Years ago, local and international gourmets in search of ethnic fare did not come back from Mumbai raving about Parsi food. More often than not, its home, the Dadar Parsi Colony—a neighborhood in the midtown Dadar-Matunga region—found itself on the back of brochures as the world’s largest and only ungated Zoroastrian enclave in the city. Historical accounts of community migration from Persia scribbled on commemorative plaques would garner some eyes, but the slow-brimming culinary wizardry inside their kitchens wasn’t a part of tasting menus just yet.
Back at home, returned travelers could always find al fresco vada pav, akuri on toast, baida roti, and the Bombay sandwich in scores of Indian restaurants, inevitably reducing a diverse food scene to handful items on the menu. But in the last decade, a rise in gastronomy tourism, conversations around the appropriation of food cultures and the trend of seeking unfamiliar experiences led to the discovery of Parsi food as a standalone cuisine. With menus rooted in Middle Eastern spices, a throng of restaurants and cafes in the city are sharing a piece of India’s west coast beyond the well-known crowd-pleasers.
Yazdani Bakery, a cafe in Kala Ghoda, takes a page from Mumbai’s ethnic adaptation and doesn’t shy away from showcasing tea through the Parsi lens. The extra-rich cream is an ode to its native homeland of Iran while platters of bun maska—a warm Parsi bread, slightly sweet, slathered with salty butter—is a perfect accompaniment for dunking. Make your way up the Bandra East locale, and a popular plateful from the verdant northern Iranian hill awaits in SodaBottleOpenerWala. The establishment is a contemporary ode to the colonial era when Iranian cafes were a dominating subgroup among restaurants, hailed for its fesenjan—a Persian pomegranate and walnut stew. Near Ballard Estate, Ideal Corner holds the ground with lip-smacking platters of Persian fried chicken or chicken farcha.
“In the early 2000s, when Mumbai’s iconic summer season would bring in the world to revel in its charm, Parsi food establishments, even though popular among the locals, were non-existent to the foreign eye,” says Sharime Khani, a British-Irani chef and Dadar resident. “Today, everyone from backpackers to business travelers appreciate and acknowledge the historical significance a Parsi meal can bring to their journey.”
In the mid-7th century, Persia (modern-day Iran) was home to a majority Zoroastrian population until the Arabs started the Islamic invasion. The first migratory wave brought 18,000 settlers to the small town of Sanj in Gujarat where they formed a strong agricultural community and spent more than 800 years before moving to the capital during British imperialism.
“The state of Maharashtra has been a multiethnic society for more than 1,200 years. The food reflects those influences, with dishes such as caldo verde (a type of Portuguese cabbage soup), Iranian “jeweled rice” (rice made with fruits and nuts) and custard-creamy British bread and butter pudding on the menu,” says Aram Khan, a third-generation Parsi and food guide in Mumbai.
“The only way to understand Parsi food is to split an order of bun maska or mutton cutlets with a native storyteller.”
But learning about the unfamiliar cuisine can be overwhelming, even for descendants of the original migrants in Dadar Parsi Colony. “Growing up, I would occasionally stumble upon Sali Boti or Dhansak during backyard lunches with family. Farcha, or what the young ones would often mistakenly call fried chicken, used to be a household favorite, but we were naive to never understand their origin or significance,” says Meher Anvari, a history major at the University of Mumbai.
When her parents immigrated to Dadar from Ahemdabad, Gujarat, in 1979, they brought with them their sukka boomla no patiyo (pickled dried fish), gorkeri nu achar (tangy mango-jaggery pickle) and countless spices. Many of the recipes were adapted to accommodate local ingredients. Her mother, for instance, used coconut milk instead of water because it was widely used in the recipe around Mumbai. But even with evolving flavors and variations, the foods were a source of comfort.
While the Parsi way of cooking heavily borrows from Iran’s native fare, its evolution from Gujarat to Mumbai during the British rule is key to understanding the definitive Indian spin. Even today, bonafide Parsi recipes are hard to come by outside of Mumbai and parts of Maharashtra.
“That’s a shame because the Parsi cuisine, from distinctive loaves of bread, curries, seafood recipes and vermicelli-based desserts, are as vivid as they are flavorful,” says Raghav, owner of a Persian eatery in Colaba Causeway.
“It’s about sharing our heritage and sharing a part of Mumbai.”