sort of mawa chicken, turned out to have an even more surprising recipe. “Most home chefs today make this dish with spices, but RTI used to make the Continental version, a baked chicken dish with cream, milk, dry fruit and egg whites made fluffy enough to be baked just right,” says Arzaan Sabawalla, 30, head of the RTI food division. It took about 15 attempts to get the dish right.
With the Kanda Keri Ma Ghosh (Mutton in Onion and Mango), the challenge was to choose the perfect Alphonso mangoes. Over time, the cooking team has nailed it and the mango suppliers have too, Sabawalla says.
All the effort has culminated in an endearingly nostalgic annual RTI Rewind menu. The first was a list of seven dishes released in March 2021, to coincide with the Parsi new year. These included Popatjee, rose and saffron flavoured dough balls dipped in a sweet syrup; Kera-ni-Ghari, sweet, cardamom-spiced banana placed with dry fruit in pastry disc, then fried; Mutton Cottage Pie, with mushrooms and root vegetables; a buttery Danish swirl doused in honey, called Honey Twist; Bhaji Daana ma Ghosh, a Parsi winter stew made with slow-cooked lamb, leafy green vegetables and peas; the religieuse cake; and Chicken Maivala.
The second Rewind menu, released in June 2022, featured six different heirloom recipes: Kerwai, a fried plantain patty stuffed with dry fruit; Kan-ni-Ghari, a flaky pastry stuffed with sweet potato, dry fruit, rosewater and cardamom; a lamb cottage pie; Papri ma Kebab, small mutton balls slow-cooked with broad beans; a baked chicken dish made with pineapple in a cheese sauce; a slow-cooked stew called Bharuchi Mutton, with cashew, milk and dry fruit; a fish Florentine topped with creamed spinach and finished with bechamel sauce and cheese; and the now-popular-again Kanda Keri Ma Ghosh.
The recipes have been saved digitally, ahead of the archiving process. Work is also on to revive a new set of lost dishes for the 2023 rewind menu. Some suggestions are coming from the community. “We are getting more requests now for forgotten dishes,” Buhariwala says. The challenge, as always, is finding a recipe that works just right.