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Tracing The Legacy of Jagannath Sunkersett

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TRACING THE LEGACY OF JAGANNATH SUNKERSETT

Jagannath Sunkersett was a city father who left his mark – and name – on Bombay through his immense contribution to its arts, culture, and education. Mrigank Warrier goes on a tour of South Bombay, tracing glimpses of the past that live on in the present.

READ MRIGANK WARRIER’S STORY

The evil that men do may live after them, but the good isn’t always interred with their bones. A few good men built this city, and their names survive, appended to their legacies: Elphinstone, Jeejeebhoy, Kennedy, Sassoon…and Sunkersett.

Jagannath Sunkersett (1803-1865) was a city father who wore many hats: businessman, landowner, educationist, reformist, founder of institutions, and benefactor of the poor; a polymath who spoke up for his native brethren to their British masters and did much to improve their lot. From Legislative Councillor to Member of the Committee Appointed for the Administration of the Hill-Station of Matheran, he accepted diverse roles and performed each with singular excellence.

By digging into digitised books and journals from the 19th and 20th centuries – and rambling around Mumbai in the 21st – I have attempted to carve out a pilgrim trail linking some of the many, many sites associated with the perseverance and largesse of Jagannath ‘Nana’ Sunkersett. Walk with me.

British South Bombay

We set off from Elphinstone College, which evolved from the Native School of Bombay – established by the eponymous governor who was favourable towards educating Indians – to the Board of Education to the Elphinstone Institution. Nana was Chairman of the Elphinstone Funds and member of the Board.

Elephinstone Coll

Let us not tarry overlong at Mumbai University, itself a descendant of the Elphinstone Institution, where six Sanskrit scholarships endowed by Nana’s son Vinayakrao Jugonnathjee Sunkersett in his memory in 1866 continue to sponsor students. Let us pay but a moment’s obeisance at the iconic Asiatic Society, which holds within its hallowed halls a statute of Nana, the first Indian member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in London and one of the Bombay Society’s founders. We must not omit to swing by Borabazaar’s Gunbow Street, which derives its name from a corruption of Ganbasett – Nana’s grandfather, who migrated from Murbad to set up a mercantile business within the fort walls.

horniman circle asiatic library

We take a moment’s respite by the western face of much-photographed Victoria Terminus; the sculpted visage at the extreme right of the row of faces is Nana’s. He and Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy formed the Indian Railway Association to lobby the British to bring railways to India; this grew into the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (now the Central Railway), of which Jeejeebhoy and Nana were the only two Indian directors. Its first ticket office was set up at Nana’s premises in Girgaum, and he was on board the first train from Boree Bunder to Tannah on April 16, 1853.

Marine Lines-Girgaum

We now veer west and pad lightly between the two peaceful plots of Bada Kabrastaan. A bust of Nana catches your eye, nestled in a private crematorium named for the man who strove to prevent the Sonapur (Chandanwadi) burning grounds from being shifted elsewhere. One-and-a-half centuries later, the secretary of the Bombay Hindu Burial and Burning Grounds Committee remains a Sunkersett.

Inside the Crematorium

Traipse into a parallel lane, and you will find yourself at SL and SS Girls’ High School. Ages ago, ‘a crop of Indian graduates from Elphinstone College in Fort, under the umbrella of the Students’ Literary and Scientific Society, decided to set up a network of schools for girls. Young and relatively poor, they turned to leading shetias (merchant elites) of Bombay.’ Nana ‘donated a beautiful little cottage in his own compound to be used as a school-house…rent-free’, and against stiff opposition, enrolled girls from his own household in the school.

We come now to Girgaum Road – renamed Jagannath Sunkersett Road – a long chain of wadis from Dhobi Talao to Opera House. A nine-storey apartment building christened Sunkersett Smruti was once the site of the ‘country mansion at Girgaum’ of the ‘rich Hindoo banker’. In a report of a party thrown here to welcome Lord Keane, Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army, an 1840 issue of the Asiatic Journal reports that ‘The mansion of Sunkersett is one of the handsomest on the island, and is particularly distinguished for the beauty of its garden…the courteous attentions, hospitality, gentlemanly, and indeed highly polished manners of the host could not fail to impress all his guests with sentiments of esteem and respect.’

Sunketsett Smruti

Behind the bygone mansion is Nana Sunkersett Wadi, now a morose mix of chawls, godowns, and a BEST substation.

Byculla

We take a flying leap to the Victoria and Albert Museum and Victoria Gardens, now known as Bhau Daji Lad Museum and Jijamata Udyan. Nana was President of the Museum Committee, and his portrait hangs on its staircase landing. He was also President of the Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India, which laid down exquisitely landscaped gardens at Mount Estate. Try to picture Nana at its opening, escorting Lady Frere through the arbour.

BDLM_003

As we make our way back west, we pass through Play House, which got its epithet from the Grant Road Theatre, constructed in 1846 on land donated by Nana. With this, the onus of funding entertainment moved from elite patronage to tickets sold to the hoi polloi. In 1853, it hosted its first non-English play, Vishnudas Bhave’s Ramayana, in Marathi. Raja Gopichand and Jalandhar in Hindustani and Parsi theatre’s Rustom Zabooli and Sohrab soon followed. The theatre building itself is long gone, but it cradled the aforementioned vernacular theatre movements – ancestors of the Hindi film industry as we know it today.

Tardeo

Soothe your weary feet with the assurance that your journey is almost at an end. As you descend Frere Bridge, you may ignore Sunkersett Municipal School on your left, now unrecognisable as the brick-red Door Step School. Gaze upwards at the cable-stayed hydra of the aakaashi paadchaari pul (skywalk) that crouches over Nana Chowk, home to a bust of Nana unacknowledged by motorists whizzing past. Turn right and stop for a photo-op at Bhavani Shankar Mandir. Constructed in 1806 by Nana’s father, its low, Konkan-roofed structure silently resists the oppression of the tasteless towers that hem it in. Next door is Sunkersett Mansion, an angular building that replaced another of Nana’s residences. Its grounds included a dharamshala and the Sunkersett Babulsett Charitable Dispensary founded by Nana in his father’s memory.

Bhavani Shankar Mandir 1

When we turn into Jagannath Lane opposite, you will not be surprised by the signboard claiming that East and West Villa – old, squat buildings – are property of the Shankarsett family. Nana is long gone, but his descendants and his gifts to the city live on. As you move to take your train home from Grant Road station by walking through Shankarsheth Lane – better known as Bhaji Gully – you may join millions of others before you who have sent a silent prayer of thanks to Jagannath Sunkersett and thought to themselves: ‘What a man! What a legacy! What a life!’

Photographs by Suruchi Maira

 
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A Trip Down Pav Bhaji Lane

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A TRIP DOWN PAV BHAJI LANE

Pav bhaji has transcended from sustenance for mill workers to one of Mumbai’s most popular foods (giving vada pav a run for its money), with versions available in every format at railway stations, quick service restaurants and even in a couple of gourmet avatars. While there is no clear “best” pav bhaji in town, a perennial favourite is Sardar Pav Bhaji, which serves just pav bhaji and different versions of it.

Sardar Pav Bhaji, 166-A, Tardeo Road Junction, Mumbai 400 034. Phone: 022 2353 0208

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI

Trips to Girgaum Chowpatty were an integral part of my Mumbaikar’s childhood, and pav bhaji was my favourite thing to eat there. My father, who hated long queues at restaurants, would respond to my tantrums to eat out by taking me to Chowpatty. Amongst my best childhood memories are those of us sitting under the stars on a hand woven straw mat while I relished the humble mash of perfectly spiced vegetables anointed with a halo of glistening butter. Having finished the pav bhaji, we’d end the evening with an ice gola dipped in sour, black currant syrup.

Providing sustenance for the mill workers, the first pav bhaji sellers appeared in the city in the late 1950s and ’60s. They soon became popular with the cotton exchange traders who waited late at night for the New York cotton prices to be announced. Easy to make, hearty and wholesome, it gained instant popularity. Today, it’s practically the “national” dish of Mumbai (giving vada pav a run for its money) with versions available in every format at railway stations, quick service restaurants and even in a couple of gourmet avatars.

Ask anyone in Mumbai where you will find the most iconic pav bhaji and chances are you will be directed to Sardar, a 50-year-old restaurant in Tardeo. Established in 1966, Sardar is credited with gilding the common man’s pav bhaji with a slab of golden butter, elevating it instantly (every time I see an Amul hoarding with the words “utterly butterly delicious” I think not of butter, but of pav bhaji).

As the years go by, pav bhaji, once the staple of mill workers, has been given a trendy makeover.

A recent visit to Sardar surprised me – there was a long queue despite it being a weekday. But then I realized the open kitchen is strategically placed right at the entrance. As the cooks mashed the vegetables, the aromas ambled down the queue, whetting appetites, making the wait equally worthwhile and unbearable.

The queue moves quickly. Like the traditional Indian-wedding buffet system, Sardar allocates tables in batches. The menu is just pav bhaji and versions of it, (cheese pav bhaji, masala pav, khada pav bhaji, Jain pav bhaji), some juices and two desserts – Caramel Custard and Chocolate Mousse. The restaurant seats up to 40 people, and the concise menu means ordering and service is efficient.

Once I’d earned my seat, all I had to do was wait for my Amul Bhaji (named after the butter). Note to newbies: Sardar also whips up a special garlic chutney to add extra punch to the bhaji. In a matter of minutes, the famous Sardar Pav Bhaji (a luxurious pat of Amul butter melting on top) was served, with pav (also slathered in butter), chopped onions, lime and papad. My signature Mumbai meal was complete.

There are several contenders – Sardar included – for the distinction of Mumbai’s best pav bhaji. A favourite with government officers and the working class of the CST and Fort areas, Cannon Pav Bhaji is a historic institution. Feeding hundreds everyday, this tiny kiosk bang opposite Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) is a popular breakfast and after-hours hangout, a landmark meeting point for canoodling couples, businessmen in deep discussion or college students on a skimpy budget.

As the years go by, pav bhaji, once the staple of mill workers, has been given a trendy makeover. Its pride of place on the Mumbaikar’s palate has inspired chefs to attempt to reinvent it, giving it room on innovative menus with global aspirations. There’s a Pav Bhaji Fondue at Spice Klub, and 145 Kala Ghoda serves the staple in a cone! But to me, it will always be the stuff of impromptu trips to the beach, eating with the people of my city.

Feature photo by Harsh Agrawal [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

 
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The Essential Guide To Combating A Hangover In Mumbai

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THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO COMBATING A HANGOVER IN MUMBAI

WORDS BY MEHER MIRZA

A great night out doesn’t mean you have to suffer the next day. Our guide to surviving an epic hangover has you covered. You’re welcome.

After a sybaritic night on the town, when the dank, fetid winds of hangover start blowing your way, there’s only one thing for it: Food, the cure-all, the do-over, the magic wand. If you have the strength to drag yourself from the rubble of your miserable morning-after, may I point you in the direction of these scrumptious sustaining dishes? There’s a time for fine dining but this isn’t it.

Sharda Bhavan

When you wake up with the taste of last night’s tequila still coating your tongue, there’s really only one thing that can wash it away for me, and that’s sugary, frothy, milky South Indian filter coffee. The rough, sugar hit, the walloping burn; you can be sure that a slug of the potent stuff will slick away any remnants of your hangover. Drink and then down a plate of deep-fried vada, floating in a moat of fiery rasam.

Sharda Bhavan, Lakhamsi Napoo Road, Matunga, Mumbai 400 019

Hotel Noor Mohammadi

Started in 1923 by Abdul Karim, Noor began as an early morning eatery (6 a.m.) catering to the pious Namaz offerer. Noor has a sketch by MF Husain. Noor has a dish named after Sunjay Dutt. But what Noor does best is its nalli nihari – deep, swarthy, velvet-soft thigh meat, ballasted by spice and smothered in a zesty, savoury gravy. Eaten with crisp roti and a fizzy soda, it is a killer cure for a hangover.

Hotel Noor Mohammadi, 181-183, Abdul Hakim Noor Mohammadi Chowk, Bhendi Bazar, Mumbai 400 003

Valibhai Payawala

After a torrid night, it is time for the simple pleasures of life – meat and grease. At Valibhai, the meat is cooked through the day on coal fires, dum style, until it is soft, luscious, unresisting enough to fall off the bone at the slightest nudge and dissolve into the gravy. Order the paya (trotters), the pichota (oxtail), the nalli (thigh / shanks) or the topa (neck); it doesn’t matter which. Scoop it up with the fluffy, charred tandoori rotis. Smile insouciantly. Your hangover has been vanquished.

Valibhai Payawala, 45, Gujjar Street, Bohri Mohalla, Bhendi Bazaar, Mumbai 400 003

Sarvi

As a child growing up in a Parsi household, I was regularly fed kidney, brains and trotters. Which is why the bheja masala fry at Sarvi’s is a Proustian memory for me. There is something gloriously warm and emollient about the dish, something that harks back to the happiest, simplest version of myself, a time when I didn’t have to grapple with the world weariness that nips at my heels after a drunken night out.

Sarvi, Dimtikar Road, Nagpada, Byculla (w), Mumbai 400 008

 

Want home delivery options if you just can’t get out of the house and need sustenance brought to you?

RECOMMENDATIONS BY KRUTI DALAL, GENESIA ALVES, JUHI PANDE AND SHIVANI SHAH

If it’s one of those mornings where you need to wrap a pillow around your face and wear your sunglasses over it, then may we suggest you stay home and dial some delicious? Here’s a list of places that will send you exactly the sort of food that you’re craving:

Coma Coma

Burritos, empanadas and tortas with a generous helping of perfect picco de gallo is food heaven for most of us. The 15,000 km gap between Mumbai to Mexico is bridged with ease by Coma Coma.

Order online from Scootsy

Sukh Sagar

There’s nothing better than butter to battle the bitter aftereffect of beer. And no one north of the sea link uses butter better than Sukh Sagar. Crisp pao lathered with liquid gold and a creamy bhaji that could give Sardar hot competition. Fiery onion and tomato masala stuffed inside a moist bun. Golden brown dosas that snap beneath your fingertips like khakras. And then there’s the suspiciously purple, but delightfully tart cocktail juice to wash it all down. Hangover? What hangover?

Sukh Sagar, 11, Subhkammna, Mahavir Nagar, Kandivali (w), Mumbai 400 067

Oye Panjabi Kitchen

Oye Panjabi built its formidable reputation on the highway to Nasik, but you’re too drunk to drive. Stay put and order in. The delivery is efficient. The basics are excellent; maa ki daal, murgh makhani, palak paneer, dum aloo Punjabi. The kebabs seem almost too sophisticated for your average brother-trucker – cleverly seasoned, not too spicy and perfectly cooked. You could pretty much pick anything off the menu and it will be light, wholesome and actually nourishing. Just like mum used to make – without the lecture at the absolute state of you!

Order online from Scootsy or Swiggy

Swati Snacks

If you wake up feeling nauseated at even the thought of food, you need something liquid. If you’re not from the “battle a hangover with more alcohol” school of thought and it feels like good ol’ water may not do the trick, don’t despair – that’s where Swati Snacks and its life-saving coconut punch come in. Hydration: check. Energy: check (we’re pretty certain there’s much sugar in there). Taste: double delicious check (They also have sugarcane juice, limbu pani and sweet lassi if you need options).

Swati Snacks, Karai Estate, Opposite Bhatia Hospital, Tardeo, Mumbai 400 007

 
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PAC Serves Parsi Snacks For The Soul

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PAC SERVES PARSI SNACKS FOR THE SOUL

Parsi Amelioration Committee or PAC as it is better known, is over 70 years old and is named for the charitable work that is done by a Parsi trust for the poor and the needy. It’s an easy to miss food stall near Nana Chowk, Mumbai. Our advice would be to make a little effort and not miss PAC if you’re feeling peckish (or ravenously hungry). Think rawa fried lamb cutlets, chicken pattice with puffy, buttery pastry, not-too-spicy lamb samosas, badam pak, chapat and other utterly delicious Parsi snacks. Parsi Amelioraton Committee, 292 Shastri Hall, Shop No. 3, Nana Chowk, Tardeo Road, Mumbai 400 007

READ MEHER MIRZA’S STORY

If you’re looking for a charming café, this isn’t it. PAC isn’t the most salubrious space – frenetic Nana Chowk traffic ribbons past it, the harsh glare of the tube light illuminates a shabby glass display and you will have to step over a stray dog who drapes herself across the entrance. But none of this matters once you have eaten there, because the food is excellent (and the dog is gentle and adorable). The glass counter is stacked with mostly non-vegetarian snacks that flaunt themselves like cheap tarts at anyone who passes by. I am always passing by and always smitten by them, my stomach loudly confessing its desires for the pies and the pattice, the samosas and the batasas, the shrewsbury and ginger biscuits. PAC is where I go to escape the pap and pabulum of everyday mealtimes. PAC (Parsi Amelioration Committee) is nearly 75 years old and is named for the charitable work that is done by a Parsi trust for the poor and the needy. Today, most of the staff ladling out the goodies are non-Parsis; gone are the bustling, sonsy Parsi matrons of yore. Not that that makes an iota of difference – the cooking has always been consistently good.

PAC’s mango chunda packet tells us that it is “Tenderly pickled With loving hands”. How do you resist such a thing?

As a delicious shoehorn into the world of Parsi snacks, try the chicken pattice, little golden pies small enough to be polished off in two big bites. The puffy, crispy, flaky, buttery pastry hides a belly full of lightly spiced, creamy chicken. If you like, you can lift the pastry lid right off and eat it plain so that it crumbles in your mouth. Then you can eat the rest. This pattice has sustained me lovingly, during my most difficult times — on exam days, after acrid fights, on long and empty nights. Cold, claggy pattice straight from the fridge may not have been the most delicious thing in the world, but it was always solidly, comfortingly there. I’m waxing on about the pattice, but the Mirza family favourites are the samosas. These are not the regular Punjabi samosas with their thick shell and vegetable stuffing. PAC’s samosas are to the baug-born – an unctuous mutton or chicken filling with the barest hint of heat, enveloped in a thin shroud of batter and deep fried until crisp. There is no chutney that accompanies these samosas. Eat them at tea time, after roasting them on the tawa. Then there are PAC’s very good, very sturdy mutton cutlets. The heart of the cutlet is a mince and potato blend that is well-seasoned, wrapped in rawa and fried. There is also the chicken farcha, in which the chicken comes cloaked in a veil of lacy batter. PAC’s mango chunda packet tells us it is “Tenderly pickled With loving hands”. How do you resist such a thing? And although winter definitely isn’t coming any time soon, keep an eye out for the vasanu, eeda pak and badam pak (savoury, spicy, fudgy concoctions) that are rolled out in November, December and January to warm stomach and soul. People also flock to PAC for its coconut ghari which is a pastry with a sticky, shaved coconut stuffing; dense kumas cake; toddy-soaked bhakra biscuits and chapat, a sort of Parsi crepe. Clearly, I have eaten at PAC many, many times. Yet, whenever I think of it, I am always reminded of the first time it swam into my life. Many years ago, my parents hosted a jashan ceremony at our home to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Family and friends poured into the hall, the priests’ sonorous chants engulfed the room and the smoke from the holy fire stained the air. When it was all over, my mother came in with cool rose sharbat for everyone. Tray after tray of PAC’s samosas, pattice, cutlets and bhakras were disgorged from the kitchen, and I was assailed by a meaty, smoky aroma. It was, of course, the smell of the food, but also, in that moment, the aroma of my culture, of camaraderie, of happiness, of enduring love.

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