1985 was a very memorable year for me professionally. I finally became a ‘chef’ (I was just a cook before that and called a commis) and within a few weeks I was made a ‘banquet chef’, a post usually given to a sous-chef, but that did not matter as banquet chefs have a large role to play in hotels and I was not going to miss this opportunity to make my mark.
As a banquet chef I had the privilege of catering for the heads of state from various countries in Southern Asia, as well as for Mr Suzuki when he launched his company in Bangalore, and many more. However, one function stands out as it left an indelible impression on me.
This was the wedding of Mr Cawas’s only daughter. The wedding was spread over three days and catered for nearly 7500 guests from all over the world. Now, Mr Cawas is not only a very proud Indian and a highly successful racehorse breeder in India and the Middle East, but he is also a very proud Parsee.
The Parsees are a community in India who came from Iran in the 11th century following the Islamisation of that country who have made India their ‘home’. Parsees have contributed to India in all areas including the arts, sciences, literature and sports.
Some very popular Parsees are Dadabhai Naoroji (freedom fighter), Soli J Sorabjee (advocate), Farokh Engineer (cricketer), JRD Tata (pioneer aviator and Tata group businessman), Zubin Mehta (conductor of the Three Tenors), Freddie Mercury (Queen), Feroze Gandhi (the former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s husband), R K Karanjia (journalist), Kersi Meher-Homji (world-renowned cricket scorer and statistician, who now lives in Sydney!), and who can forget the voice of AFS Talyarkhan in the Seventies? And last but not least, Babu from the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. Babu had been cooking for, well, all his life, but he joined the Taj Group as a specialist Parsee cook and was sent all over India to cater for Parsee weddings.
For Mr Cawas’s function Babu was essential: the food was to be entirely Parsee and my knowledge of this cuisine was limited to dhansak and kolmino patio, having cooked these two dishes in a coffee shop years before!! (There might be more on that in another blog, another time!)
Babu’s style of cooking was simple and everything was well organised. He would make a list of all the ingredients that made up a particular dish and arrange them in a clockwise manner starting at the 12 o’clock position.
This position was the first ingredient that was to go into the pot. It was usually oil which was then followed by whole spices, at 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock etc. then onions, ground garlic . . . and finally the chopped coriander and lemon juice which would appear at 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock respectively. Absolutely brilliant!!
Babu called the whole cooking process a yatra (journey), saying we must enjoy our journey along the way, each and every step of it, until we reach our destination. And it is at this point (once we’ve arrived) that you add the fresh coriander and lemon juice (the lemon juice brings out the colours and flavours of the dish which Babu called the ‘astringent’ substance).
Babu cooked every dish in this manner; he lit four burners at the same time and cooked simultaneously, moving from one pot to the other with total control over everything — this, which today we call multi-tasking, is the sign of a good chef.
Every dish took a different path, but the destination was the same; it was all cooked perfectly, it smelled delicious, looked great and tasted bloody good!!
Babu also believed if one did the little things right, like adding one ingredient at a time and making sure that it was cooked before the next was added, the big picture would take care of itself.
Babu was a great chef and a very proud one too. He always said, “I cook not because I have to, but because I want to!”
My mentors like Babu may never have made it onto “MasterChef”; nor did they endorse commercial products, but to me they are are the true maestros!
Folks, this week my restaurant celebrates its 15th anniversary and as a tribute to all those ustaads, bawarchis, khansaamas and dastarkhwans who have helped me get to where I am today, a very big SALAAM to you all!!
As a personal tribute to Babu, we are celebrating our anniversary with our version of a special Parsee buffet that’s going to be held this Sunday, 17th July.
I really hope you can join us.
Anah daata sukhi bhava!!!
If you want to try a Parsee chicken dish at home, click Baruchi murghi for a superb coconut chilli chicken dish.