Partake of Parsi bhonu & know New Year

faravahar Parsi symbol Zoroastrian faravahar

When considering the great cuisines of the world, one cannot possibly pass by Parsi bhonu. Oh no – this Indian kitchen comprises some pretty incredible edibles.

So just who are these Parsi people? Convivial chef Cyrus Todiwala, for one. And few and far between, for another. The community is ancient and established, but it’s established that it diminishes in size on an almost daily basis, the worldwide Parsi Zoroastrian population numbering only 137,000.

The Zoroastrian religion of the Parsis originated in Iran, where the Prophet Zoroaster preached the teaching, ‘good thoughts, good words, good deeds’. He forgot ‘good food’, but the rest is a pretty fair description of the Parsis I’ve passed time with.

Cyrus Todiwala Cafe Spice Namaste

The Parsis originally arrived in Gujarat, using sugar to symbolise their sweet nature and sweeten the King to let them in. He showed ‘em a cup full up with milk to represent the saturated state of the state’s population; and they simply sprinkled in the sugar to show that there was not only room but also room for improvement.

In today’s India, the community’s base is Bombay; the city known for its tradition of Irani cafes. These informal eateries were owned and operated by Parsis; the legendary Britannia giving the world the chicken berry pulao. In London, you can order Dishoom’s own ‘chicken berry Britannia’, served on plates that parlay memories of the very cafes the restaurant is modelled after.

But back in Bombay, those Irani cafes are closing – from over 500 in 1950 to less than 20 today. The owner’s children uninterested, and Zoroastrians are marrying outside the community. Parsi cuisine is revered, but it’s feared that folks could eventually end up relishing the memories, not the meals. Thank heavens, then, for ladies like the Bawi Bride.

Perzen Patel The Bawi Bride Parsi

Perzen Patel is a Parsi whose preferred pastime is cooking the food that helps her heritage remain alive and kicking. She gets her kicks preparing and sharing Parsi bhonu with her Bawa Groom, plus the many with an appetite for the delights of that community’s kitchen; offering private catering, cookery classes, and festive menus.

And, as the Parsi New Year arrives on 18th August, preceded by ‘Pateti’, the brilliant Bawi will bring Bombay a full-on feast in the form of a menu made up of well-loved, crave-worthy classics including cheese’n’egg cutlets, shehenshahi kheema pilau, and saas ni prawns with its subtle white sauce.

Bawi Bride's Saas ni macchi

Bawi Bride’s Saas ni macchi

What’s saas ni the prawns is also saas ni the fish, for in London, Cyrus Todiwala cooks that very dish. In fact, at Cafe Spice Namaste, many of us have learned the basic Parsi passions and preparations through both the restaurant’s a la carte and the monthly ‘Khaadraas Club’ – or, as the Todis humorously dub the dinners, feasts for ‘Parsi pigs’ .

So what exactly do those Parsis pig on? Meat, subtle-yet-spicy gravies, British-influenced custards, and, perhaps most important, the egg. If you wouldn’t say ‘I do’ to the eedu, you wouldn’t make a particularly good Parsi (although Perzen is the exception that proves the rule).

Bringing Bombay to Blighty, where only 4,100 Parsis are present, Cyrus is preparing Parsi specials to note New Year. Dhaan daar nay kolmi no patio is a brilliantly-balanced feast featuring a prawn pickle served alongside the chef’s favourite dal; one that’s simply sizzled with garlic and cumin and crowned with crispy onions.

 Eggs enter the equation in Cyrus’s rendition of a delectable and decadent dessert: lagan nu custard – a nutmeg-nuanced baked custard. This Parsi pud is a complete classic; one that the Bawi Bride also modernises and makes into a very nice ice cream.

Bawi Bride Lagan nu custard ice cream

Bawi Bride Lagan nu custard ice cream

Another Parsi sweet you just might meet is the mawa cake. Unlike the attention-craving cupcake, with its mile-high frosting and glitzy bits, the plain Jane mawa cake just quietly goes about the business of being beautifully buttery. And unlike its gadabout Western counterpart, the Eastern treat is elusive, not ubiquitous.

Their best-know baker was B. Merwan & Co., whose mawa cakes were munched by Mumbaikers for a complete century barring during a brief cease in the cafe’s trade earlier this year. The magical mawa whose inclusion gave the cake its name is the dough formed as milk dries- the inevitable end-of day detritus from a day spent boiling vast volumes of milk to make it safe in days before refrigeration. In the first instance, adding it to a cake batter was simply a canny plan by a thrifty thinker.

Or, so one school of thought has it, at least. For more musings on the mawa cake, you should probably read Pooja Vir’s enlightening article on its origins. Because, however delicious the digression, the mawa cake has moved me away from explaining the foods that fuel all of a high-achieving Parsi’s faith, hope’n’ charity activities.

Bawi Bride Perzen Patel Parsi Indian recipe Zoe Perrett The Spice Scribe mawa cakes

Bawi Bride’s Mawa cakes

The dhansak that is so awfully-approximated by crass curryhouse chefs is the jewel in the cuisine’s crown. And, as Perzen relates, its perfect preparation can become a Parsi’s culinary kryptonite. Traditionally, it’s fare for funerals, not nosh for Navroz – but it is noteworthy. Despite the inclusion of aubergine, the veg that makes the chef feel like death, Cyrus’s version is splendid.

Along with the use of noble spices, dried fruits and nuts, the brinjal betray the Parsi’s Persian roots. The tang of vinegar echoes the influence of Goan cooks, and the ‘sali’ potato straws strewn over so many dishes came from business dealings with Westerners.  The Zoroastrian plate is as full as a happy Parsi paunch; the only abstention being beef in deference to the Hindus who helped them.

The Parsi phrase (‘kolmi thai guya’) declares death as ‘becoming a prawn’. You can’t convert to Zoroastrianism, but you can eat of its treats. After all, you’d be pretty pissed (‘daar bari gayi’ – someone whose dal is burnt -, in fact) to miss the chance to savour these flavours. So let’s ensure those perfect prawn dishes stay firmly on the menu, and help keep the Parsi culinary legacy alive.

Navroz Mubarak!

More to munch on:

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18 responses to “Partake of Parsi bhonu & know New Year

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