I feel Bengalis have a strong relationship with eggs. The first word we learn to speak could be Ma, but I strongly suspect the very next word that gets stored in our vocabulary with a permanent marker is Mamlet (Bengali for omelette). Then the love spreads to boiled, fried, scrambled eggs right up to adulation for Calcutta egg rolls and Calcutta biryani. So, it’s no surprise that my very first encounter with Parsee food was in form of an akoori. This was almost 20 years back, when I was in college. Sis had bought her first car and off we went to a road trip to Lonavala (she lived in Mumbai back then). To give little sister a break from her flight mode driving, she had stopped at an Irani café on the way. I have vague memory of the place apart from the fact that I just loved the soft, a little runny and mildly spiced scrambled eggs. The love for everything Parsee grew when I attended a Parsee new year celebration and a couple of lagan nu bhonu (the Parsee wedding feast) in Mumbai in the following years. The exquisitely beautiful women in their intricately embroidered chiffons, the eccentricity laced with wit and humor and their immense love for food. Got totally sold on the Parsee way of life.
After a sizeable gap (the usual dry work life), I reconnected with Parsee food last year. Kalyan of Finely Chopped by Kalyan Karmakar rekindled my love for Parsee food with his regular posts on the Parsee food walks he had been conducting in Mumbai. I was spending my birthday week in Delhi and despite many suggestions for Delhi cult joints, I decided to have my birthday lunch at SodaBottleOpenerWala (Khan Market). That story to be told some other time, as this one focuses on the Parsee food festival.
Fast forward to a few days back. As usual I was eating up social media for breakfast when I noticed the event, to be organized by Calcutta Parsee Club on Sunday, 11th February. I marked my calendar immediately.
This more than 100 year old elite club is sprawled over a part of Maidan. Address: P-49 Guru Nanak Sarani (Mayo Road), Maidan, Kolkata 700007
Location: check google map here
Parking: Plenty available inside the premises and outside too.
Time: 12 pm – 3 pm
Entry Fee: A nominal entry fee is charged. This year it was Rs50 per person.
The food festival is organized every year in end January or beginning of February. The event gets announced both in print media and social media. The festival is open to both members and non-members. The lady members of the club offer home-cooked Parsee feast to the food devotees against very modest prices. Food coupons are sold as per food prices. Several coupon stalls are manned by members who provide you with a food price chart to help you decide. Some outside businesses also put up stalls, selling food and non-alcoholic beverages, food products, clothes and artefacts. One can directly buy from these stalls, no coupons required.
The club started off this annual festival with many people telling them that they never get a chance to eat Parsee food in Kolkata. Those who are acquainted with Kolkata food map, know that barring a couple of eating places, Parsee food has not been brought out of Parsee homes. So the festival is a major opportunity for both Parsees and non-Parsees to enjoy the distinct cuisine! Parsi food has evolved over a thousand years, since the first boatful of Irani refugees landed in coastal Gujarat, through a dynamic route of assimilation and adaptation, buffered by an almost obsessive love for food.
A part of the club ground was decked up with colourful shamianas (tents) and stalls for the festival. The whole Parsee community came together for the festival and there was camaraderie in the air. Little kids ran around while elders engaged themselves in freewheeling adda. The food stalls were attacked by both Parsees and non-Parsees with equal enthusiasm.
I was warned beforehand that food gets over real fast. My Sherlock senses predicted that bheja na cutlets and lagan nu custard would be the first victims of the hunger game. So I targeted those first along with a helping of prawn patio. Bheja cutlets (pronounced in Parsi Gujarati as “cutlace”) is basically goat brains boiled and then cooked with ginger-garlic and spices, coated with semolina and raw egg and then deep fried. The cutlets were being fried right in front of my eyes and were a delight to eat. Later, when I was explaining this dish to an Irish friend, he asked whether this could be considered as mindful eating. I replied- don’t know about that…but goats do mind it.
Okay, enough of bad pun.
Moving on, prawn patio was something I had a few times before and was quite a fan of this ‘prawns in sweet, tangy and spicy gravy’ dish. At the fair, it was served with a chapatti which was a bit dry and very cold. My guess is it was made early in the morning. I ate it never the less as I needed something to mop up the gravy. There were four medium size prawns and plenty of gravy which made their way to my tummy as I savoured the tongue tingling deliciousness. Tomatoes and vinegar contribute to the tangy taste while jaggery is used to make it sweet. Lagan nu custard is a bake of milk, eggs and cardamom and Parsee answer to crème brulee. Not too sweet, yet enough to close your eyes in pleasure as you deconstruct the creamy texture inside your mouth.
Feeling a little full, I decided to pack the mutton dhansak. The queue was the longest for this iconic dish. So while waiting for it, I requested akoori. No way I was leaving without having this signature staple. (I must mention here that my predictions proved accurate and bheja cutlets got over within 36 minutes of opening the stall.) Dhansak is a meaty metamorphosis of humble Gujrati cuisine. Usually made with mutton (goat meat), this stunner of a dish consists of lentils, vegetables, spices, cumin seeds, ginger, and garlic together with the meat of choice. The rich, dense, lentil stew is thickened with vegetables and left to simmer with meat or chicken added to it. When cooked, the different ingredients deliver a complex blend of flavours that complement each other perfectly. The stew is then eaten with light brown caramelised rice accompanied by a finely diced salad called kachumber. There was a vegetarian version available too, which of course was completely ignored by me.
A cup of tea and a few selfies later, I decided to head home for a nice siesta. Those who couldn’t make it this year, do make it a point to visit next year. Hoping to see you all at my next blog post. Till then, as the Parsees say it,
Khav Piyo ne Majjeni Life!