There isn’t much that stands between Parsi food and extinction. Joanna Lobo digs amongst the delectable ruins of what remains
As he starts to describe the dal ni poori (a pastry stuffed with sweetened dal, tutti frutti and dried fruits), Kurush F Dalal lets us into a secret ingredient for his childhood tea time snack. “You’ve got to learn how to do this from your grandmother,” he says. “If you had a kadak grandmother, she would make sure everything was done perfectly”. For the dal ni poori to be made as perfectly today, one would have to ensure that tur dal was boiled to a thick mass, the flour would have to be kneaded, rolled, filled with ghee and folded. This process would then have to be repeated some 20-30 times. “It’s a dish that requires a lot of elbow grease,” says Dalal, an archaeology teacher who also oversees Dalal Enterprises, the catering company started by his mother, the late Parsi cooking doyen, Katy Dalal.
If it weren’t for Dalal’s memory, the dal ni poori, like many other Parsi dishes of its ilk, would perhaps be a step closer to extinction. The survival of many Parsi dishes now depends on those who have either inherited their recipes from earlier generations like Dalal, or those who like him are either confectioners or caterers, and thus responsible for the food at the community’s special occasions. But despite resilient efforts, few of these dishes remain true to their original form.
Though ordering out would be seem like an everyday phenomenon to some, Tanaz Godiwalla of Godiwalla caterers believes that it has had a tangibly adverse impact on Parsi food. “Our community has the largest number of people who order out.” The nostalgia is apparent when she talks about authentic sweets like karkaria, popatji, milk puffs and vasanu. “Vasanu was a spicy, sweet winter dish made with banana, nuts, dried fruit, lots of ghee and sugar. When eaten with a hot cup of tea, they would just burn the throat,” she says. But is there any real reason why such a delicacy has been consigned to the past tense? Godiwalla is blunt. “Many old school Parsis do not like sharing recipes, they only pass it down through families. Unless the new generation is interested, the tradition cannot survive”.
If Kaizad Patel is to be believed, the burden of responsibility should not fall squarely on the shoulders of the youth. “Their tastes have evolved”. Patel is the grandson of Navrojee Patel, a caterer known for his lavish spreads. But with time, small became fashionable. The younger lot are shunning the excessive ghee, the rich spices, the sweets and red meat that are a part of practically every Parsi dish. Can you imagine a patra ni machhi without the machhi? Patel has cooked it, substituting the fish for cubes of paneer. At times he is even asked to replace ghee with olive oil. “These new breeds of Parsis want the same flavour and taste, but healthier versions of it,” says Patel.
O, FOR A FEAST OF YORE
It’s been over two decades since Gustad Bhoot, a retired banker, went to a Parsi wedding. But he still has fond recollections of eating gajar mewa nu achaar (carrot and dried fruit pickle), kid ghosht (made of kid mutton) and jerdaloo boti (mutton cooked with apricots). It’s the transformation in the cuisine that now deters him. “Earlier we had cooks who came from Surat and Billomoria for weddings. I doubt any of them are left,” he says. Traditionally, of course, all Parsi cooking was done on the chulha in earthen pots or copper vessels, but Bhoot is only likely to find a trace of that detail if he were to go for a wedding after twenty years.
The Parsi home, like any other, has gotten more modernised with the years. A tradition that Kurush Dalal dearly misses is tea time, a time when the children would return from school, when the women would have had their siesta and the family would get a chance to sit together around nibbles on the table. Snacks included the doodh pak (milk custard with eggs) and the chapat — slightly sticky pancakes made with nutmeg, cardamom powder and vanilla. “Who has the time to make this today, and more importantly, when do you make it?” asks Dalal.
What Dalal does however need to make for his clients are dishes such as Jain chicken, chicken cooked without garlic or onions but with cream, butter, almonds and cashewnut paste and lots of garam masala. Dalal leaves us with another anecdote. “Traditionally a farcha is a large piece of chicken that is battered, crumbed and fried. Most find it large so now we make boneless small chicken farcha nuggets and they are an absolute runaway success,” he says. If for nothing else, the current state of Parsi food proves true the adage that necessity is the mother of all invention.