Takeaway

Parcels of Parsi heritage

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on August 21, 2020 Published on August 21, 2020

Special treatment: The fish dish is a part of wedding and new-year meals

Patra-ni-machhi, fish wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, is a Parsi food icon

* Patra-ni-machhi, like many other Parsi specialities, is born out of the unique story of a group of Zoroastrians who fled Persia to escape religious persecution

* Plump slices of pomfret are smothered in a green coriander-coconut chutney that is sweet, hot and tangy at the same time

The first food piece I ever wrote, more than two decades ago, was about patra-ni-machhi. It was born out of an unnerving morning-after-the-wedding-reception revelation.

As I am half-Parsi and half-Bohra, and as my husband is Tam-Brahm, our wedding was a week-long extravaganza that involved days of energetic smiling, a mix-and-match of ceremonies, and overwhelming quantities of food. Iyer wedding spreads. Bohra repasts. And the Parsi wedding feast.

The final function was a reception that featured the traditional Parsi celebratory meal — salli chicken, patra-ni-machhi and pulao-daal, with all the trimmings. After the feast, we gratefully headed off to a hotel room for a night of air-conditioned peace and quiet. My plan was to sleep late, have a sensible breakfast at the hotel, and then return home in time to grab our bags and head off for Sikkim.

What I hadn’t realised was that Vivek’s plans were entirely different. Which is why I reacted with such bewilderment when he prodded me awake the next morning at 8am and urged me to get ready. “I want to have breakfast,” he announced, all grim and determined. “If you hurry a bit, we can get to your parents’ place by 9am.”

“What’s the hurry?” I protested groggily. “We’re having breakfast at the hotel.”

But, no, we were not. Sometime in the middle of the night, Vivek had gotten into a patra-ni-machhi frame of mind. He had started hankering for seconds and thirds of the delectable fish. After which his mind had flitted to the big pots of leftovers sitting in my parents’ fridge. And he had decided that, as we only had a few hours left before hopping on to the train to Calcutta, he needed to get to the goodies as quickly as possible.

We were out of the hotel within half an hour. By 9am we were ringing my parents’ doorbell. Fifteen minutes later, Vivek was tucking into two huge portions of patra-ni-machhi, while the rest of us sipped our chai, shuddered and urged restraint.

Cross as I was, though, I couldn’t entirely blame Vivek. Patra-ni-machhi is a dish that possesses peculiar powers. It always pops up in family reminiscences, foodie blogs and midnight hunger cravings. It offers sufficient reason to befriend Parsis who are about to get married or to celebrate their children’s navjote (initiation ceremony). And, of course, it has the scary ability to transform temperate, largely vegetarian marathoners into uncontrollable fish-snarfing fiends in the course of a single night.

Patra-ni-machhi, like many other Parsi specialities, is born out of the unique story of a group of Zoroastrians who fled Persia to escape religious persecution. Their boats washed ashore in coastal Gujarat, where they managed to both retain their identity, and adjust to local ways. Similarly, their recipes retain traditional Persian elements and techniques, even while incorporating local ingredients.

In the case of patra-ni-machhi, plump slices of pomfret are smothered in a green coriander-coconut chutney that is sweet, hot and tangy at the same time. These are carefully wrapped in banana leaves and the tantalising parcels are laid out in metal trays and steamed in vinegar-infused water.

The ritual of opening up those warm green parcels is as exciting as unwrapping a long-awaited gift. Unlike dhansaak or salli chicken or prawn patia, patra-ni-machhi is not a regular on the menu of big, boozy Sunday family lunches. Probably because the business of sourcing banana leaves, wrapping the fish and then tying each bundle with string is just too laborious. Some cookbooks suggest substituting the banana leaf with foil. My mother attempted this a couple of times and the result was edible, even enjoyable. The only problem was that without the banana patra, it was not patra-ni-machhi.

This meant that, until recently, the best way to get your fix of this delicately flavoured fish, was to get yourself invited to a ‘Jamshed weds Tinaz’ jamboree. You had to also pray that the happy couple would not go the dreaded multi-cuisine buffet way. Or choose an unknown caterer over the High Priestess of Parsi Catering, Tinaz Godiwala.

This year, though, like everything else patra-ni-machhi has adopted the WFH mantra. A few weeks before Parsi New Year last Sunday, the WhatsApp messages started arriving. Godiwala was doing a spot of home-catering for the big day. So although the merry celebrations, featuring Housie and loud renditions of Tarzan Boy were not possible, chicken farcha and Kashmiri pulao certainly were.

It’s not just the Parsis who took advantage of the rare opportunity. This half-Parsi certainly did. And there are no prizes for guessing the first dish on our order list.

 

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Patra ni machhi
  • I’ve taken this one from a cookbook by Katy Dalal who was invariably described as the “doyenne of Parsi cooking”. She was also an archaeologist and a wonderful raconteur who insisted on demonstrating this dish to me when I once interviewed her.
  • Ingredients:
  • 2 large pomfret cut into five slices each, washed and sprinkled with salt
  • For chutney
  • 1 freshly grated coconut
  • 2 cups chopped coriander
  • 1 tbsp chopped mint
  • 1-inch ginger, peeled
  • 20 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 6 green chillies, with the seeds removed
  • 10 peppercorns
  • 1 tbsp jeera seeds
  • Juice of two limes
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • Salt
  • 6 large, soft banana leaves
  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • Method:
  • Remove the centre stalk of the banana leaves so that you have 12 pieces.
  • Grind all the ingredients for the chutney together till soft and buttery. Add a little water if needed.
  • Then smother each piece of pomfret in chutney and wrap it in a banana leaf and then tie with white thread. Make neat parcels.
  • Grease an aluminium tray with oil. Place on a medium flame and arrange fish packets on hot tray. Leave for three minutes, then turn each packet. Upside down. Sprinkle with water and vinegar and cover tightly.
  • Cook on low flame for about 15 minutes, turning them over at least once. Serve hot.

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Published on August 21, 2020
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