I was angry with my parents. Why had they never taken me for a Parsi meal before? The fussy eater that I was, my parents were only too happy to indulge my budding interest in food and introduced me to the world of Irani Cafes and Parsi food in Mumbai. Paradise and Britannia were often used to bribe me to get through meals during the week if I wanted the prized dhansak on the weekend. Little did my mom know that I was expertly bartering her Rajma-Chawal for my friend’s Mutton Pulao with Dal during the week too!
If, like me, you grew up in Mumbai, then this perhaps was the world of Parsi food for you too – between friends’ homes and cafes. Your cousins and friends visiting from other cities would have had Berry Pulao, Salli Boti and Dhansaak on their wish list too. Catering mostly to a working community in the days of their origin, these Irani cafes initially served snacks, tea, some bakery items and then went on to include Parsi food. With affordable pricing, they’ve always looked to cater to a working community and were mostly no-frills sort of places.
While the last 40 years have seen a sharp decline in the number of such cafes, existing ones barely managing to stay afloat, it’s not all downhill for Parsi food lovers. Restaurants like Rustom’s in Delhi (reserve now) and SodaBottleOpenerWala (Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai), have taken Parsi food to a semi-fine dining space. SodaBottleOpenerWala’s quirky interiors show “Bombay at its Parsi best”- from things that pay homage to an Irani Café, to contemporary touches. But it can’t just be about the interiors, can it? “It’s about the experience,” says Mithila Karnik who dines out often and like me, has a passion for all things dhansak and lagan nu custard. “I think they’ve managed to elevate the experience, making Parsi food much more accessible to those beyond South Bombay.”
Blogger Zenia Irani of the popular blog Branded Bawi sees this as a positive change too. “I think the newer restaurants are elevating the status of Parsi food, they even plate the food so beautifully, I hadn’t seen that until recently.” But what about the authenticity of the food? “You know, there are so many variations – some will have Prawn Patio with gravy while another could serve it dry. But that doesn’t make either one wrong, it’s just a different take. But most importantly, I think places like SodaBottleOpenerWala are helping preserve Parsi food,” she assures me.
So, like me, if you’ve been worried about losing out on Berry Pulao if Britannia were to shut shop, this change, well it’s more an evolution, and it’s a keeper.