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Warming up to winter


DARK MATTER: Mumbai's Ratan Tata Institute makes vasanu, a traditional Parsi winter sweet, that's sold at the charity's outlets across the city.

It might sound like the name of a corny Parsi comedy, but doodh na puff, as once whipped up by the doughty matrons of the clan, is as vanishing a winter speciality as Vera Aunty's vasanu. Or Edulji's favourite eeda paak.

As the December sun slants its mellow rays on Mumbai, huge copper lohris and iron karhais are pulled down from the dusty mariya-lofts of Parsi baugs and colonies, faded family recipe books are flipped to otherwise-forsaken pages, and bazaars are scoured for esoteric herbs and spices. Or - ruining the adventure - a list of ingredients is simply handed to the corner shopkeeper accustomed to the community's culinary demands. Across all Indian homes, winter specialities are awaited with the eagerness of baraats. Afridi begum's aflatoon, Gurpreet Kaur's gaajar halwa, Gangubai's gul poli, Gunwantiben's gundarpak ...For the Parsis, it is the triumvirate of vasanu, doodh na puff and eeda paak. They are all rites of seasonal passage. The creation of vasanu and eeda paak calls for devotion, patience and a strong arm. But duty and 'maro Dinsu' demand that they must be propitiated once every winter. The list of ingredients is almost as long as the journey in that storm-tossed boat from Persia over a 1, 000 years ago. At least 90 per cent of those for vasanu are not normally found in any kitchen, and none of the women I spoke to had a clue about the origins of the likes of mokhru, salan or kanthori peepar. The assistant at Dadar's Gangar Stores wasn't very enlightening either. "They are all Ayurvedic jari-booti, mostly roots, " he said. But at least I was happy to know that there's no colour discrimination, the 'kali moosri' is used in equal proportion to the 'dhori (fair) moosri'.

A food processor will take Freny only so far. The almonds, pistachios and cheronji nuts have to be peeled and chopped. For the vasanu, dried kamalkakri (lotus root) and singora (water chestnut), dill seeds and health and heatgenerating stuff such as pipri mooth na gath and gokhru, have to be soaked overnight and then ground. Soonth (dried ginger), cardamom and jaiphal-jawantri (the nutmeg flower and fruit) must be crushed to the right degree of coarseness. The ingredients have to be individually prepared and then fried separately in oodles of asli ghee. Again one by one, they must be stirred into the just-right sugar syrup.

Commercial mawa is just not the same as boiling it down to a solid at home.

Eeda paak demands 25 egg yolks to a cup each of almonds, pistachios, cheronji and pine nuts. It also has several of the vasanu's jari-booti, and consumes the same amount of ghee, sugar and energy in the vigorous beating of the yolks and the gentle stirring of the mixture over a slow fire. Cholesterol and diabetes, do your worst.

I hate both vasanu and eeda paak. But I love them because they stoke the mythology. One bite into their yielding hardness takes me back to our kaumi rural roots. It instantly summons the image of the doughty materfamilias, her ample behind spilling out of her low stool, measuring out fistfuls of ingredients, sternly supervising her retinue of lissome Warli or dubra women helpers as they soak, peel, chop, pound and fry - and choicely abusing them should they slip an iota below perfection.

'Mai-ji' would then tighten her head scarf to deliver the coup de grace: taking over the spatula for the last few minutes of stirring before tipping the thick slurry into German silver khumchas to cool and set. Throughout the winter, the men-folk in their sadra-legha would demolish chunks of vasanu and eeda paak with their morning mint tea, feeling the warmth and virility surge through them with each chomp. The children would be handed more modest pieces with their fresh squeezed milk.

Doodh na puff carries an entirely different aura of romance. Creamy sweetened milk is reduced to half, poured into smaller containers, covered with muslin and left to hang overnight from the boughs of trees. It is taken down early morning, still dewladen, and sharply whisked. As the froth rises, it is spooned into small chai glasses.

Doodh na puff are as much of a must-have as the fresh toddy and river boi-fish when Mumbai's Parsis make the pilgrimage to the holiest fire in Udwada in winter. The delicate speciality remains a seasonal staple in the small original settlements all of which have a respectable winter. But even hotand-hotter Mumbai is no deterrent for the gastronomically determined bawa. 'We may not have a winter, but we have a fridge, no?'

So Dinaz Wadia simply pops the full-fat Parsi Dairy milk into her refrigerator, pulls it out next morning, plugs in the electric beater, scoops out the foam - and makes hubby Hoshi a khushi man. Toxy Cowasjee from Karachi adds that "tetrapack milk simply won't do".

These winter specialities are an amalgam of the community's Persian origins and the roots it put down in Gujarat. Vasanu and eeda paak answered the needs of cold weather and physically strenuous work. Today both lifestyle and climate have changed, but all three bravely continue to thumb their nose at global warming, the doctor's orders and the bank-breaking 'badam-pista no bhaav'.

Reader's opinion (2)

Nawaz AhmedApr 6th, 2011 at 15:50 PM

I had a few Parsi friends when I was in Bombay for a few years, these friends were really hospitable lot as all Parsis are and they used to invite me to their house, I dont remembetr the Vasnu or eeda paak but I shurely remember the Doodh na puff, really delecious.

Rujuta VaishampayanDec 16th, 2010 at 13:07 PM

Wonderful :-) Absolutely enjoyed reading this...

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