Kolkata food diary: Keeping Parsi cuisine on the menu
Kolkata has failed the Parsis. In the late eighteenth century members of the community began to migrate to Kolkata, set up businesses and flourished here, only to leave quickly in the past few decades, and now there are fewer than 400 of them in the city.
Worse, Kolkata has failed to retain Parsi food, the most distinctive aspect of the community after their religion. In a city that has witnessed an explosion of epicurean adventure over the past decade and smacks its lips over anything from Lebanon to Japan and Afghanistan to Belgium, there is not a single restaurant that offers only Parsi food.
The owner of Mancherji’s, the only outlet to write ‘Parsi Food’ on its bright red signboard, is forced to sell Bengali lunch to officer-goers round the year to keep its head above water. Supriya Mancherji, a Bengali married to a Parsi gentleman, just rustles up a couple of items hoping to trigger curiousness among any curious clerk or accountant.
At a corner of Bowbazar, a Parsi couple Dara and Meher Hansotia run a small eatery for homemade items such as Mutton Dhansak and Lagan Custard.
On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, about 30 people got together to shake off this monumental collective indifference to one of the most remarkable minority communities of the city. They braved the humidity in the air, lack of air conditioning, less than comfortable seating arrangements to focus on Parsi food alone. And not a single soul was disappointed with the platter that was on offer.
As the motley crowd started to get acquainted with each other and the conversation got louder, one after another Parsi delicacy started arriving. The evening began with starters comprising Patra Ni Machhi -- bekti fish wrapped in banana leaf and steamed with green coconut chutney – and Chutney Patties, which is a traditional Parsi finger food made with green chutney stuffed inside the potato.
The chef for this pop-up, Supriya Mancherji, is a Bengali married to a Parsi, who picked up her first lessons in Parsi cuisine when her sister-in-law left Kolkata. “My mother-in-law asked me to learn cooking and I got trained by her for many years, diligently copying all the rare Parsi recipes in a diary,” says Mancherji, who has left her job to devote more time to this restaurant.
As the evening proceeded with guests breaking into impromptu gigs, we made our way to the main course which consisted of Sali Murghi (Here, Sali means finely chopped potato fries), and Mutton Dhansak. Sali Murghi was something unique, which we never tasted before. Served with refined white bread, it looked quite interesting with crispy matchstick potato fries generously sprinkled over the chicken gravy. It was spicy but none of the spices masked each other. The meat was well-cooked and it was not heavy on the stomach despite being cooked with rich spices. Mutton Dhansak, however, did not live up to our expectations since the meat was tough and the accompanying rice was bland except a generous splattering of cardamoms and cloves. The sweet dish, Lagan Nu Custard (A typical pudding made with eggs and milk with a caramel topping, quite akin to caramel custard), was a dessert well made and ended the fare in a sweet note indeed. Though, instead of taking an easy route for dessert, we would have been happier if Supriya would have served something uniquely Parsi, such as, Mawa ni Boi (Mawa shaped like a boi fish), Malido (a fudge-like mix of grains, dry fruits, and eggs), Mithhoo Dahi (Thick, sweet, curd made of full-creamed milk), or Malai na Khaja (deep-fried, crispy pastry soaked in sugar syrup).
“Pop-ups usually carry a message. Ours was to save the tradition of Parsi food that is on the verge of extinction in a city that is proud of gastronomic traditions,” said Somek Choudhury, founder of Kolkata Food Trotters, who arranged the event on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
Like their food, Kolkata has also been indifferent to some other Parsi symbols, too. The first Parsi gentleman arrived in the city more than 250 years ago. The first fire temple built on Ezra Street in 1839, is almost in ruins.
Even the memory of Rustomjee Cowasjee, a Parsi to settle in the city with his family and a prosperous businessman, who came to own Calcutta Docking Company on the Hooghly river, an insurance company and paper and cotton business, is fading fast.
It would be a blot on cosmopolitan Kolkata if Parsi food vanishes from the city altogether.