TD Conversations: Chef Irfan Pabaney, Country Head, SodaBottleOpenerWala

From the Mughal court to the decked-up living rooms of Bagh, Nowroz or Parsi New Year celebrations have always been about a coming together of good thoughts, good deeds, good vibes – and bellyful of great food, says Chef Pabaney, who calls being Parsi By Food, his second nature.

“There are two things that growing up in Mumbai gifts you with,” says Chef Irfan Pabaney as he ladles out the fragrant Kolmi nu Patio (Parsi style prawn curry) into a bowl, “one is a cosmopolitan palate; and two, a set of crazy, but very dear Parsi friends. Comrades who not only share with you their mad zeal for life, but also infuse their unparallel enthusiasm for jamva chalo ji (let’s go and eat). In fact, such is the Parsi influence which often comes peppered with some delicious grub that before you know you are a Parsi, even it is just for the food.”

Chef irfan pabaney
Chef Irfan Pabaney, country head at SodaBottleOpenerWala, spent a considerable part of his life in Mumbai and has been greatly influenced by Parsi cuisine and culture.

It is a slice of life that the seasoned chef knows first-hand. After all, he has spent a considerable part of his life in Mumbai living in the Jussawala Wadi in Juhu. And had many Parsi families as his neighbours. “In fact,” recalls the SodaBottleOpenerWala country head, “when we shifted to Mumbai from the Philippines, our neighbours would often send us the fish shaped Mawa Ni Boi. It was an amazing treat, and one that made me visit their houses often to thank them (and ask for more, if any).”

“It was,” he continues, “my introduction to Parsi cuisine and culture. Over the years, thanks to Nowroz (and other occasions), I would get to taste a wide variety of foods such as the Farcha, Salli Boti, Dhansak, Lagan nu Custard and others.” His love for food was only matched by his friends who loved showing Irfan the many wonders of the Parsi world. “But eating was,” says Chef Pabaney, “always at the centre or the reason for it all. It was with them that I sampled the Pallonji’s sodas and took a shine to the ice cream version that we serve at SodaBottleOpenerWala; experienced the charm of the yogurt and mango kulfi at the Parsi Dairy Farm; and got a taste of mawa cake at B. Merwan & Co.”

“But my favourite remained Nowroz, when I could get some of my favourites laid out on a single table. It was much later that I understood the essence of the festival, which was celebrated in India (and many parts of the world) before Islam became the unifying religion – and how beautifully the teachings connect to some of the older New Year festivals of the country that not only celebrates a new season but harvest as well,” says Chef Irfan who calls the celebration as a “brilliant showcase of all things good in life”.

In Parsi tradition, Nowroz is the celebration of spring or new beginnings. One of the many reasons that the offering table at Parsi homes on this day have at least seven things all starting with “S”: Seeb (apple), representing beauty; Seer (garlic), representing good health; Serkeh (vinegar), representing patience; Sonbol (hyacinth) representing spring; Samanu (sweet pudding), representing fertility; Sabzeh (sprouts), representing rebirth; Sumac representing the colour of horizon; and Sekeh (coins), representing prosperity. The offerings in India also includes Sîr (milk) that represents both the easy nature of the community and the India connect. According to the 16 AD tome, Qissa-i-Sanjan (Story of Sanjan), when the first fleet of Zoroastrians fleeing Persia arrived at the coast of Sanjan in Gujarat and asked for asylum, the local ruler Jadi Rana refused by sending a bowl filled with milk to the brim. In response, the Zoroastrian leader added a few granules of sugar and sent it back. Impressed, the king gave them space in Sanjan and Udwada, of course, with a promise that the Parswala or Parsis as we call them today would not pick arms, take away jobs and would not convert the population. The leader complied and since then, the vat of milk stands as testimony to that time and promise.

It is one of the many reasons why Parsis even until date have remained a close community in many aspects save for food, which, with the rise of community, became the foundation for a working city. “In fact,” adds Chef Pabaney, “in Mumbai, much of the industrial revolution’s success was thanks to the Iranis and Parsis who not only set up food shops across the city but also gave Mumbai its café culture and food that supported the fast-moving life. They were instrumental in introducing many of the food trends that today are an integral part of Mumbai’s culture and food – be it the sodas, the rich, velvety kulfis, the ice creams, the mawa cake, bun maska and chai, akuri and even popularised cookies and butter for which Leopold was once known for, and, of course, started the culture of salli in food.”

The prosperous trading community’s contributions weren’t just limited to the food manufacturing space or in giving cities, especially Mumbai, its beautiful landscape; they were also responsible for curating one of the finest culinary chapters of Indian gastronomy. The ingenuity with which they married their culinary legacy to the ingredients and techniques of their new home is best displayed on the Nowroz table, which, adds Chef Pabaney, “is almost a crash course on food that goes beyond the rather well known Dhansak, Papeta par Eedu (potato and eggs) and Salli Boti. A Bhonu table that is open to family and all friends often is the best place to try out the Rotli, Masoor Pulao, Saria Papad, Saag Ma Ghost Bharela Bheeda and the creamy pineapple falooda, all washed down with their favourite Mangola or Soda”.  

Irani cafe parsi bakery
In cities such as Mumbai, Parsi-run bakeries or Irani cafes as they are popularly known, have added rich layers to both culinary cross-section and culture.
Image courtesy Ramniklal Modi/Shutterstock

And while the offerings change from one house to another, and even between cities, some of the dishes that really get the spotlight during Nowroz are the rice dishes, especially the pulao – which, since ancient Persia, has remained the finest measurement of prosperity. “One can find two or three different forms of pulao on the Nowroz table including the berry pulao or the mutton pulao that is served with a Parsi dal – it is a combination that many believe was an adoptive favourite given the importance that lentil had in Indian culture at the time,” says Chef Pabaney, whose all-time favourite on this day is the Kolmi Nu Patio, Salli Boti and Pulao.   

Fascinatingly, the tradition of making pulao, which is a mainstay of the Parsi table, harks back to the time of Mughal emperor Jehangir who would call for special rice from Dehradun and erstwhile Bengal for his table and would insist on at least two different varieties to be prepared on each day. Back then, the festival would last for a good 19 days, and this made the khansamas find more dishes that could be adopted to the Persian/Iranian palate of their kings. Consequently, a lot of their dishes today find peers across India. Take for instance, the Patrani Machchi which is said to be a cousin of the Paturi Maach of West Bengal; the Dhan dar Patio, which is akin to any plate of eastern and north-eastern state with rice, dal, and prawns or the farcha that is a peer of the Andhra Fried Chicken.  

“No wonder,” concludes Chef Pabaney, “Nowroz is called the big festival of good. Because when it comes to food, it certainly is.”

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