If Tanaz Godiwalla is catering a Parsi wedding near you, you'd better get yourself an invite! Krutika Behrawala meets the Mumbai-based wedding caterer who has been cooking the traditional Parsi wedding feast for over 3 decades.
It’s 11 am. Tucked away in a quiet lane at the southern tip of Mumbai, Seth Jeejeebhoy Dadabhoy Agiary, better known as Colaba Agiary, is witnessing a flurry of activity. Workers on ladders entwine tree trunks with fairy lights. A wooden stage in the middle of the grounds, is being decked with flowers. All this prep for a Parsi wedding to be held later that evening.
Behind the stage, workers are cloaking rows of long tables with white linen. By 8.30 pm, they’ll be groaning under the weight of lagan nu bhonu – a sit-down wedding feast served on a patra or banana leaf – prepared under the expert supervision of Tanaz Godiwalla.
With over 30 years of experience, she is considered the undisputed queen of the Parsi bhonu, and remains the community’s top caterer for weddings and navjotes (initiation ceremony) in Mumbai. “Some guests won’t even care who the bride or groom is. They’ll enter the venue and first check if I’m there,” she laughs, her cherubic cheeks flushed with excitement. Yet, you won’t find her working out of a fancy office. She wields her power from a work desk set up at the venues – usually a Parsi baug (colony) or an agiary (fire temple). The desk holds her black briefcase, bills, pens, and a notebook that serves as her schedule organiser; she’s going analog in the age of digital.
The breeze ruffles her short curls, but she remains a sea of calm, juggling queries from her staff and making phone calls to plan her menus. Procuring wholesale produce is tougher than retail, she says, because certain items can’t be delivered in a day’s time. The rapport she has built with the vendors comes to her rescue. “Tera fresh mango chaalu hua? [Have you started stocking fresh mangoes?],” she calls one of her regular vendors to check. He’s cajoled into delivering them for a function scheduled for a week later.
Typically, a bhonu begins with lagan nu achar (wedding pickle), paper-thin rotlis (wheat flatbread) and saria or sago wafers. It usually includes all the meats the community is fond of – chicken, mutton, fish – and egg! The feast includes raspberry soda and lagan nu custard, a firm but wobbly egg-and-milk dessert with a whiff of vanilla, baked until blisters appear on the surface. There’s a separate menu for vegetarians and options for those who require meals low on spice. Godiwalla lists the latter under ‘bland food’.
The cooking commences only after 5 pm so that every dish is served fresh and piping hot. The prep, though, starts at 9 am. For this wedding, a make-shift kitchen is set up at the venue. In one corner, workers are sorting out pieces of lamb for kid gosht, a Parsi classic featuring the tender meat in cashew gravy seasoned with aromatics like cinnamon, cardamom and star anise. “Attending a Parsi wedding is a treat because you get to feast on dishes you’ll rarely find in restaurants. Even if you do, they won’t be able to match up,” she states confidently.
Nearby, a staff member blitzes an emerald-hued chutney – a mix of fresh mint and coriander, garlic, green chillies and coconut – for patra ni machchi. Large, gleaming pieces of pomfret will be coated with this chutney, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed.
Godiwalla uses recipes that have been passed down from her parents, Freny and Rohinton, who started the catering business in 1969. Having imbibed their culinary passion, taking over the family business was a natural course of action.
There are no measuring scales in sight because she has perfected the ingredient proportions over the decades. The quantities depend not just on the number of guests, but also the menu’s length and the kind of dish. “Pomfret has become expensive. Most Parsis get to eat it only at a wedding. So, I ensure there’s enough for everybody,” she says.
We also get a glimpse of Godiwalla’s famous saas ni machchi that’s being packed in a tiffin to be sent over to a friend’s home. The luscious, mildly spiced pomfret is cooked in a thick, khaatto-mittho (sweet-sour) white sauce that has nothing to do with the béchamel, she asserts.
The dish derives its complex sourness from sarko or barrel-matured sugarcane vinegar sourced from legendary EF Kolah & Sons in Navsari. The sweet-and-tangy flavour also greets you in the pickle, replete with carrots, raisins and dried jardaloo (apricots).
The Parsis were Zoroastrians fleing Iran. When they faced religious persecution after the fall of Sassanian empire in the seventh century, they arrived in India and sought refuge in Gujarat. Here, they came to be known as Parsis meaning ‘Persians’. The sweet-and-sour flavour profile intrinsic to their cuisine is an influence of the local Gujarati counterpart. The generous use of nuts and dried fruits – also garnished on bharuchi akuri, a richer version of scrambled eggs served at weddings – is an ode to their Iranian ancestry.
In his book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, KT Achaya mentions that the Parsis were able to thrive as a mercantile community with strong religious and social ethics based on ‘good thought, good word and good deed.’ Godiwalla exclaims, “And good food too! We live to eat!”
As the sun sets, the fires are lit up in the kitchen. All the food is cooked on woodfire. It is Godiwalla’s specialty. “Even a simple egg fried on woodfire tastes different. The Bawajis love it.”
She has an army of 250 cooks, waiters and helpers. Some have been around from her parents’ time and address her as ‘baby’. “They’ve seen my cycle on these grounds as a kid. They’re my family.”
Flames lick the heavy-bottomed brass pots. Each pot weighs close to 35 kilos, and requires six helpers to carry it. One contains chicken pulao. A Parsi-style masala dar – a mix of lentils and spices – simmers in the other.
In the last decade, dishes like tandoori chicken and Szechuan meatballs have also made it to Parsi weddings. The community is dwindling and so, eating the same menu at every wedding can get boring, reasons Godiwalla. She incorporates these dishes as starters. “Learning new recipes helps me evolve too,” she says. In collaboration with a friend, she has also opened a boutique resort called Summer Vines along the Mumbai-Nashik highway.
When it comes to the main lagan nu bhonu, however, Godiwalla sticks to traditional varieties because “it’s a mindset after all. If you go to Delhi Darbar and find Chinese on your table, you’ll be disappointed.”
Before service begins, a teaspoon of every dish is brought to her for tasting. Seasonings are adjusted. And then, Godiwalla transforms into an orchestra conductor. Each waiter plays his notes with precision (in this case, scuttles through the aisles with pre-assigned dishes) and Godiwalla directs those who fall out of step. By midnight, the last of 500 guests have been fed. The tablecloths are off. Every element of the party – from the masalas made in-house to the teaspoons – has been packed up, as Godiwalla readies to move her caravan to the next venue. This is her routine almost every day during Parsi wedding season, which lasts from October to April. Then she disappears without a trace. Only to appear at the next wedding season, flourish her baton once again and announce ‘jamva chalo ji’.
Krutika Behrawala is a Mumbai-based independent journalist on a quest to unearth stories hidden at the intersection of food, history and culture.
All photographs are taken by Fatema Diwan.
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