Sometime in 2013, a new restaurant opened in Gurgaon (near New Delhi). Immediately, this one made headlines & bookings exploded. To begin with, the food served was brand-new for people in North India. And then there’s the chef. This new chef brought a new cuisine, unlike any north India had seen before. As one myself, it’s safe to say that this one in particular stands out from other chefs in India. Her name is Anahita Dhondy, chef at Sodabottleopenerwala, Gurgaon. Though she’s from Delhi, she belongs to a community that isn’t. Sodabottleopenerwala is the first restaurant of its kind, in Delhi, as it brings something new. Anahita is Parsi. She, along with her restaurant, gave North India its first taste of Parsi food. Today, Sodabottleopenerwala has two outlets and has truly made Delhi its home.
It is said that the Parsis came from Iran. When they arrived on the shores of western India, they entered a foreign land that already had members of various communities, living in large populations. To avoid confrontation of any kind, it is believed they ensured Indian rulers of their intentions — of blending in inconspicuously, without causing disruption, the way sugar effortlessly dissolves in milk. As expected, they did indeed blend in quite effortlessly. Today, the country is full of members of this community who have done exceptional things in all fields of life. They live all across India, most of whom live right here in Mumbai.
Mumbai is famous for Parsi food. It is home to legendary restaurants such as Britannia & Co and Jimmy boy, along with a host of other much-loved Parsi establishments. People travel from far and wide to sample these rare wonderful dishes. I, too, couldn’t resist.
Here I was, with Mr. Aspi Irani, owner of Jimmy Boy’s Restaurant at Colaba. Jimmy Boy has been around since 1925 and has been dishing out traditional fare since then. If I was to know something new about Parsi food, I think I found a credible source in Aspi.
Aspi was kind enough to let me try little portions of everything available on the menu. As I ate, we discussed many aspects of Parsi customs and life in general. I believe this is a very accurate way to understand what they eat.
Parsis were traditionally not native to India. This means that, historically at least, their food is milder than Indian food. Chilly is used sparingly but some dishes, especially chutneys, do pack a punch. Food is seasoned with sirka or malt vinegar, giving it a distinct tart aftertaste. A vegetarian Parsi is hard to find. They enjoy traditional meats and all kinds of seafood; pomfret, most of all. According to Aspi, one can sample true unadulterated Parsi food at a Navjote, a thread ceremony. Since I won’t be invited to one anytime soon, for now, the food at Jimmy Boy would have to suffice.
Parsi cuisine has made Mumbai its home. This kind of food has now become a part of Mumbai’s cuisine, leading to a confluence of cultures and ideas to form new dishes altogether. Keema pav, Farcha chicken, some condiments and Bun Maska (Bun with lots of butter), to name a few, have Parsi roots, but have now been absorbed into local culture. The Parsi Keema, obviously being much milder than the ones found at other places. Also, the traditional Bun or Brun is cooked like a Brioche, with milk and sugar, forming a richer final product. Without this way of cooking, its just like any other bun. Farcha chicken or fried chicken, is considered a Bohri speciality as well. Many do not know the difference between the two cultures. Some dishes however, are strictly classified as Parsi. These preparations are difficult to prepare and use special ingredients. This is my list of the 6 most iconic Parsi preparations. I consider these 6 dishes specially, because they use techniques and ingredients which are exclusively used by this community.
> Sali Jardalu : This dish has its roots in northern Maharasthra. It can be made using chicken or lamb. The gravy or Jardalu is complex and sweet because of the use of apricots, which gives it body, consistency and a very distinct aftertaste. Sali is basically very finely-cut fried potato juliennes.
> Dhansak : Another iconic Parsi dish. Very complicated to make. It uses a combination of pulses as a thickening agent, like haleem. Unlike the latter, dhansak doesn’t need to be cooked overnight. It tastes different, more along the lines of Pav bhaji. Can be cooked with chicken or lamb.
> Patio: A spicy tomato and onion based sauce. Goes very well with prawn. Along the lines of a Paste, as opposed to a gravy.
> Berry pilaf or Pulao: Made legendary by Britannia And Co. This uses traditional Persian cooking techniques and ingredients. The Pilaf or pulao, cooked with mild spices and Barberis, a berry native to Iran (and very expensive to import).
> Saas gravy : White and very mild. Very similar to a Veloute or very thin béchamel sauce. Goes well with mild proteins such as fish, prawn or chicken.
> Par Eeda: A very simple egg preparation using very simple ingredients. A basic tomato onion masala, topped with eggs and baked like a frittata. Served as cubes. A perfect breakfast dish that uses minimalist ingredients.
Along with savoury dishes, Parsis are also well known for their baking prowess, these dishes include Mawa(sweetened evaporated milk) cake, pastries, Laganu custard (Parsi crème caramel), the famous Brun or Bun and a variety of puff pastry products. Shrewsbury biscuits and Naan khatai (milk based cookie) are said to have Irani roots as well. The famous raspberry soda, too is said to be a Parsi favourite. Egg preparations such as Akuri are a variation of scrambled eggs with a very Indian touch.
The food mentioned above is very well known across Maharashtra and now slowly expanding to other parts of the country. It is Indian in every way, but distinct because of its careful use of spice and oil. Established in Mumbai and thriving because of a few people such as Aspi who uphold their culture in the best way possible, by means of eating.
Sodabottleopenerwala and Anahita Dhondy too, uphold Parsi culture through their food. Recently opening at Khan Market, its evident that people in Delhi want something new to be a part of. Just like the story told to me by Aspi, this new restaurant has entered this new city effortlessly, creating something new and refreshing in the process. Sodabottleopenerwala is here to stay and will only get better in time because it is now a part of Delhi’s own collection of good restaurants. Just like sugar dissolving in milk.