by Meher Mirza
My great aunt was not the timid sort. Every Sunday, for years, she would invite her extended family for lunch and then proceed to wage war with the ingredients in her pantry, jousting with vegetables and meat alike. Deep into the afternoon, she would emerge from the scrum, red-faced and frizzy-haired, but triumphant. Plates brimming with burnt eggs, watery curries, and shards of rice would make their way to the table. Almost always, the dessert was a baked caramel custard that had sparred with gravity and surrendered, collapsing into a milky clot. It was a meal my family and I braved each week, only because my great aunt had a golden soul.
But there was another reason for those Sunday lunches, and that was the paneer that came after. The strained silence that followed lunch was usually speared by the cry of the paneer vendor, his aluminum milk cans heavy with palm-sized cushions of topli (basket) paneer, afloat in a bath of salty whey. The paneers were trembling, velvet-soft, salty, tangy, like blancmange crossed with mozzarella. My aunt would buy a dozen, one for each of us, and serve them to us in little bowls. Each bite dimmed the chaos of the lunch and painted the afternoon in a warm, honeyed light. To my younger self, they were the most scrumptious part of the week.
Topli paneer is a delicacy beloved by the Parsis, Zoroastrian Iranians who fled to the western Indian state of Gujarat in the 8th century to escape religious persecution from Muslim invaders. They later seeped through to Mumbai, where they contributed immensely to the vivid tapestry of India’s cultural and economic landscape.
The Parsis’ aptitude with the English language propelled them into powerful political and commercial roles under British colonial rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were key in building colossal industries and trading empires that veered from China to Aden to the east coast of Africa. Thanks to their exposure to different cultures (traveling abroad was forbidden by Hindu strictures for many years), Western education, and canny business sensibilities, urban Parsis were progressive and socio-economically advanced. They patronized cultural institutions, and streamed their wealth into community housing, libraries, scholarships, and scientific and educational institutions. (There are many ways in which we are flawed, of course, but that’s a story for a different time, when there is no topli paneer involved.)
The first Indian newspaper—the Bombay Samachar—was started by a Parsi in 1822 and still lumbers along today (as the Mumbai Samachar). Dadabhai Naoroji was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, and the first Indian to be elected to the British House of Commons. The redoubtable Sam Manekshaw was India’s first Field Marshal. Homi Bhabha pioneered India’s nuclear research program. Homai Vyarawala was India’s first female photojournalist. Rohinton Mistry’s books have won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and been shortlisted for the Booker. Freddie Mercury (né Farokh Balsara) and Zubin Mehta are probably the most famous Parsis on earth. Parsi contributions are scattered like tesserae through the mosaic of Indian history.
Yet among the best-known stories of Parsi history is one involving food, at the time of the very first Indo-Parsi encounter. The legend (from the epic poem Qissa-i Sanjan) goes: When a local Gujarati ruler hesitates to admit exhausted Iranian refugees into his land, a Zoroastrian priest among them dissolves a spoonful of sugar into a bowl of milk to illustrate that Parsis would sweeten the land, but not overwhelm it. An apocryphal tale, but a telling one that many Indians believe holds true until today.
Nowadays, the trope of the eccentric, ebullient, cosmopolitan Parsi bon vivant has captured the Indian public imagination, a cheerful hybridity that is mirrored in the community’s cuisine. Parsis absorbed strands of various cultures, including a roving palate that encompassed a love of meat, eggs and dried fruits in their dishes (a leftover Iranian legacy); coconut and seafood, through their proximity to the western Indian coast; the use of vinegar and potatoes that reaches back to the Portuguese; baked goods via the Dutch colonies that infiltrated Gujarat; and white sauces and custards from the English.
Topli paneer almost certainly has Persian origins, but our knowledge of its journey to India flounders a little after that. Archaeologist and caterer Kurush Dalal tells me that up until a generation ago, both Parsis and Bohri Muslims in the Gujarati city of Surat (and in Mumbai) were avid consumers of the dish. “In fact, the paneer used to be far more popular in Surat than in Mumbai,” he explains. “The mohallas (neighborhoods) in Surat were once full of Bohri men hawking them.”
Even Mumbai’s most well-known paneer vendor would import his wares from Surat. “The most famous large scale vendor was Fakirji E. Paneerwala,” says Dr. Dalal. “He would get his paneer in the large milk cans, all the way from Surat, by train. The cans holding the paneers would be packed with crushed ice, as a sort of cap. His paneer would come in different sizes—the largest being the size of a quarter-plate.” Paneerwala would then distribute the paneer to various wedding caterers—the paneer was (and is) offered as a precursor to a lavish Parsi wedding feast that is served on banana leaves.
But as the Parsi community’s numbers dwindled in Surat, the once-familiar dish was pushed from the frame. (India, the country with the highest concentration of Parsis in the world, can now only count about 61,000 of them in its vast population. According to the BBC, about 40,000 more Parsis are globally scattered.) Still, the elusive topli paneer can be found today in the kitchens of a handful of intrepid Parsi ladies. A few paneer vendors still wander through the Parsi colonies of Mumbai. And the only remaining wholesale paneer seller in Mumbai, Abdul Paneerwalo, now makes a somewhat modified version that he supplies to Parsi caterers for weddings. Dr. Dalal is dismissive of this paneer, though. “It’s an approximation of the original; not firm, very jelly-like, and there’s no whey!”
The recipe for the original paneer is daunting enough for topli paneer to be considered a special dish. In the 1926 edition of Vividh Vani, an old compendium of Parsi recipes by Meherbai Jamshedji Wadia, nine, gloriously dense pages are given over to its making.
Topli paneer, unlike regular Indian paneer, uses a coagulant—traditionally calf intestines or chicken gizzards that have been cleaned with salt and rice-flour and butterflied. One version in Vividh Vani suggests sun-drying and steeping the gizzards in vinegar for three days. On the fourth day, the vinegar is stirred into milk, left to set in an enamel bowl, then nimbly transferred to baskets that imprint a distinct craquelure on the surface, and finally plunged into the whey that the paneer excreted.
Today, most Parsi home caterers put a spin on the classic by using synthetic vegetarian rennet. It diminishes the time spent on making the paneer but lends the finished product a less fervent flavour than the original. Some are pushing the boundaries even further. An item not often spied in restaurants, it crept onto the menu of the much-feted Bombay Canteen restaurant, helmed by Chef Floyd Cardoz and Chef Thomas Zacharias. “At Bombay Canteen, we’re constantly looking to source indigenous and local ingredients. A year ago, I was researching cheeses made in India, and that’s how I came across the topli paneer,” says Chef Zacharias. “Once I found a good version of the paneer, it took a few weeks to figure out how to showcase it. It has a very subtle taste, but its texture is key; we want to showcase its texture and creaminess, within an Indian context. We want to play up its fat component.”
The result is their best-selling vegetarian main course—a bowl of maa ki dal, crowned with the topli paneer and served with a sweet potato paratha, pickle, chutney and raita; it makes for a creamy, warming, comforting meal. My younger self would have approved.