Muttony gluttony

Berjis Desai


Even if you are not an Ilm-e-Khshnoo-mist or a Parsi Theosophist, there are sufficient hints in Zoroastrian scriptures and religious texts that the Prophet wanted us to abjure meat. That’s why the Parsi Vegetarian and Temperance Society was founded by the traditionalists in 1859. Ultra orthodox Navsari, known as dharam ni tekdi, however, chose to ignore this prescription. They gorged on flesh. And more than fish or fowl, on mutton (goat, never lamb).
Early morning, you brushed your teeth with tiny twigs of the neem tree. Some pioneers of dental hygiene preferred to rub Monkey brand tooth powder (the monkey grinning on the tin); and walloped a tall glass containing doodh na puff (slightly sweetened milk condensed and made frothy under the winter sky). Then you scoured your backyard to see if any of the merrily strutting hens, wearing a necklace of beads around that neck soon to be guillotined, had laid an egg. Often a girl came and delivered duck eggs (less tasty but capable of producing a giant size omelette). Then came the boo, a wrinkled old Muslim lady with a shoulder contraption with two circular leather containers balancing each other. One contained raw mutton — fresh, pink, tender, silky, shimmering and slippery, usually from the thigh or calves; the other contained offals and body parts — bhéja, kaléji, booka, talli (brain, liver, kidney/breast, spleen).
  Translation of blurb: "Lungs for Tehemton, liver for Rohinton and for
  my Noshir, lard, ligaments, membranes"

   Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Bombay Parsis relished ox tongue but it wasn’t on the menu of Navsari ["Bichara garib jaanvar ni jeebh kèm khavay? (How can one eat a poor animal’s tongue?)”]. Boo loved kids and often gave away the offals free. Bookas were black (kidney) or white (testicles); though our grandmother would not say "testicles” to the children. The white ones were more delicious, naturally. Another delicacy was trotters called khariya, the oozing gelatine made one’s fingers sticky in the Navsari cold. They were always cooked in choraa ni dal and were highly nutritious.
Goor or marrow was much relished. Children fought for the right to suck goor from the bone; adults politely extricated it with a marrow spoon, possibly the only cutlery on Navsari tables. All ate with their fingers (haathé khaavatij dharo malé; meaning one feels satiated only by eating with the fingers); some tried to extract goor with the little finger or put the bone to their lips and take a pranayama like deep breath which often resulted in the goor flying over the tongue and straight down the food pipe. 
Chicken was rare on household tables though served often at wedding feasts. The domesticated hens were consumed if they stopped laying eggs; but never the rooster, angel of dawn. Beef and pork were absolutely taboo. Fish of course was aplenty but always played second fiddle to good old mutton.
Despite many portraits of Queen Victoria, George V and George VI in almost all homes, there were no shepherd’s pies or steak and kidney dishes. The taste of mutton reached ecstatic heights in authentic rural cuisine. Vengnaa ma kaléji was liver cooked in sautéed aubergine; the bhéjoo was wrapped in tangy bhaaji (spinach) termed bhaaji bhéjoo or ended up in tiny cutlets, pronounced ‘cut lace’; the lesser offals joyously mingled in a spicy sauce to make the famed aléti paléti or combined to make a khurchan with tiny fried potato cubes added. Even the umbaryoon (not to be confused with undhyoon) where raw veggies were placed in a clay pot and then buried overnight in the ground with simmering charcoals, was packed with boiled marinated mutton chunks. Someone who was garrulous and verbose was castigated for being a bhéja ni akuri; which the gourmets of Navsari took literally, to mix brain with akuri.
The tender raw mutton was placed on the center of a large wooden circular wooden block and then turned into mince by repeatedly and rapidly hitting it with a sharp curved sinister looking knife. Khatto mittho kheemo was the produce to be eaten hot at breakfast with ghee ni gagarti ghaoon ni rotli. With a couple of boi on the side, perhaps. Pieces of meat, fondly called botu, were ubiquitous. They were to be found at lunch in dhansak ni daal, mutton curry chawal, white sauce (no cheese) with khichri. At dinner, most vegetables and lentils were mixed with botu. Gourd, aubergine, masoor, potatoes and ladies finger.
While mincemeat was the mainstay of both cutlets and kabaabs (pronounced kawab), in the former, potato and carrot paste enveloped the meat which was dipped in whipped egg and some semolina rubbed over it, and then drowned in boiling oil in a kadhai (not a Teflon coated pan); while the latter was only spices and meat grilled on a bed of red hot charcoals. The lowly paapri (flat beans) became sexy when kabaabs were added to it. Often served as a delicacy during the four days of a wedding feast. The predecessor of the barbecue was the bhoojun where meat chunks and offals were marinated in curd with garam masala; add a dash of lime with plenty of onion rings dipped in sarko (vinegar) stored in huge open vats along with the famed gor keri nu achar, all surveyed by fat, lazy lizards who appeared immobile, until some dropped into the vat to become indistinguishable. Even the pickles were nonvegetarian.
One Noshir, who later became a Chief hydraulic engineer in Bombay, fought with his mother every night, because he was served chicchru instead of the succulent mutton pieces given to his five elder brothers. This cute word meant the extra lard or ligaments or membranes stuck to the meat. He earned the nickname Noshir Chicchru for life, while his cousin, a priest-cum-part-time caterer who won contracts by undercutting his rivals, was suspected of substituting goat with dogs and large frogs. He never ate at a function he was catering for, by citing a principle that you mustn’t burden your client.
Finally, there were two brothers, both born blind, gentle souls who played the violin with melancholy, turned Theosophists, and adopted orphan children, who also eschewed meat; one of them was obsessively fond of eating drumsticks (sékta ni sing) and was so emaciated that he resembled his favorite veggie. Whenever the loud mouthed lout of the moholla who hated vegetarians saw the thin lad, he shouted, "Aav sékta ni sing, taroo doharoon karoon (come hither, my drumstick, I shall make a gravy out of thee).” One morning, the enraged lad poked a sharp drumstick into his unsuspecting tormentor’s eye, resulting in all of Navsari calling him Bomi Kaniyo for the rest of his one-eyed existence.

Berjis Desai, author of Oh! Those Parsis and The Bawaji, occasionally practices law.