Between Flavour and Faith
Note: Underlined dishes are linked with free recipes from www.ParsiCuisine.com
It is only half-past six on a Saturday morning and Faram Patel is midway through his work for the day. A steaming toor dal-and-sugar filling for the dar ni pori is ready in a cauldron after being stirred uninterruptedly for close to an hour. The first lot of golden-brown bhakras are emptied into a large colander. Slivers of almonds and charoli for the malido have been fried. A karahi bubbling with hot ghee churns out batch after crisp batch of more bhakras, all the while emanating a heady fragrance of cardamom in the confines of the small kitchen.
Patel halts for a few sips of tea between all the elbow grease, flour-dredged surfaces and a medley of Hindi film songs from the ‘70s playing on the radio. The space hums with the quiet efficiency of Patel—along with his assistant Mehernosh—making traditional Parsi sweets for the day. Located on the premises of the Dadysett Agiary in Mumbai’s Fort precinct, a stone’s throw from Flora Fountain, the kitchen is starkly nondescript. A Zoroastrian calendar is thumbtacked to the wall; stacks of well-worn khumchas and degchis, along with three-feet-tall containers of maida, wheat flour and sugar, joust for space with aluminium boxes holding ghee.
Steeped in tradition
Established in the early 1770s, Dadysett Agiary is one of the oldest fire temples in the city—deep red, laterite-tiled sloping roof and the obsidian smoothness of towering walls intact; the air heavy with the aroma of sandalwood, loban (or frankincense), and not to forget, stillness. Outside, the perimeter of the agiary is currently robbed off by what seems to be incessant work on the upcoming Metro line, and as the day progresses, one has to almost trudge past barricades and mayhem. Though even in the plausible absence of the tunnelling work, Patel’s kitchen is hidden in plain sight.
Patel—who is in his early 60s—is commissioned by the panthakis (head priests) of fire temples across Mumbai to make sweets that will be used in their daily prayer ceremonies. A chunk of orders, however, is received during muktad or farvardegan, the last 10 days preceding Navroze in August, observed by Parsis to commemorate the departed of their families.
“During muktad, the living kin of the deceased welcome them as they descend upon the earth. In Zoroastrianism, it is said that when a person dies, they are physically dead but their soul is immortal. Besides the soul, each of us has a guardian spark known as fravashi, which visits the material world during muktad, and hence we offer fruits, flowers and food to receive them, as if they are right here on earth,” explains Ervad (Dr) Parvez Bajan, panthaki at Byculla’s century-and-a half-old Seth B M Mevawala Agiary. The word ‘muktad’ has its origins in Sanskrit—stemming from mukt (liberated) and atma (soul).
Patel—who is in his early 60s—is commissioned by the panthakis (head priests) of fire temples across Mumbai to make sweets that will be used in their daily prayer ceremonies.
During these 10 days, fire temples are decked out in torans threaded with scented lilies; front porches are adorned with stamped limestone-powder designs. Bunches of tuberose and multi-hued roses in filigreed German-silver vases are lined on tables, as an oblatory offering to preserve the memories of the deceased.
My own memories of eating sweets during muktad are patchy, save for the darun-papri-malido brought to the house for a few years since 1999 when my grandparents passed away. It would be accompanied by fruit which always included glistening pomegranate seeds scattered in the bag bearing the chasni (a Persian word which means ‘to taste’, but is interchangeably used to describe the deified food from an agiary).
The darun-papri-malido combination is cardinal to any baj (prayers) held in agiaries. Silken malido—a rich sweet made with semolina, ghee, eggs, nuts and sugar, the hue of mellow sunrays at dawn—is eaten with papri, a crisp, flat poori, and leavened bread called darun. “Its [malido’s] importance lies in the fact that since centuries, generation after generation of priests have included it amongst the flowers and fruits placed in polished silver, circular trays and prayed over them amidst heaps of sandalwood chips and incense,” writes Katy Dalal in her book Jamva Chaloji: Parsi Delicacies for All Occasions (1997).
An invocation through food
In 1976, Patel left his hometown of Vansda—about 70 kilometres from Udvada in Gujarat—for Bombay in search of work. Upon arriving in the city, he was employed at the Maneckji Sett Agiary at Bazaar Gate, where he gleaned the recipes for sweetmeats from a 70-something Darabshaw Dadina, then in charge of the fire temple’s kitchen. In 1980, Patel moved to the Wadiaji Atash Behram on Princess Street, where he managed both cooking and cleaning. Nineteen years later, he set up his own kitchen at the Dadysett Agiary.
“At Dadysett Agiary, I make sweets daily, and they are supplied to fire temples across the city— right from Karani Agiary in Colaba’s Cusrow Baug to Salsette Agiary in Andheri. Among the others are Sethna Agiary, Tata Agiary, Vatcha Gandhi Agiary, Wadiaji Atash Behram, Anjuman Atash Behram, all the agiaries in Fort; even Seth Cawasji Patell Agiary in faraway Thane,” Patel tells me, counting 32 fire temples. Each agiary sends their chasniwallah (a worker employed in a fire temple) to pick up the food from Patel. Sharing a rough estimate of the quantity of ingredients, Patel says that he needs at least three to four sackfuls of sugar every month, each weighing about 50 kilograms.
Faith is at the heart of the community for the Parsis but only second to food, which forms the mainstay of every occurrence, no matter how grand or trivial. So it comes as no surprise that the dishes sanctified during muktad are far from ‘bland’ or ‘monastic’. Even in the face of bereavement, the dead are remembered through the primary act of eating. “Those who are no longer with us are involved in intangible ways. We make the favourite foods of those departed, so it feels like they are in our midst,” says Dr Bajan.
Even in the face of bereavement, the dead are remembered through the primary act of eating.
This is echoed by Roshan Ravji, the gorani (woman responsible for a fire temple’s kitchen) of the Cama Baug Agiary in Mumbai. She illustrates this point with the example of the bhat nu bhonu, or the food prepared on the day prior to Navroze, when the fravashis return to their heavenly abode. “It is believed that the fravashis will need this food on their journey back. It usually contains dishes like papeta ma gosht (meat cooked with potatoes), gharab no patio (fish roe gravy), potato chips, tareli boi (fried mullet), boiled eggs and bhakras, or anything the departed had a specific liking for,” she explains. While some of the consecrated food is given to the priests and some consumed by the deceased’s family, the rest is distributed among the poor.
Preserving a sweet legacy
Parsi cuisine has borrowed influences from both Persia and the Indian subcontinent and keeps evolving. While the liberal use of dried fruit, dates, rosewater, saffron and nuts is a nod to Persian ancestry, ingredients like coconut owe their allegiance to the Konkan belt. In a Parsi household, coconut is a part of everyday cooking, and is a symbolic inclusion in rituals. In Patel’s kitchen, it is freshly grated using a coconut scraper, and mixed with sugar as a stuffing for chapti—a crescent-shaped pocket of wheat dough—speckled with caraway seeds and hemmed together with such exactness, one can only offer due credit to muscle memory.
An uncomplicated, rudimentary flour-sugar-ghee construction forms the kernel of most sweets, yet it is quite astounding how each is distinct—and delightful—in its own right. For enjoyably chewy bhakras, semolina is mixed with maida and wheat flour along with sugar, baking powder, vanilla and seeds of green cardamom and kneaded into a dough, which is then wheedled into pliant, gentle submission, with the aid of a few eggs.
“Some people use rosewater instead of vanilla as a flavouring agent,” says Patel. Once the dough is rested, it is rolled out and cut into inch-and-a-half rounds, which are deep-fried in ghee. I notice the absence of tari—or toddy, the fermented sap of a date or coconut tree—an otherwise key ingredient in a bhakra recipe, and erroneously ascribe its omission to religious reasons.
“No no, it has got nothing to do with the kitchen being housed in a place of worship,” Patel corrects me. “We don’t get good quality tari in Bombay, unlike the fresh brew in Gholvad or Vankad or Daman—where toddy-tappers are found by the dozen—so I prefer to make them without tari,” he explains, deftly flipping the rounds of dough floating in effervescing ghee with large, perforated spoons, like performing a nifty bit of sleight of hand.
Ghee is meant not just for frying but is also a shortening agent, incorporated rather heavy-handedly. Patel refuses to skimp on its use, explaining that ghee prolongs the sweets’ shelf life and helps retain their crispness, particularly in the case of anything with an exterior casing, such as bhakras or chaptis.
For the dar ni pori, folds of maan (flaky puff pastry) are draped masterfully over rolled dough that will eventually hold a dense hunk of sweetened dal studded with stray bits of candied fruit. It is a tea-time favourite, which when cut into wedges, can be polished off almost instantaneously. “Some people place orders for poris to pack for their travels. Those from offices, banks and law firms nearby also drop by to pick them up,” Patel tells me.
He also takes occasional orders for karkarias (batter-fried semolina fritters); diamond-shaped oundh—a wobbly, delicate mass of rice flour, sugar and coconut milk, dotted with broken almonds, powdered cardamom and nutmeg, and a sprinkle of rosewater; and maan ni khari, a large khari biscuit whose carapace shatters like fine shards of glass with each bite. “It is so crumbly and soft, even an old person with no teeth can eat it,” he says.
“It is so crumbly and soft, even an old person with no teeth can eat it,” he says.
Patel is perhaps among a handful of people making the varadhvara, a dinner-plate sized, deep-fried cake comprising wheat flour and semolina, integral to a traditional Parsi wedding ceremony. It is prepared for the varadh-pattar ni baj, a ritual observed a day after the engagement. Prayers are performed in honour of the dead relatives of those getting married—called asho ruvans—who are hypothetically invited to the wedding. “Sometimes I get orders from Surat or Ahmedabad for the varadhvaras, since barely anyone makes them there any longer,” he says.
Most of the sweets that Patel prepares are still unfamiliar to those outside of the community, unless one lays their hands on the early 20th century’s Vividh Vani, a cookbook by Meherbai Jamshedji Naswanji Wadia, or digs up recipes by Dinbai Pestonjee Dubash or Bapsi Nariman or Katy Dalal. For instance, nobody would describe a rich, charoli-flecked lagan nu custer as ‘baked wedding custard’ at every mention but a chapti would possibly call for a one-line translation.
Not always a smooth operation
Patel isn’t a baton-wielding orchestra conductor guiding a robust, perfectly-synced team. He is accompanied in the kitchen only by his son Rumi, and Mehernosh who assists with sieving flour, kneading many different doughs and shaping them to form poris, bhakras and chaptis. It is only during muktad that additional help is employed. A circadian rhythm has tied Patel to the kitchen: he fields orders on the phone, purchases the ingredients from the wholesale market at Null Bazaar himself to check for quality, and leaves from Bandra’s Bhabha Sanatorium—where he resides—daily at four o’clock in the morning to get to the kitchen well in time.
Fuelled by his steadfast dedication of over four decades, the sweets are made every day of the year, no matter what the exigencies. The finesse is replicated batch after batch, year after year, and no recipe is written down, with Patel following them to the letter. The kitchen even functions in his absence, when he retreats to his hometown every few months.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, brought an unforeseen slump in his work. With places of worship remaining closed through two lockdowns, the demand from agiaries was down to a trickle. “Orders are still not back to what they were pre-pandemic but I have to keep going, right?” he says with a tinge of wistfulness.
Fuelled by his steadfast dedication of over four decades, the sweets are made every day of the year, no matter what the exigencies.Over the years, Patel had added more sweets to his repertoire, including sandhna (or sandhra a fluffy rice flour and toddy pancakes) and the eccentrically-christened popatjee (fermented wheat and palm toddy roundels dunked in sugar syrup) but has now discontinued making them. “You tell me, who has the time and patience for these labour-intensive sweets anymore? Even the vessel required to make popatjee—known as popatjee no paenno [a deep pan with four round depressions]—is difficult to source these days,” he rues.
The preparation of many of these demanding confections has dwindled on a domestic level as well. “Making the miththi vani (sweet dishes) from scratch used to be a serious pursuit in Parsi households especially during muktad, until about 40-50 years ago,” explains archaeologist and historian Dr Kurush Dalal. “Usually it was the woman of the house in charge of the preparations, just as in agiaries, it is the panthaki’s wife who supervises the proceedings in the kitchen.”
Patel isn’t proprietal about recipes. As he explains the steps, I realise that they are more than mere instructions. They offer insights into a community’s shared gustatory allegiance, a few colonial influences (the use of vanilla essence in almost every sweet, as Dalal told me) and the significance of food not just as ceremonial offering but also as an emblem of language, livelihood and memory—both familial and communal.
Upon unearthing two chunky albums of family photographs for the first time a few months ago, I learnt that my great-grandmother was the gorani at the Mahuva Parsi Anjuman in the eponymous town, just outside Navsari in Gujarat, from the late 1920s to about 1954, if my father recollects correctly. This made me curious about the food that was slowly disappearing as time passed, or not prepared in homes anymore. The process of making the sweets which Patel makes today is almost new-fangled to me but so familiar to those of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, akin to grieving the loss of elders I have never met yet feel an odd sense of acquaintance with. It is when one comes across people like the humble Patel that one feels anchored to the roots of one’s culinary heritage.
Khorshed Deboo is an independent writer and text editor based in Bombay with an interest in art and culture. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Himal Southasian, The Caravan, The Hindu and Scroll among others. As text editor, she has worked with organisations such as Domus India, Charles Correa Foundation and RMA Architects.