On my first solo trip to India, post children, a childhood friend my brother’s, and thereby my friend as well, invited me to lunch at Britannia and Co., the most iconic restaurant serving Irani cuisine, also recognized as Parsi cuisine in Mumbai. Located in the Fort area in Mumbai, nestled among other buildings built during the British Raj, walking into this restaurant was like stepping into a movie set of a black and white India. The peeling paint on the walls with antique wall sconces, high ceiling with dated fans, flags of India, England and Iran, all added to its unique charm. Established in 1923, the original owner, Mr. Boman Kohinoor was still around and made his rounds to the guest tables. We got a table on the mezzanine where we settled to have an exquisite meal. It was my first introduction to this cuisine. The Parsis are a Zoroastrian community who migrated to India in the 7th or 8th century to escape religious persecution in Iran. Since then, they have assimilated the Indian culture with their Persian roots and created a unique identity. Back at Britannia, we ordered an assortment of dishes starting from the delicious Salli Chicken to the trademark Berry Pulao and Mutton Dhansaak. It was hard to pick a favorite. Then finally came the time to recreate these delicacies in the Verandah kitchen. Over the time I have incessantly heard about the Paatra ni Machhi, fish smothered in coconut-cilantro chutney, carefully wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. This involved technique and patience and above all trust in the steam. It is one thing to use the trusted pressure cooker when cooking lentils, where one can visually see the if they are cooked or not, but a whole different story when the subject is a fish, wrapped like a present in a banana leaf. Each time I find a need to take a deep breath, I remind myself that this was the exact reason why I embarked on this journey through Indian regional cuisine: to step out of my comfort zone and teach myself something new, food wise and otherwise. This time I added a multi-tiered stainless steel steamer to my kitchen. This is something I wish I had when I made the Babru from Himachal Pradesh. Next I tried to find the best match for the Indian Pomfret fish. A trip to the trusted H-Mart and chatting with the fish department staff in the few Spanish words I have gathered over the past year, I was led to the Pompano and the Butterfish. Both worked superbly. Next, thanks to extensive guidance from YouTube videos, I managed to wrap these in banana leaves, softened over a flame, and finally steam them successfully. The Mutton Dhansaak was relatively simpler since I am used to the techniques . The sweet brown rice was a revelation. The sweetness was not just from the caramelized onions. It had caramel added to the rice while it cooked. It reminded me of the Pilaf I had once had at an Iranian friend’s home. I had to add the soft, runny, spicy scrambled eggs known as Akuri to the menu since eggs are such a vital part of the Parsi cuisine. And finally the dessert. Over the food journey so far, I have realized that I dread making desserts the most. While my daughter had painstakingly baked the multi-layered Bebinca cake in the Goan cuisine, she was now back in school and I was left to my own devices. So I dived into it and thickened the milk stirring it vigilantly for over an hour, let it cool, adding the whisked eggs, pouring it into molds and baking it. I have yet to understand what keeps pastry chefs going. This process gives me no joy nor any satisfaction. To think of it, this custard is called Lagan nu Kastar, meaning wedding custard, I could only empathize with the cooks who made this at weddings. But not to end this on a bitter note, here was the sweet ending. While several groups enjoyed this Prix fixe meal through the week, the truest compliments came from two different families, both with Persian roots. They said it reminded them of the food their elders cooked at home! Food truly does tell us stories through time.
Pictures from my visit to Britannia, Mumbai, 2013. The dark, dingy loft added to the charm!