The Parsis take their food very seriously. No wonder, since Parsi cuisine perfectly braids together Iranian, Gujarati, British, even Portuguese and Goan influences. Think dhansak with its roots in the gently-spiced meat and rice dishes of Iran, layered with Gujarati spices and dal. Or imagine saas ni macchi, transforming an insipid béchamel sauce into a flavourful egg and vinegar-based fish dish. Naturally, the best food is to be had at Parsi homes. But there's hope yet for those without Parsi friends; luckily, Mumbai is dotted with charming Parsi restaurants and Irani food. We explore a few favourites –
If you plunge into the warren of bylanes in the bustling business district of Fort, you will come upon one of the few remaining Irani cafés - Café Military. This no-frills café is quaint, specialising in all manner of Parsi comestibles. The antique wooden panels and mirrors, round wooden clock, bentwood chairs and glass-topped tables don't seem to have changed since it opened eighty years ago. The convivial owner, Mr Behram Khosravi tells me that the restaurant was opened in 1933 by his father, who came fresh off the boat from Iran. Under the cash counter, Mr Khosravi keeps a tatty old menu from 1935 - at that time, diners could choose from Delicious Tongue Dishes, Tasteful Liver Dishes, Light Meals Of Eggs and Cakes, Ices and Puddings, among others. Then, as now, the café was popular with bankers and lawyers although it attempted to cater to the army and navy (hence its name).
Today, the café is famous mostly for its non-veg dishes - hearty chicken dhansak and kheema pao (a simple preparation of minced mutton, prepared without much gravy or spice). Tasty and non-greasy, I mop it up with plenty of soft, white pao. And to finish, the creamy, milky caramel custard.
Ignore the extras at this tiny Colaba eatery and go straight for the Weekly Menu. Paradise is the place to go for the best Salli Marghi outside of a Parsi kitchen; the chicken swimming in a mahogany gravy, rich with spice and served with a scattering of crunchy sali (finely-cut crisp fried potato) on top.
If you go on Tuesday, don't forget to try the mutton curry and rice, prepared the Parsi way with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, gram and peanuts, roasted and ground together with curry masala. Oh, one of my favourite dishes - silky lamb, cooked with coconut milk and cashew nut.
Where: Sind Chambers, Causeway Road, Apollo Bandar, Colaba
The Internet today is thick with laments about the dwindling of the Irani café culture in Mumbai. But you wouldn’t believe it of Britannia, thick with crowds as it always is. Open only for lunch, it is most famous for its Indian-Irani hybrid dish, Beri Pulao - one mouthful of its fluffy rice tossed with chicken, onions and zereshk berries and you know you are right to believe the hype. But the Beri Pulao is just the foreplay to the main event, which in my opinion is its superb fried boomla (Bombay duck), made just the way my mum cooks it at home. Soft, succulent flesh nestling within a crisp, batter-fried shell - this dish must be eaten hot and fresh. Where: Ballard Estate, Opp New Custom House
RTI outlets are scattered across Mumbai, but I especially love the one lurking within the leafy compound of Breach Candy's Parsi General Hospital. It's mostly peopled by friends and relatives of the ailing, whiling away the sultry, soupy afternoons with curry chawal and mutton pulao dal. At their feet lazes a gentle black dog, long-time resident of the hospital gardens and friend to all who enter.
On the RTI menu, continental dishes like pasta and baked cauliflower happily jostle with Parsi favourites such as dhansak. But it's also a great place for a snack - its shelves are filled with a litany of snacks like bhakra (a crumbly, sweet bread to be eaten with tea), boozy rum balls, cheese straws and crunchy saria (sago wafers). My personal favourite though is the Chicken Pattice (the proper Parsi pronunciation) - melting chicken nestling in a buttery, crumbly flaky shell.
Where: Parsi General Hospital Compound, Hughes Road
Tucked away within Dadar Parsi Colony's verdant lanes, its shelves are always brimming with mounds of sweet and savoury snacks - unctuous chicken and mutton cutlets that melt in the mouth; chutney egg (an egg, potato and greenchutney ball that has been deep-fried to a crisp); and chapat, a sweet, coconutty pancake that is eaten with a steaming cup of chai. Regulars though flock here for the dar ni pori, plump pastry filled with a sweetened dal mixture. It is prepared at home by Parsi aunties and sold at the centre for Rs. 30 each.
Where: Perviz Hall, Jame Jamshed Road, Parsi Colony, Dadar
At Gamdevi lies a tiny restaurant, facing the busy road with determination. By The Way is run by the Seva Sadan charity for underprivileged women and widows, so everything you order comes with heaps of good karma. At By The Way, you will get a rainbow of food items, everything from burgers to kadhai paneer. Eschew it all and turn instead to the Parsi dishes. Go for the Patra Ni Macchi. Stay for the Tareli Macchi (fried fish), Mori Dar (moreish yellow dal) and Kaju Ni Marghi (chicken cooked with cashew nuts). Vegetarians should try the Lagan Nu Stew, a creamy stew made with diced vegetables and flavoured with vinegar, sugar and salt, leaving just the merest hint of sweetness and sour, on the tongue.
Where: Pandita Ramabai Road, Next To Gamdevi Police Station, Gamdevi
My favourite spot to stop by for Kheema Ghotala is a charming Irani café in Fort. Ideal's Kheema Ghotala is not a particularly aesthetic dish but what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in taste. It literally translates to 'a mess of mince'; it is actually a dish of minced mutton scrambled with egg and served with loaves of soft pao. But Ideal also serves up some delicious Khichdi Kheema Papad, a felicitous coupling of khichdi and spiced mincemeat; brain fry for the adventurous; and a decent bread pudding for sweet.
Where: Hornby View, Gunbow Street, Borabazar Precinct, Ballard Estate, Fort
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