This is a story about a community that loves their cars, and loves their food even more. But sadly there are just too few of them around. The number of Parsis in India today has dwindled to a measly 61,000; in a country of 1.2 billion people, they make up all of 0.005 per cent. But who are the Parsis? Now if you’re from Gujarat or Mumbai, you are probably familiar with their quirks and eccentricities. But if you aren’t, it is very likely you do not know much about this enigmatic community.
I am half Parsi (on my mum’s side) and the Ed, who happens to have similarly mixed blood thought it would be a good idea to send me on a road trip to rediscover my roots. Where would I be driving to? The sleepy town of Udvada, which is under 200km from the chaos of Mumbai. And what would I be driving? Our dedicated gastronomic-adventure vehicle – the Nissan Terrano.
Udvada has special significance to the Parsis – it is home to an Atash Behram, a Parsi fire temple (yes, they worship fire). But this isn’t just any temple, it is just one of nine Atash Behrams that exist in the world, an appropriate place to go hunting for some authentic Parsi fare.
But before we set off, I had to have one meal at this new Irani joint that has recently opened up in Mumbai. Once upon a time, Irani cafes were all over the place in Mumbai and Pune and it’s nice to see a new one crop up while all the other institutions (and they were institutions!) are shutting shop – in fact, this is the first such cafe to open up in thirty years. Run by Mansoor Showghi Yezdi, cafe Irani Chaii is his way of spreading the love – men (and women, of course!) in uniform and even students get discounts here. He explains that his grandfather arrived in Mumbai from Iran with nothing in his pocket, and started selling chai (tea) at Apollo Bunder in Mumbai. India gave his family everything, made them prosperous, and he’s forever grateful for that. That’s why the two I’s in Chaii – one for India his home, and the other for Iran, from where they originated.
Talking non-stop, Mansoor treated us to a lavish meal of kheema (mutton mince) and akuri, a traditional Parsi-style of scrambled eggs. Cooked along with chopped tomato, onion, coriander, green chilly and a dash of turmeric, it is essentially a Parsi take on anda bhurji, and definitely a tastier one, thanks to the oodles of butter.
We finished off the Irani chai with a bun-maska (bun loaded with butter) to dunk in the tea for added authenticity and then set off for Udvada. Outside Mumbai, we hit the unblemished six-lane NH8 and the Terrano really came in to its element on this long, straight road. The punchy 1.5-litre diesel motor pulls its weight along effortlessly. Work your way up the six-speed manual gearbox and if you aren’t paying attention, you will be doing speeds you shouldn’t be doing in no time! We turned off NH8 about 8km after Vapi and headed towards this tiny hotbed of Parsi culture.
We entered Udvada just in time for an early dinner. Navigating the empty streets in the dark, we chanced upon Globe Hotel run by the gracious Peshotan Sidhwa, who whipped up some great chicken dhansak. Dhansak is one of the more famous Parsi dishes that combines traditional Persian and Gujarati cuisine. It is a thick dal, cooked with an assortment of vegetables and meat (most every Parsi dish has meat in it!) and flavoured with a mysterious dhansak masala (the ingredients of which no one will share with me) generally eaten with brown rice and kebabs (mutton, obviously). That first mouthful whacked me right back to my childhood, to the lazy Sunday afternoons when my mother would serve her meticulously prepared dhansak for lunch. And if that wasn’t enough, he offered me a generous helping of sali ghosh, a mutton curry with fried potato sticks. Whew! After such a brilliantly heavy meal, we could do nothing but haul our backsides in to our beds and sleep like there was no tomorrow.
But thankfully for us gourmands there was a tomorrow. And if you are ever in Udvada, make sure you wake up in time to catch the sunrise and take a walk along its narrow streets. You’ll witness it come alive in front of you – Parsis of all ages flowing on to the streets, making their way to the fire temple to offer their morning prayers. This Atash Behram is special — the Atash inside (the sacred fire, and my namesake), has been burning continuously since way back in 1742, making it the oldest continuously burning fire temple in the world. Only Parsis who’ve had their Navjote (the traditional initiation ceremony) are allowed inside fire temples so I respectfully stood outside the gates and said a silent Ashem Vohu, the Zoroastrian prayer mum taught me as a child.
Now if you are unfamiliar with who the Parsis are, let me fill you in. Originally from Persia, the Parsis fled their homeland to protect themselves and their faith from invaders, and landed up on the shores of Gujarat around the 10th century AD. The Parsis follow the Zoroastrian religion, and even though they were refugees in Gujarat (which is why they speak Gujarati but with their own little twist), the community flourished thanks to high levels of education and a very industrious streak. With nothing left to do in Udvada we headed back to the hotel, the Terrano ambling along the gullies and lanes, grabbing the attention of every second Parsi we passed by (they can sniff out a good car a mile away). Visually though, the contrast was striking — a beautifully designed contemporary compact-SUV against the timeless architecture of Udvada.
It was past one in the afternoon when we left Udvada to make our way back to Mumbai. But our gastronomic escapade was far from over. It was around the 17th century that a number of Parsis migrated from Gujarat to what was then Bombay. Mumbai still has an abundance of Parsi and Irani cafés, and that’s where we expected to dine at night.
But before that, lunch. We made our way down the NH8 once again, and chanced upon Parsi da Dhaba. Located on the highway 20km south of Vapi this place offers an extensive variety of Parsi food. I narrowed down on a dish called lassun-nu-ghosh (pretty self-explanatory – garlic mutton) while our photographer Vikrant had vegetarian dhansak (dhansak without meat? Also possible!). We also had some dudhpuff, which literally means milk froth. This sweet concoction is made of milk that has been left out in the cold overnight and then whipped to froth along with a generous helping of sugar the next morning. Yum!
With our bellies full, at least for the time being, we got back on to the highway and continued our drive back towards Mumbai. The closer we got to Mumbai, the denser the traffic got, but the Terrano wasn’t fazed. Although it looks like a big, burly car, once you get in to it, it shrinks around you and disguises its size really well. Not once did I have a heart-in-mouth moment, despite the heavy traffic. Still, it has a commanding presence on the road and allows you to boss your way around in traffic, a must if you want to get anywhere in Mumbai.
It was dusk when we reached South Mumbai and I must say that the Terrano was a wonderful companion. Whether it was cruising on the highway or navigating hellish traffic, the Terrano really held its own. With our bellies always overfull the soft compliant ride ensured there were no unwanted mishaps inside the cabin despite maintaining a decent pace on the superb highways. And while we topped up our tanks multiple times the Nissan did the entire journey on little more than half a tank of fuel.
From the newest Irani joint at the start of our journey we decided to end at one of the oldest. Kayani & Co in Dhobitalao was founded in 1904 and has been running ever since. A popular haunt amongst the young and old alike, I had to pop in for a quick bun-maska. The ambience is truly what gives this place its charm. Checked tablecloths and wooden chairs, high ceilings and mirrors on the walls; it doesn’t get more Irani than this.
After wandering around the streets of Fort, Vikrant suggested we get down to the business of dinner. There is no shortage of Parsi joints in the area, but he insisted we go to a place he had heard a lot about called Jimmy Boy. Hopping back in to the Terrano, we zipped to Horniman Circle where I settled for berry pilaf – a Persian rice dish with meat and a generous dose of the tart zereshk berries – while Vikrant ate some plants again. The cherry on the cake, however, was Pallonji’s raspberry soda, a staple of my childhood, which has all but disappeared from shops today. Today you will only find it at Parsi weddings and functions and the odd Irani joint, which is such a shame.
And finally we had one more place to go for ice cream – K Rustom’s. Started in 1953, this place serves some of the most interesting ice cream in Mumbai. They don’t give you the option of a cup or cone; instead they give you a brick of ice cream sandwiched between two thin wafers. And apart from the regular options of chocolate, vanilla and fruit flavours, they have some interesting flavours like paan! Now, before you get the impression that I have an insatiable pit for a stomach, let me tell you I was finally satisfied. It was a weekend well spent, not only did I have my fill of brilliant food, but I also got to reconnect with my Parsi side. And mom, if you are reading this, you should know that your dhansak and akuri is still the best.