Mumbai – Parsee and Irani culture and cafes

The Parsees, or Parsis, which means ‘Persians’ in the Persian language (also Farsi), are a minority religious group who were ousted from Iran by invading Muslim Arabs between the 8th and 10th centuries AD, after which they migrated to India to avoid persecution.

Parsees are Zoroastrians, fire-worshippers, followers of the prophet Zoroaster who worship Atar, the god of fire. It’s thought that Zoroaster could have founded the religion as early as 2000BC, making it one of the world’s oldest continuously practised religions.

The most well-known Zoroastrian symbol is the Faravahar, a picture of a man being carried by wings, which is generally thought to represent the human soul flying free. You will see it everywhere in Mumbai which has a larger Parsee population than anywhere else.

You can see the exterior of a Parsee Fire Temple at 146 Perin Nariman Street in Fort. The entrance is guarded by two Lamassu, mythical creatures with hybrid bodies of either, bulls or lions bodies, birds’ wings and the heads of male humans. Some notices are written in cuneiform, one of the oldest forms of writing.

On one occasion I happened to get chatting with an old Irani guy who told me that Zoroastrians are not actually allowed to enter a fire temple and have to worship from the doorway. Only Parsee priests can go inside. He also told me that Zoroastrians never blow a candle out as any potential spittle would be a sign of disrespect and they have to extinguish flames by waving their hands instead.

During the Raj, Parsees proved to be very loyal subjects of the crown and often took up senior civil service positions for the British Empire. Famously they were some of the first to take up cricket and they formed the first club in India. Other sectors they are active in that I’m aware of are shipping, soft drinks (Rogers and Dukes) and of course the famous cafes which have inspired the current trend in the UK for Bombay street food with restaurants like Dishoom, as this article shows.

However you might also hear these cafes described as Irani and it’s at this point that things become confusing. Iranis are also Zoroastrians and also come from Iran, but they are different from Parsees because they arrived in India later, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Legend has it that as the second generation of migrants, the Iranis worked as servants in Parsee homes but gathered together in the evenings to reminisce about their homeland. At one such meeting a small amount was charged for the tea served and the idea for the cafes was sown.

Matters aren’t helped by the Iranis and Parsees themselves who seem to use Parsee as a catch all term while maintaining the distinction amongst themselves. So I’m confused about whether the businesses below are Irani or Parsee. I think usually it’s the former but in practice they are effectively both.

Many cafes were opened by Parsees in the 19th-century but unfortunately they are now a dying breed. In 1950 it was thought there were around 550 cafes but now sadly there are only about 15 or so left.

Here are a few of the more famous ones I’ve been to. You’ll find them many of them on my Google map.

Britannia & Co (Intermediate A), 16 Wakefield House, 11 Sport Road, Ballard Estate, open for lunch only, 12-4pm every day except Sunday

I’ve given this place an A more for its atmosphere and history rather than the food as such which is a B. It’s one of those places where its the place itself that makes you want to return. Video here.

Parsees are often very pro-British and Britannia & Co are no exception as the name suggests. Pictures of Queen Elizabeth II and Mahatma Gandhi sit below one of the prophet Zarathustra, forming an unusual trinity. Life-sized cut outs of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge look down from balcony.

I’m happy to report that in 2018 Boman Kohinoor, one of the brothers who own the restaurant, was still working the tables at the grand old age of 97. If you get chatting with him he’ll show you a letter he got from the Queen.

I had the famous Bombay Duck (B), which is actually a fish called the Bombil. The jury is out on the origin of the name but no doubt it comes from the Victorian proclivity for humorously renaming foods and stands in the same tradition as Eton Mess, Spotted Dick and Toad in the Hole.

Fresh bombil is fried but the air-dried version is very popular too, albeit quite strong smelling. That said it was available in the UK until 1996 when it fell foul of EU food regulations.

Some guides recommend the Chicken Berry Pulao (chicken in a spiced tomato sauce, with sour barberries, cashews and caramelised sweet onions) which is a famous Parsee dish, and the Crème Caramel. I was too full for the pulao but I agree the caramel pudding is very good (B). No alcohol is served but various varieties of soda pop are available, another typical constituent of a Parsee meal.

Yazdani Restaurant & Bakery (Elementary B), 11/11A Cawasji Patel Street, Fort, near Horniman Circle

Yazdani has been around since the early 1950s and I doubt it has been decorated since. It’s a plain, simple place with lots of hand-written notices advertising intriguing cakes and biscuits. I had the Brun Maska, essentially a toasted white bread cake spread with melting butter, and a cup of chai. Nothing special but fine as a quick snack (B). Again it’s a place to come for the atmosphere rather than the quality of the food.

Cafe Universal (Intermediate B?), 299, Shahid Bhagat Singh Rd, Ballard Estate, Fort

I’ve not been in to try the food here but I love the Art Nouveau exterior.

Kyani & Co. House of Cakes (Intermediate B-), 657 Jermahal Estate, Rd JSS Road, Dhobi Talao, Kalbadevi

Another famous Parsee bakery and café, Kyani is known for its confectionary and baked goods. The menu is huge. Classic confections include cherry cream custards, cheese khari, coconut jam and milk biscuits and plum cakes. On the savoury side the kheema and mutton patties are supposed to be good and I like the sound of their Akuri; masala scrambled eggs, with tomato, onion, turmeric, chilli and coriander. Unfortunately though I’d already eaten so I stuck to a glass of strawberry ice cream milkshake (B).

Other Parsee businesses include the Leopold Café which I mention in my Apollo Bandar post and Café Mondegar which I will check out in my next visit.

As I mentioned earlier, Parsees are very good at business (the Tata corporation is Parsee owned for example). By way of illustration, Patrick O’ Meara wrote the following anecdote in his Indian Tales:

“You will probably be aware that, there is a caste of people called Parsees, who have made India their home. They are descended from the Persians (Iranians) and are very astute business folk. Many of the bigger businesses established in India are owned and run by Parsees. When they came to India they created a fashion for naming themselves according to the work they did, much like “Jones Butcher”, “Jones Baker”, and “Jones Milk”, in Wales. Eventually, the name would stick, and there would really be no way of knowing what the original family name was, except perhaps, to the family itself. However, this vogue caught on quite well and was, of course, very helpful in getting business from foreigners, particularly the Brits, who couldn’t have pronounced the Parsee names anyway, leave alone remembered them. Hence it was, that such “surnames” as Engineer, Contractor, Rotiwallah, Kekwallah and a host of others, became fashionable and remain so to this day.

“There was a Parsee soft drinks wholesaler/supplier who had apparently wanted another more elaborate and descriptive name with which to do business. He asked the warrant officer, who was in charge of supplies and purchasing to the regimental mess and who would be instrumental in giving further orders to the supplier, to suggest something. The story goes that the W/O, totally fed-up with the constant knocking on his door and sucking up for orders by the wholesaler, said, “Well, if you want ME to remember your name, you should name yourself and your business ‘Bumsuckerwallah’.”

“The Parsee, unaware of the implication, replied, ‘Then sahib, it shall be so’, and duly had the name painted in enormous letters over his warehouse. That was a stroke of luck for the trader because everyone in Karachi must have, at least, heard of the name of the trader and smiled… In 1940, Bumsuckerwallah’s was easily the largest and most successful wholesale soft drinks business in Karachi.”

Sadly Parsee numbers are dwindling due to their custom of not marrying outside their community. In 2014 there were only 69,000 of them in India as a whole. However, there are signs of their entrepreneurial spirit moving with the times with new Parsee restaurants like this one opening up…

SodaBottleOpenerWala (Intermediate B++), Ground Level, Viviana Mall, Eastern Express Highway, Laxmi Nagar, Thane West, Thane,

One of a small but growing chain of modern Parsee restaurants which foodwise are a definite improvement on the fusty old places downtown. As the name shows, their attitude is fun and fresh, and about reinventing Parsee cuisine while giving a nod to the past.

The décor involves lots of antique signage and various pieces of old paraphernalia. The background music tends to be classic old Bollywood tunes, such as the mental Idhi Oka Nandanavanam from the film Adavi Donga, played quite loudly over a good quality sound system. They even have a DJ on Saturdays but I’m not sure if anyone dances.

This branch was my favourite place to eat when I was working in Thane up in north Mumbai. There are many popular dishes on the menu but I was particularly interested to try the Parsee specialities.

The best dish was the Mutton Dhansak (B+), a classic Parsee stew of lamb, vegetables and lentils served with caramelised brown rice and Kachumbar (a salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, lemon juice, and maybe chilli peppers). It was served in a classic three-tier tiffin tray which was great for preventing your food from getting cold in the icy restaurant AC.

Also good is the Salli Botti (B), a traditional Parsee mutton curry topped with Potato Salli (matchstick fries) and served with Pav (bread buns).

I had this with Vegetable Berry Pulao (B); where Basmati rice is cooked with meat or in this case veg and topped with fried onions, nuts and berries from Iran. It was quite a large portion so I took half of it away for lunch the next day.

I also tried the Keema Pav or deep fried patties of minced mutton served with toasted bread buns. It was a bit bland at first (B-) but it was transformed by a few spoons of green chilli chutney and red onions that it comes with (B).

The origin of the name Pav is debatable but I think it’s a corruption of Portuguese ‘pau’ meaning ‘bread’

Once for dessert I had the Lagan Nu Custard, a Parsee wedding dessert made with egg custard flavoured with cardamom, nutmeg and Chrigonji seed. It was okay (C+) but a bit bland. I bet it’s very nice when homemade though.

Alcohol is served. I drank Hoegaarden beer with the food, served with slices of Mandarin, which was a first for me but it worked well. The waiters here are friendly and efficient. A fun place that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

And that’s it for now for the Parsees! No doubt I’ll be adding more to this post on my next trip.

Next, more food for Fort…

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