Category Archives: Parsi

Bombay, a canteen & a pop up

I had several reasons to leave Bombay when I did nine years ago. None of which however were to get away from the city. I come back often, desperate for a breath of Bombay, and over the years have witnessed a vehement disillusionment with the city amongst my friends. I don’t judge them, nor the city. How can I? I come for a few weeks, starry eyed and still completely in love with the Bombay that gave me the confidence to walk away. It just hasn’t been possible for me to hate the weather, traffic, corruption, noise. At this very moment a few bats are practicing for Indian Idol right outside my window… what can you do?!

I’m not all tolerance and Om though. Take me to the new crop of Bombay restaurants and watch my zen disappear into menus still fascinated with Indianising international cuisines. I’m sorry but Mamagoto is more masala than maki, Starbucks is not coffee, and anything that is remotely authentic is wildly out of reach of most pockets. And don’t get me started on the likes of Monkey Bar.

Then I dined at The Bombay Canteen. And again at Le Kitchen’s pop up. I love Indian food best. So to come home to two gloriously Indian menus has been such a win.

Food at The Bombay Canteen tastes like its coming from the heart of an old relative’s kitchen. The menu is generously sprinkled with influences from across India – a melting pot of regional flavours, much like the city the restaurant calls home. It was a relief to see that the dashing executive chef Thomas Zacharias has left behind any bad habits he may have been forced to adopt at Olive. And this is what I ate:

Kejriwal toast – while nobody does it like The Willingdon Club, this clever take on a Bombay classic (and addition of a green chilli chutney) with melted cheese makes it a luscious starter.

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Crispy mandeli fry – I’ve never had this outside a home kitchen before and polished off the bowl in no time.

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Pulled pork vindaloo on theplas – courtesy of the restaurant. I’d love a taste of the feni in this fab dish! The theplas, though delicious on their own were too dense as a combination. I would love to taste the pork with a steamed poi instead.

Bhavnagri chillies stuffed with good old Amul cheese – disappointed that I didn’t get a single hot one.

Brown butter and green chilli dosa – now my second favourite dosa in the city (still looking for No. 1 if you must know).

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Shrimp and kairi biryani – subtle flavours and a generous portion. Totally loved the corny banana leaf thali.

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Gulab jamun – an Old Monk drenched, boozy doughnut shaped dessert spread with pistachio cream. Heaven for any sugar lover.

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I was very disappointed with the cocktails. The three I tried all tasted of fruit juice and/or artificial concentrate and flavours and it seems that my quest for a great cocktail in Bombay must continue.

A few days later I was invited to Ashish Glasswalla’s Le Kitchen pop up at The House of Tales. I first met Ashish two years ago when he catered a lunch at home. We still count his fantastic chaat, kulchas and jalebis amongst some of the best food we’ve ever had catered at home.

On the menu at the pop up – chilli cheese sev puri, tandoori prawns with crackling spinach, chicken keema lifafa, mutton biryani (one of the best I have ever had), jalebi with kulfi and meetha paan truffles. Ashish also gave us a taste of a masala chai chocolate mousse served with a sparkling Parle G. So clever and such fun!

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I cannot recommend them highly enough. And at Rs. 1,200 for six sensational courses you can’t lose. Their dinner pop up is on at The House of Tales until 13th September. Book online here.

What I love best about The Bombay Canteen & Le Kitchen (in addition to their friendly prices and excellent service) is that they don’t mess about with fusion as we have seen so far. While not every dish is completely traditional, the flavours the chefs have brought together work really well.

Indian fused with India – now this is a trend I could get behind!

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Bombay, Cheese, Cocktails, Dessert, Gymkhana, India, Indian, Open kitchen, Parsi, Pop-up, Restaurant, Small Plates, South Indian, Tasting menu

B. Merwan’s mawa cake. How the Bombay cupcake survived

The year 1981 saw the release of Manmohan Desai blockbuster Naseeb. While most may remember it for Amitabh Bachchan’s cage fighting, Kim’s lip reading talent and Hema Malini’s pink boa, I will always associate the film with the beginning of a love affair with the mawa cake. The cake that travelled from the streets of Bombay, through a cake fight in a five star hotel kitchen, and hand delivered by an airline pilot to a casino in London, had to be a special one.

Mawa cakes, the soft, buttery, cardamom-infused cupcakes rolled in wax paper, have been a menu staple at Irani cafés and bakeries from the time they opened in Bombay and Poona in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A hundred years later, Bombay’s mawa cake still travels from the city’s Irani cafés to The Big Smoke and is savoured by the likes of celebrated Parsi chef Cyrus Todiwala, OBE. “The B. Merwan family bakes the best mawa cakes ever. In fact we have three mini ones in our freezer right now,” shares Todiwala.

B. Merwan & Co. recently celebrated a century of serving patrons an affordable breakfast and delicious mawa cakes; and also announced that March 2014 would be the last time this would happen.

Just as the very first Irani café in India has never been identified with any certainty, the origins of the mawa cake too are shrouded in mystery. Dan Sheffield, a lecturer at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, researched three old texts for any references to the cake: 17th-century Gujarati Zartoshtnamu (The Book of Zarathustra), Persian-language Khulāsat al-Maʼkūlāt va’l-Mashrūbāt (The Essence of Edibles and Potables), and Parsi cookbook Vividhvani published in 1903. He says of Vividhvani, “By this time Bombay Parsi cuisine had already been very anglicized. The book, which is around 1500 pages, has recipes for 57 varieties of cake ranging from coffee cake and cherry cake to things with exotic names like Cake Napoleon, Chantilly Cake, Cake Baqirkhani, etc., but still no mawa cake.

Irani cafes opened during an interesting time. On the one hand, the city’s “respectable” members still preferred to dine in private clubs or at home, and on the other, the large number of itinerant male workers flooding the city, living away from their families and home cooking, created a market for inexpensive dining. Irani cafés like Kayani, Ideal and B. Merwan sold them hundreds of cups of tea every day; and with that, mawa cakes and khari biscuits.

Almost every Irani bakery in the country claims bragging rights for its invention. However, the café most inextricably linked with mawa cakes is Grant Road’s B. Merwan.

Cyrus Todiwala is convinced that the cake was a B. Merwan brainchild: “In the early 1900s our milk was not pasteurised, neither was refrigeration available. Milk had to be boiled over and over again to stop it from going off in our heat and humidity. This boiling created an automatic mawa and by the end of the day they would have a lot of it. The Irani owner experimented with it by adding it to a cake and created one of the most significant tea time cakes Bombay has ever known.

It’s a believable story. But there are others too…

The second spate of Irani Zoroastrians that fled from the Islamic Qajar regime were mainly bakers, sweet makers and café owners. It is believed that this is when the mawa cake inspiration came to Mumbai along with a host of other Irani delicacies. Parsi food specialist Katy’s Kitchen’s Kurush Dalal is convinced that the mawa cake is an adaptation of the traditional Zoroastrians tea cake kumas. “The Irani refugees were not very educated but knew how to bake. They modified their traditional kumas with local ingredients – khoya and cardamom – to make the mawa cake,” he says.

There are still other stories that inform us of mawa cakes being just a clever twist on the homely sponge cake. When Sheriar Irani’s grandfather started Pune’s first Irani bakery, the legendary Royal Bakery, he experimented with new flavours for a sponge cake until he hit upon the perfect recipe and called it the mawa cake. “The British soldiers stationed in the cantonment came to buy my grandfather’s cakes after their daily exercise. Even today we sell almost 70 kilos of mawa cake every day. But the recipe is a secret,  whispers Irani.

Irrespective of how and who created the mawa cake, by the early 1920s, more locals than ever before were enjoying this treat from Irani bakeries. Up until now bakeries were restricted to British cantonments, but the Iranis began to serve no fuss food in a no fuss setting, bringing hitherto considered extravagances within easy reach of the public.

Even as Irani café’s and bakeries fight for survival in a culinary landscape that doesn’t have the patience for, nor an interest in languid brun-maska-chais, the mawa cake manages to hold its own on counters crowded with cronut-esque creations. Modern bakery Theobroma’s Kamal Messman spent her childhood eating B. Merwan’s mawa cakes. “That is what inspired me to make my own,” Messman shares. “I sell several mawa cakes every day even now.”

Unconfirmed reports even suggest that the trains would stop longer at the Grand Road station so that passengers could get their daily fix of mawa cake.

As Bombay became Mumbai and macaroons replace mawa cakes, the city must brace itself for the death of yet another institution. When it downs its shutters on March 31st, B. Merwan & Co. will also declare the end of an era. It isn’t often that just a whiff of something has the power to evoke a generation of memories; that a humble cake has the power to command queues for a hundred years. It isn’t often that the closure of one café would end so much living – of its owners, its bakers, its city.

It is possible that Mumbai will once again see an invention with the ability to summon such nostalgia; but until then, we must learn to live without its most famous buttery mawa cakes, loaded with cardamom and charisma of a disappearing time.

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Mawa Cake in Mint Lounge

This story was commissioned by the newspaper Mint Lounge and was first published by them on 18th January 2013. The edited version of the article can be read here.

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Filed under Bombay, Breakfast, Cafe, Cupcake, India, Indian, Parsi

Dhansak at Ripon Club

Nobody plays cricket in their compound anymore. My teenage sibling doesn’t know the story of the Ramayan. The bhelpuri-wallas have been kicked off the streets of Bombay. Cricket, mythology, bhelpuri – these are traditions I wish had never changed.

The Indian taxi driver’s obsession with the horn; an absence of food writing in Indian fiction; the chutney recipe at Swati Snacks – these are traditions I would like to change.

The Ripon Club, established in 1884, is one Bombay establishment rooted in tradition yet in desperate need for something to change if it is to survive this decade. I was recently invited to their famous Wednesday-Afternoon-Dhansak-Lunch. The first time I ate dhansak – a Parsi lentil and meat curry – was in the summer of 1997 in my then Parsi boyfriend’s mum’s kitchen. I didn’t love it then and haven’t cared for it much since. So while I wasn’t looking forward to the food I was definitely excited about a meal in one of the Parsi community’s most closely guarded social clubs.

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We walked into a large dining room flanked by the kitchen at one end and the Bombay Fornicator-lined library at the other end. Wednesday lunch is the most popular meal of the week and the room quickly filled up with members and other guests who had bagged an invitation.

We begIMG_4184an with a tomato soup; a recipe I only see in mum’s kitchens and India’s gymkhana clubs. It was tart, creamy, completely inappropriate for lunch on a hot day, but ordered with such love by Mrs. Host that I had to finish the entire bowl. Mr. Host’s stories about the origins of the Ripon Club helped!

 

We then made our way to the dhansak buffet, and I stood in line behind octogenarians and their walking sticks. We served ourselves mutton dhansak and its traditional accompaniments of brown rice, kachumbar (raw onion salad) and fried kababs. The mutton kababs were tiny taste bombs and I could have easily made a meal of them. The dhansak could have probably done with more cooking and the salad with more onions. The main course was followed by club favourite dessert – caramel custard. This one was fragrant with rose, and oddly delicious.

 It wasn’t the best food I have ever tasted, but I wouldn’t have missed out on that meal for the world. We were a table of nostalgics and nothing beats an afternoon in an old Bombay institution surrounded by storytellers and the kind of history they never teach you at school.  Mr. Host ended the afternoon with a tour of the club which is spread over two floors. It is heart-breaking to see a piece of history fall apart before our very eyes. One could easily mistake their upper floor for an abandoned old home, or one that had not seen any life in decades. The massive room wears a forlorn look, occupied by a dusty old billiards table, few broken chairs, and not a soul.

IMG_4316The original membership of the club was all male. A dwindling number of Parsis (and I suspect a disgruntled female population) encouraged them to change the traditional all-male membership rule to include women. Ripon Club serves a traditional funeral meal as a weekday special, but won’t open up their club to non-Parsis even though they are desperate for new membership. Time stands still at the Ripon Club, but not in a good way.

Tradition plays an important role in creating cultural and ethnic identities. But it is also natural progression for rituals to change as priorities, practices, values and economics of societies change. When a custom stops serving its purpose, isn’t it time to consider a change? When a city’s legacy is threatened, isn’t it time to allow progress to overtake tradition?

Who makes the decision?

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Filed under Bombay, Gymkhana, India, Indian, Parsi