When she married and moved to India from New Zealand in November 2012, Perzen Patel had to keep calling up her mother for traditional Parsi recipes. "I realised even with phone instructions I wasn't sure whether the food looked the way it should at a particular stage," says Patel. "Before it goes into the cooker, dhansak can look like just a watery mess. Someone new to the kitchen would think there has been a mistake." The need for an easily-accessible bank of information on the subject became clear, leading to the idea of Bawi Bride, a blog that would guide other newly weds.
Her website's 'idiot's guide' format with photographs accompanying each step in the process became a hit in the first month. Readers, as well as her husband, a jewellery businessman whom she lovingly calls 'Bawi groom', convinced her to launch a Parsi catering business. The 10-month-old company still runs out of her home in Dadar, but it has moved from being a weekend service to a round-the-clock one.
It seems like destiny too. Patel's grandmother, an expert cook, used to run a Parsi tiffin service. Between jobs, her mother took up catering assignments in New Zealand. Patel loved cooking enough to pursue hospitality academically. Before her marriage, she stuck to making dips and desserts because traditional items were her mother's domain. Patel has another full-time job as a marketing manager for a firm, but it allows her the flexibility to work from home.
Patel says her initiative is also a bid to preserve the community's traditional cuisine. This sounds uplifting at a time when Mumbai's beloved Irani restaurants have been folding up, sometimes because the heirs of such family-run businesses are not keen on continuing. Bastani, known for its fresh biscuits and grumpy waiters, was the first to go in 2004, followed by the recent closure of Grant Road's Merwan's, a mawa-cupcake haven. Rumours of Kyani considering shutdown also surface occasionally.
The responsibility of carrying such traditions forward is no doubt tricky. "There's a reason why the cafes are shutting down. I have to tread carefully because I don't want to get it wrong," she observes. "Parsi food is very niche. People want it but they don't want it everyday." So she maintains a lean kitchen, relies on her maid for help and uses the services of getmypeon.com to deliver orders. To build awareness, she organises pop-up kitchens. She also benefits from taking minimum orders to cook for four while most caterers set that limit at 25.
Dhansak, sali boti, saas ni macchi and mamaiji's (grandmother's) curry are favourites on her menu. However, not all the items are classics. She has her own creations too, such as a lagan nu custard ice-cream and a sali boti pizza. Her clients include a number of non-Parsis who order mainly on weekends for house parties. This sometimes becomes a challenge though as customers ask for strictly vegetarian food. "I recently had an enquiry for an eight-course Parsi meal in Jain style." In a cuisine that swears by the song 'when in doubt, add egg or mutton', such requests reduce Patel to a bundle of nerves. She is now building a knowledge-bank of vegetarian substitutes for various meats.
As demand grows, another challenge is finding an assistant. Hospitality graduates are hardly keen on working with a start-up. Patel needs someone familiar with Parsi cuisine. She adds that she needs to settle on a business model that will allow her to actively seek funding from larger corporations. She plans to aggressively participate in pop-up kitchens in Mumbai and across India.
The watermelon juice she ordered at a Dadar Udipi restaurant remains ignored for a while as Patel lists more possibilities for her company. Next, she has trained sights on a Julie and Julia-style project to translate the Vividhvani, a traditional recipe book that is Bible for Parsi cooks, besides her own grandmother's recipes. "Some of the recipes cannot be followed because they include ingredients that we no longer use. I am researching ways to replicate them in modern kitchens," she smiles.