You may have heard of the American Red Indian Dance for Rains, but have you heard of the Parsi Custom of bringing in rains by an community effort of collecting Rice, Dal and Ghee to make Khichri?
In Navsari (a small town in the Gujarat State of India) often referred to as the “Dharam Ni Tekdi” Parsis has many of the traditional customs and practices that have over time been forgotten in other cities and town. The Ghee Khichri ritual on Bahman Mahino and Bahman Roj is one of them. Boys go from house to house, asking for rice, dal, oil, ghee and other uncooked products. The ladies pour generous portions in the collection bags. The boys are also splashed with water, which the boys have to dodge carefully.
Later this uncooked food is gathered at one location and is cooked into a collective feast.The whole endeavor is to ask the rain gods to come and bestow Mother Earth with water, after the long summer months in India.
A folk song is heard from moholla to moholla in Navsari:
GHEEE KHICHRI NO PAISO
DORIYAA NO RUPIYO
VARSAADJI TOH AAYEGA
DUMRI SHER LAAYEGA
DUMRI TAARI OAT MAA KHARA PAANINET MAA
OTTI KE POTTI
REL AAVI MOTTI
ALLAA GOCAL PAANI MOKAL
VARSAADJI NU PAANI TOH MITTHU NE MITTHU
Another song in Gujarati song for welcoming rains after a hot summer:
The Parsi community loves Seafood and this Bombay duck patio preparation shows their desire to eat fish in all seasons. The native Fish called Boomla (or Bombay Ducks) is abundant in the rainy season in Tarapore, Mumbai and other places. The villagers dry and salt the boomlas to preserve them. This way this Fish can be enjoyed all year long.
100 pieces of Bombay Ducks- dried (Boomla or Bombay ducks are dried salty fish)
250 gm Kashmiri Chilies
1/4 cup chopped Garlic
2 tbsp chopped Ginger
1 kg cooking Oil
1 bunch Curry leaves (clean and remove stems)
2 pods ( whole) Garlic
1 inch Ginger
2 tsp Salt or to taste
1 tsp Turmeric powder (Haldi)
3-4 sprigs Curry leaves-clean and remove stems
2 cups Vinegar
Wash Bombay Ducks, in Vinegar and drain well.
Grind the Chilies, Garlic, Ginger, Salt and Turmeric to a paste.
Heat the Oil and fry the Fish over high heat till brown.
Drain it off the Oil and keep aside.
Fry the Curry leaves in the same Oil, until they turn dark brown.
Take them out of the Oil and keep aside. In the remaindered Oil, add the ground paste and stir fry till fat separates.
Add the fried Bombay Ducks. Cook for 15 minutes over slow fire.
Finally add the fried Curry leaves mix well and shut off the heat. Store in an airtight jar.
For most of us, the upcoming Gudi Padwa weekend will be the last of the long weekends (unless of course you are one of those lucky chaps who also have the Ram Navmi weekend off). This will follow an almost three-and-a-half month drought of public holidays that will extend all the way up to the Independence Day weekend. So if you don’t have any plans to celebrate Gudi Padwa, this is a good time to get away to the nondescript towns of Udvada and Navsari, home to the tiny and disappearing Zoroastrian Parsi community.
In Udvada stands the Atash Behram (entrance of which is pictured above), the oldest and the holiest fire temple and is a pilgrimage site. Due to its proximity from Mumbai, the city that houses the largest number of Parsis in the world, Udvada welcomes several Parsi pilgrims almost every weekend. It is this fire temple that drives the economy of Udvada.
How to reach Udvada
The easiest way to reach Udvada is by road. Udvada is about 200 km from Mumbai along the well-maintained National Highway 8. We drove down in Maruti Celerio‘s new automatic gear shift model and reached Udvada in about three hours. With its classic ‘Maruti mileage’ the entire journey was easily completed on a full tank.
Udvada is also connected by rail. As many as six trains depart from the western railways Mumbai Central station and stop at Udvada. That journey will take you about two-and-a-half hours and will require you to take an auto rickshaw from the station to Udvada.
Where to eat en route Udvada
Two of the best places to eat along the NH8 stand next to each other and are on the right hand side of the road when you’re heading to Udvada. So you’ll need to turn around and drive back a kilometer or two to access Parsi da Dhaba (+91-88062-79379) and Dairy Land Parsi Dairy (+91-80079-62862). Both these outlets offer the best of Parsi cuisine outside of Udvada.
At both places, stick to ordering Parsi specialty dishes — from salli-boti to dhansakh daland salli-par-eedu to patra-ni-machchi — but when at Dairy Land, also consider theirpaneer pakoda and batata vadas.
What to do in Udvada
1. Photograph the large and beautiful houses that go back over a hundred years
2. Get lost in the narrow lanes of the town
3. Hit the beach in the evening
4. Savour Parsi cuisine
In very many ways, Udvada is like any other pilgrim site. The economy revolves around a temple and nothing else happens here. But the town offers fascinating insights into the life of the small and dying community (the Tatas and Godrejs are two of the most prominent names that come to mind) that has contributed a great deal to the progress of the nation. Note that the fire temple can be accessed only by Zoroastrians but the town and its businesses remain open to all.
Indeed Udvada is not your stereotypical weekend destination: there’s nothing to do per se. But if history and architecture interests you, you can spend hours in Udvada photographing large homes that date back to the 19th century. What Udvada also offers is some great lip-smacking food and a slice of Parsi culture.
Udvada also has a pretty beach. When you are done photographing and being in awe of the spectacular architecture that has stood the test of time head to the beach and watch the sunset.
Where to stay and eat in Udvada:
Ashishwan Hotel (+91-99255-58138) and Globe Hotel (0260-2345243) are the traditional favorites.
Don’t get fooled by their plain exteriors, they offer everything from dormitories to air-conditioned rooms. Ashishwan will put you back by about Rs 2,000 per night while Globe will cost you about Rs 2500 or so. Note that the tariff includes ALL meals!
Menus at these hotels change at the whim of the chef but fried boi (deep friend mullet),machhi ni curry (fish curry), bheja cutlets, roast chicken and mutton pulao dal are some of the specialties of the community and both the hotels make them very well. Since you are eating Parsi style, don’t forget to order a bottle of Raspberry soda and wind down the meal with a scoop or three of handmade sancha ice cream. Dudh na puff, which is basically chilled milk froth topped with nutmeg and cinnamon and is served by local vendors who chill it in an earthen pot overnight, is yet another Parsi specialty that you simply cannot miss. Note that this is best had in the mornings and goes perfectly with your breakfast of akuri on toast!
On your way out of Udvada head to the market opposite the Atash Behram for some fresh mint leaves and tea leaves (key ingredients in Parsi chai), hand-rolled dry papadsand pickles EF Kolah, a prominent but local Parsi food brand. Hormuzd Bakery offers delightful mawa cakes and batasas, nankhatais and khari that will melt in your mouth. Pack them all!
Home to some of the most prominent families that shaped not just India’s history but also its economy, Navsari today is a town that is trying to hold on to its once-glorious past even as it attempts to find its place in the future of an ever-changing India. Here, Subway and Dominos franchisees jostle with local Neera shops and Kolah outlets and multi-storied glass façade buildings stand out in stark contrast to quaint traditional Parsi homes. Even so, Navsari retains much of its traditional charm.
How to reach Navsari
Navsari is about 75 km to the north of Udvada and it takes a little over an hour-and-a-half to reach. Several public transport buses connect the two towns. We discovered that our ever-reliable Celerio was good car of choice for the trip as it helped us negotiate Navsari’s particularly narrow and crowded roads.
What to do in Navsari
1. Visit the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library (pictured above)
2. Drop by at the homes-turned-museums of Jamsetji Tata and Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy
3. Cool off with Kohla’s Rose Falooda
As is the case with Udvada, there isn’t a lot to ‘do’ in Navsari either and your sole reason to visit it should be the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library and the homes-turned-museums of Jamsetji Tata and Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy.
The construction of the building of the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library was commissioned back in 1872 with the donation of Rs 225 by a wealthy Parsi called Navsariwala Seth Burjor Bamanji Padam. Named after one Meherji Rana, who explained the Zoroastrian religion to Akbar during a special audience with the emperor, the library building harks back to an era when life was simpler and people took great pains to pay attention to the minutest detail.
Apart from an extensive collection of immaculately preserved manuscripts (one of which is pictured above), the library’s greatest possession is the Mughal firman that granted land to Meherji Rana that has been signed by the legendary Mughal chronicler Abu’l Fazl himself! (Sadly, the weekend we travelled to Navsari, the firman had been transported to New Delhi for an exhibition.) The trustee, Behzad Suraliwala, maintains regular office hours and is a reliable source of information about the library and its history.
Just a few steps away from the library is this majestic fire temple (pictured below).
Indeed there are several buildings consecrated to Zoroastrianism and if you are someone who’s interested in learning about a new culture that’s very much part of India’s tapestry, you’ll find yourself being lost in the lanes of Navsari.
The homes of Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Sir Jamshedjee Tata are the other two must-visit places in Navsari. Both the homes are similar in structures and very much in the same neighborhood. Both the homes are now run as museums by family trusts and offer a fascinating insight into the humble beginnings of the men who went on to define the history of an emerging nation. Note that both these museums are closed between 1pm and 3pm and while you will most likely be guided by a Good Samaritan present there, do not expect any expert insights.
Where to stay in Navsari
Royal Regency (Juna Thana, Opp Seth RJJ High School, Navsari, +91-97275-20000) is arguably the best hotel in Navsari and will set you back by at least Rs 1500 per night.
If, however, you are looking for a local touch, Deboo House Homestay (Agiary Street, Navsari) is the place to camp at. Set in a sprawling bungalow, Deboo House (pictured above) offers large well-ventilated rooms with four poster beds that take you right back in time. A room in Deboo House will cost you anywhere between Rs 2,000 to Rs 2500 per night. They also let out the entire house on rent for as little as Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 per night. The entire house can accommodate up to 25 people.
Where to eat in Navsari
Unlike in Udvada, Navsari has almost no Parsi restaurants. While the best Parsi food is indeed cooked in homes, a restaurant, simply called The Parsi Food (Mahavir Society, Navsari +91-98980-57973) located on the outskirts of Navsari serves a pretty mean fare.
Cheragsam Gandhi (02637-240131), the caretaker of Sohrab Baug, a wedding venue about 50 ft south west of the Atash Behram, also serves meals but you will have to call a day in advance to place the order.
No trip to Navsari can be complete without a trip to Yazdan Cold Drink House (Mota Bazaar, Navsari, 02637-231577). Owned by the Kolahs, the tiny shop is almost always crowded and serves its trademark faloodas and ice cream. They also sell flavored concentrates. Our recommendations: try rose, raspberry and mango.
Despite their proximity to Mumbai, Udvada and Navsari remain largely unexplored by non-Parsis. If it’s ‘off-beat’ you’re looking for, head down the NH8 and these two little hidden gems might just surprise you.
So when I heard about the year-old Zoroastrian Return to Roots (Zororoots) programme, which sees an intrepid band of Parsis escort young diaspora Zoroastrians on historical and cultural trips around India, I dismissed the whole thing. “It’ll probably involve eating a lot of dhansak, caramel custard and praying,” I scoffed to my friends.
But then something unexpected happened. Perzen Patel (caterer, blogger at Bawibride.com and one of the participants) started tweeting about her trip earlier this year. “Lunch today was at the WZO dharamshala in Sanjan, the bustling port where our ancestors landed,” read one of her tweets. “Most people buy bangles, sudrehs or religious items as souvenirs from Navsari. This BawiBride buys vinegar coz food is religion!” read another one.
As Patel’s trip slowly unfolded on Twitter, something within me flickered gently to life, urging me to find out more. The most intriguing part for me was their sojourn in Gujarat, a bastion of sorts for my people, where cities and towns still bear strong traces of the Parsi identity.
It was only fitting that the trip began at Sanjan, where a commemorative pillar marks the arrival of the Zoroastrians (either in the eighth or the 10th century; there is no agreement on this). The World Zoroastrian Organization guesthouse that housed the band of merry travellers “is popular for its preparations of tarapori patiyo, a sweet-sour dish made with dried Bombay duck, and sukka boomla no patiyo (pickled dried fish),” says Shireen Havewala, Zororoots founder and one of the trip organizers. On the last tour, however, the participants ate tangdi chicken and kheema(“totally avoidable,” grumbled Patel), simply because those were the freshest dishes.
But even Patel admits that the star of the show was “Jamshed uncle’sdoodh na puff,” a dish not unlike Old Delhi’s daulat ki chaat. Across towns in Gujarat, the puff was, by necessity, a winter dish. Fresh, sweet milk is thoroughly boiled and left to cool overnight in the garden, with a wisp of mulmul covering the dekchi (pot). The next morning, the dew-drenched cream that has risen to the top is beaten until a frothy cloud forms. The froth is then scooped into glasses and eaten at once. Today, of course, anyone with a refrigerator can make it at any time, as Jamshed Gandhi, WZO guesthouse manager, did.
But it was the group’s visit to Surat’s Dotivala Bakery that really tickled their palate. It dates back to 1616, when the region was under Dutch control. Yearning for a taste of home, the colonizers set up a bakery and employed five Indians to run it. The English eventually ousted the Dutch, but one of the bakers, Faramji Dotivala, continued baking bread. Sales, however, dropped. Perhaps it was too expensive? And then a strange thing happened: The bakery began to notice a demand for days-old dry bread, which sold for less. Over time, it morphed into the rusk-dry Irani biscuit. In its wake came the Surti batasa (a flaky, buttery round biscuit flecked with cumin) and the sweet nankhatai.
Current proprietor Cyrus Dotivala, a direct descendent of the venerable Faramji, was a generous host to the participants, sharing baked goodies and stories. “The (Dotivala) bakery in Surat uses 200kg of flour to sell more than 500kg of batasa, a special Parsi biscuit now adopted by Indians the world over! Heading to the kitchens of this 200-year-old bakery (sic) was magical,” tweeted Patel. Slowly, gently, her enthusiasm was whittling away at my condescension, piquing my curiosity for this intangible cultural history.
Yet, it was the little town of Navsari, some 40km south of Surat, that was arguably the culinary apogee of the trip. For Parsi bon vivants, Navsari is inextricably associated with the EF Kolah store, purveyors of Parsi condiments for well over a century. Its pickles, prepared with Kolah’s special cane vinegar—called sarko and brewed in wooden casks in exactly the same process since 1885—are its most famous products. There are legions of fans for their gharab nu achar (fish roe pickle), the sweet bafenu, made from an entire ripe mango, and gorkeri nu achar, made from half-ripe mangoes and jaggery; the vinegar is used in everything from saas ni machhi to stew.
Anushae Parakh, a 23-year-old Pakistani Zoroastrian, staggered home with boxes full of goodies. “I stocked up on the achars and masalas which I do not get in Pakistan,” she says. “My suitcase still smells of tarapori patiyo (a tart and sweet pickle made of Bombay duck infused with vinegar).”
Among the disorderly churn of Navsari’s Mota Bazaar is another Kolah establishment: Yazdan Cold Drink House, owned by Jamshed R. Kolah. The Gujarati and English signboards proclaim Yazdan’s brief menu: ice creams, flavoured sodas including ice-cream soda, and the doodh cold drink (falooda), with its attendant scoop of ice cream.
While most delegates went to the Navsari fire temple, two group members—Patel and Arzan Wadia (another Zororoots founder and trip organizer)— stole away to Yazdan. “I had the kesar pista and the gulkand ice-creams, both of which were fantastic. With the gulkand, you don’t get the sharpness of rose essence, and you can actually bite down on crushed petals,” says Patel. With its bare tiled walls, graceless furniture and steel utensils, Yazdan lacks old-world allure, but there’s no diluting the scrumptiousness of the ice cream.
Not far away is Mama Patticewala, where Wadia and Patel dug into the delicious pattice. “I’ve known about the shop since my childhood—my maternal grandparents are from Navsari—and it’s quite the institution,” says Wadia. “Their most famous item is the potato pattice stuffed with coconut and other nuts, which usually gets over by noon.”
For Parakh, the most memorable meal was one she ate at Jamshed Baug. Built in 1849, the Navsari baug is one the best-kept Parsi dharamshalas in India, with rows of sloping roof-topped low buildings standing around a wide courtyard. “The quintessentially Parsi dish of curry-chaval was made with a unique Indian twist, but it still reminded me of home,” she says. “The taste of Gujarati-Parsi food in India is different from that made in Pakistan; the spices and herbs really make a difference.”
Suddenly, unexpectedly, I was yearning for a taste of the Parsi curry, usually made in India by incorporating roasted and ground poppy seeds and sesame seeds, even grams and peanuts, with the regular curry masala.
The Zororoots tour ended at Dahanu, a postcard-perfect seaside town in Maharashtra, with winding lanes and rustic houses. Butterfly-bedecked chikoo and litchi orchards slope away from the railway station. Although there are a few bakers and entrepreneurs here, most Iranis have structured their lives around the fruits. On a speedy lunch-stop just outside Dahanu, the participants dug into chikoo chips, a speciality of the area. “We also had saas nu gosh (mutton), which is unusual in Parsi cuisine,” says Patel (usually, Parsis make the glutinous white saas or curry with fish). There was also plump boi (mullet), its flaky flesh slathered in a shell of masala. This was simple Parsi food cooked and eaten as close to its cultural roots as possible. As endings go, this one tasted pretty good.
But was it really an ending? As I researched and then wrote this story, I could feel my personal notions about Parsi food shifting, from dishes that I’d seen virtually every day of my life to the carrier of the culture of a particular time and place. With every bite of my batasa, I was also consuming a piece of hybrid Parsi history; every mouthful of saas ni macchiwould make me wonder about the curious evolution of Dahanu’s saas nu gosh. Food is so much more than just food; this was just a beginning for me.