This article was first published in The Indian Express in August 2018.
Days before the Parsi New Year, Navroze, the phone lines at Mumbai-based five-decade-old Katy’s Kitchen are buzzing for orders. Over the years, the business has managed to maintain a loyal clientele of Parsis and non-Parsis alike, with the former ordering traditional dishes, while the rest look for ‘something new’ in the menu. The start of the new year in the month of August is celebrated with all the revelry and indulgence. Three days — Pateti (last day of the year, spent reflecting on the year gone by), Navroze (first day of the new year) and Khordad Saal (Prophet Zoroaster’s birth) are spent in thorough indulgence of either rare, traditional family recipes, or at least the popular fare.
Kurush Dalal, a professor of archaeology, runs Katy’s Kitchen, one of Mumbai’s foremost Parsi catering companies. Started by the iconic Katy Dalal, the business is now run by Kurush and his Bengali wife, Rhea. The confluence of cultures is striking, and yet very true to its roots. Katy’s Kitchen today operates out of a fittingly well-withered space in Mazgaon. The rustic blue walls are offset by equally aged red oxide floors and massive steel tubs and containers. Once you climb up the narrow flight of stairs to its first-floor landing, the bustling kitchen is to the right, and the office/storage space to the left.
“You see, us Parsis can tolerate a lot of things, but the absence of a whole, hearty meal can drive us absolutely mad,” he says. The clan is now small enough for almost every Parsi to somehow know each other. Yet, there is profound influence of the Parsis all over Mumbai, particularly in South Mumbai. The older regions of the city are splattered all across with Irani cafes serving berry pulao, dhansak and much more. In face of such competition, Katy’s Kitchen still thrives in catering to special occasions, and with food that is absolutely delectable.
“My mother-in-law Katy Dalal wrote down her recipes and published two cookbooks and I often refer to these when I am looking for lesser-known dishes or for the ones that aren’t easily available in restaurants,” says Rhea. Pakki Keri Ma Gos (mutton cooked with ripe mangoes), Bhaaji Daana Ma Gos (mutton cooked with seasonal greens and fresh peas), Tittori Ma Marghi (chicken cooked with broad beans) and Nariyal Na Doodh Ma Cauliflower (cauliflower cooked in coconut milk) are just a few of the many dishes that patrons of Katy’s Kitchen like. These find place in their special menus, and rightfully so — you wouldn’t find the average Parsi outlet serving most of these dishes. “Most of them love to order these because they get to try ‘new’ dishes,” says Rhea.
Rhea Mitra Dalal
Taking us through the Navroze fare, Kurush says, “Breakfast is usually Sagan Ni Sev with Miththoo Dahi (sweet vermicelli with sweet curd) or Sagan No Ravo (semolina cooked in pure ghee and milk topped with dry fruits).” Sagan literally translates to shagun, signifying of an auspicious start to the year. He further adds, “Lunch and dinner will usually be grand. Beer is usually quaffed in large quantities with lunch and whiskey with dinner. Celebratory dishes like Patra Ni Machhi or Sahs Ni Machhi, Chicken Farchas or Sali Jardaloo Chicken and Mutton Pulao served with a spicy dal (usually a vegetarian dhansakdal) and LaganNuCustard are the usual suspects. You may add Bheja Cutlets, TatreliKolmi, Russian Pattice, and PiselaBadamDarakhMaGos to this.”
So will they be serving dhansak during three days of Pateti, Navroze and Khordad Saal? Kurush responds with an emphatic no. Traditionally, dhansak marks the end of a mourning phase for Parsi families, following funeral rituals. The meal signifies a return to everyday ways of life and is hence the antithetic parallel for celebratory Parsi dishes. In fact, dhansak is a dish that was devised in India and not Persia. “There was no dhansak in Persia, nor was there any PatraNiMachhi. The Persian ancestry is found more in the pulaos, and in other preparations through predominant use of dried fruit like apricots, raisins, currants, and saffron. The fondness for lamb over other meats is another vestige of the Persian heritage. However, they avoided beef and pork in India because these were taboo among many locals,” states Rhea.
As Kurush elucidates, Parsi cuisine has evolved over the last 1,000 years, absorbing the use of Indian spices, and the use of elements like coconut and tamarind. Gujarati cooking styles have had a big impact, and so have Portuguese imports via Goa to erstwhile Bombay. The British have further contributed to the Parsi cooking style of today.
“There are only memories of Persia in our food but they are apparent if you scratch below the surface,” says Kurush with a flourish. “The love for pulses, meat, sweetmeats and cookies; the use of saffron and dry fruits; the joy of using souring agents; the joie de vivre when it comes to eating and feeding others,” he adds.