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    Dhansak days at Strand Coffee House

Those looking for an authentic Parsi food restaurant are in luck. A new one has opened, Strand Coffee House, opposite the defunct Strand Cinema, off Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba Bazar. It serves all the authentic Parsi dishes, from dhansak to eggs on tomato and chicken farcha to chutney pomfret in plantain leaves.

The restaurant is bright, clean, with clear glass windows and sensible table-chair furniture, and the prices among the more reasonable in town. It is closed on Sundays, so go tomorrow. Unless you are invited to a Parsi wedding, then go day after tomorrow.

Tuesday is dhansak day, also Thursday and Saturday, bear that in mind. And the dhansak is as good as the one that was served at the Victory Stall on the Apollo Pier. Old-timers and dhansak aficionados will remember that. It is cooked in the authentic style, with the toovar telwalla (oily) and masoor (some houses also add a little moong and val, but this is not necessary).

The vegetables used in thickening the dal are also the standard ones, the red pumpkin and brinjal. Methi, regretably, is not used at the Strand Coffee House, because customers find it to be bitter. The dhansak masala comes from Mohanlal Masalawalla, add to that the chillis, turmeric, the tomatoes come in last, the less cooked they are, the more tangy flavour the dal has. Yes, the meat. All the three days of the week, they serve both the mutton and chicken dhansaks, plus a vegetarian dhansak, which is quite nice. I prefer the mutton to chicken dhansak. Ask a Parsi and he will tell you it should only be mutton, but you are eating it, you have a choice. (Note: In biryanis and pulaos the meat comes in the rice, in dhansak, the meat comes in the dal, that makes all the difference in the world).

With the dal comes the brown fried rice. The onions fried in Parsi Dairy ghee, with the sugar, carmelising it, plus cloves, cardamoms, pepper corns (full), it must be the most fragrant rice in the world. Make sure to order kababs with your dhansak, you pay extra, but they are worth it. Nicely minced chicken, patted down and breaking in the mouth, a little peppery. The kachumber is complimentary. And the lime, use plenty of it. Chicken dhansak is Rs.50, mutton Rs.45. I am not sure of the price of the vegetable dhansak, but it should be even less. The price is for the rice and dal together.

And once you have had the dhansak, I do not think you will have anything else. It is pretty heavy and will sit on your stomach rest of the afternoon. Best go home for a siesta.

On the same days the restaurant serves the dhansak (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday), it serves the patra ni machi. A bit of a bonanza, at least for Rana Jayendra Singhji of Kathiwada. He is a regular there, and once, he informed me: "I like the patra fish as much as I do the dhansak." And the patra fish here is about the best you can get in Bombay, outside a lagan nu bhonu catered by Mrs. Godiwalla. There's a trick to it, they add a drop of oil to the green chutney (chilli, kothmir, coconut, tamarind, sugar), making it oily, it stays better on the pomfret. The rest, of course, everybody knows, the pomfret is wrapped in the green chutney, the pomfret and chutney together are then wrapped in plantain leaf, then steamed. The cook at the Strand is an expert, he makes a padding of plantain leaves and waste at the bottom of the vessel, high enough to be above the water level, the wrapped pomfret pieces are then put on this padding so that they do not touch the water, the entire cooking is done on steam -- dum pukht, indeed. Ask the waiter to get you the head of the pomfret. It has more chutney in it, and fish brain is good for you. Chew the head bones to a pulp. The price varies from the price of the pomfret in the market, from Rs. 35 to 45.

Curry rice is every day, but you don't want to eat a Parsi curry rice, stick to Goan. The Parsis learnt curry rice from Goans, the Goans learnt dhansak from Parsis, both make their own dish well, but not the one they learnt from each other. Before I continue with the food, let me say something about the place. Strand Coffee House is an old Irani restaurant renovated and converted. Mrs. Nargish Marzbani is in charge and she is the meat and potatoes of the place. Her experience goes back to the Victory Stall, of which she was the secretary (late Gool Shavaksha was the president), count the 14 years in charge of catering at the Princess Victoria Mary Gymkhana at Cooperage, another four years at the Elphinstone Club at Bori Bunder, two institutions reputed for their Parsi cuisine.

And some of the staff has come along with her from PVM Gymkhana, including our friend Patrick, supervisor, cook, driver, you name it.

Among the food they have brought here is the sali chicken and mutton, khara chicken and mutton, the khara being without garam masala, sali gosh, mince and sali, the prices ranging between Rs.40 and 50.

Check out the chicken farcha, it is the Parsi version of Kentucky chicken. The chicken dipped in egg and fried has a lacey finish to it. The trick, Mrs. Marzbani tells me, is to add a little water to the egg and beat it. So, when the chicken hits the oil, it really fizzes. The chicken farcha is also Rs.45.

Some dishes are cooked on different days, depending on the availability of the ingredients. The trouble is you do not know in advance which day what is there. So, you take a chance, if you are lucky, you will have masoor gosh or even masoor jaban, two of the most authentic Parsi dishes, not known outside the community. Eat them with raw onions and chapati. Heaven. And the papri gosh, with entire garlic pods inside, heaven no. 2.8 There are also days of Parsi paya, with black dotted beans, what are known as choras. I had them once at the Parsi Gymkhana, at a dinner hosted by Mr. Tham of the Mandarin Chinese Restaurant. You can't beat that for an odd combination. For dessert, there is lagan nu custard, milk and sugar boiled down to one-third its quantity, baked with eggs and cream, garnished with cardamom and nutmeg. Price Rs.10. No, you won't go bankrupt eating here.

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