A 146-year-old cake shop in the heart of London's Soho is not somewhere you'd expect to smell curry. But that's exactly where I find—or rather, smell the cooking of—Farokh Talati, who is stirring onions, wrapping cod in banana leaf, and checking on baskets of paneer in the shop's small kitchen.
"There's always one point in the day when someone from downstairs comes and tells me to close the door because the cake shop starts smelling too much like curry," he laughs.
The chef can usually be found cooking traditional British food in the kitchen of St. John Bread and Wine, one of the restaurants owned by nose-to-tail pioneer Fergus Henderson. But every month or so, he hosts a set menu curry night feast in the basement dining room of Maison Bertaux patisserie, celebrating and serving the food of his Parsi heritage.
"Parsis are Persian immigrants—so Iranians—who came to India. Centuries ago, they were told you can stay and convert to being a Muslim or you go elsewhere so they sailed over and hit India," explains Tatati.
He continues: "Because there's that Persian influence, they use gentle spices like saffron, cinnamon, and cardamom and use dried fruits in savoury cooking. When they got to India, they found other stuff like meats, fish, coconuts, chilis, and harder spices. Then there's an influence from Indian dishes so over time, you've got a style of cooking that's really unique."
A style of cooking, Talati tells me, that's at the centre of Parsi culture.
"Every conversation leads to food with Parsis—it's unreal," he says, laughing. "They eat everything and food is everything to them. Parsis are quite unique because in India, it's traditionally Hindu so they don't eat any meat, then there are Muslims who don't eat pork. No one eats beef out there but Parsis eat everything. Like brains, they really love brains! My mum and aunties told me that they loved eating calves' brains as kids. I don't even want to know where they got hold of calves' brains in India in the 70s when there was no refrigeration."
Scanning the Maison Bertaux kitchen, I can't spot any apparent signs of offal among the piles of banana leaves and jars of ground spices.
"Today's menu is quite different because I'm cooking a Parsi wedding feast. That's another thing. When we have Parsi weddings, it's only about the food. One of my aunties or uncles were saying that there's a wedding season in India when everyone gets married and it goes on for months and months," says Talati. "Whenever a Parsi wedding invitation comes through, the first thing they'll do is see what's on the menu and then they'll decide whether they want to go or not. I think that's a pretty cool way to do it!"
I think it's genius.
Talati starts to prep one of the traditional wedding dishes— patra ni macchi— by smothering cod fillets in a green paste before wrapping them individually in banana leaves.
He explains: "Patra ni macchi literally translates as 'fish in leaf.' It's fish (we're using cod today), which gets coated in a paste called a chutney made from ground-up coconut, green sour mango, coriander, garlic, chilis, and bit of cumin. You smear it over the fish, wrap it up in a banana leaf, and then roast it."
"The way all the food is served is by placing more banana leaves on one big long table. All the food is spooned out onto the leaves—the patra ni machhi, the mutton pullao, the dhandar (which is a kind of dhal)—and everyone digs in. I'm reluctant to put spoons and forks out but we'll see how it goes."
As the pile of wrapped cod parcels gets bigger, Talati tells me why he spends his days off shopping for ingredients in his native Ealing and hosting these dinners.
"It's all about getting people to try a type of food they would never have a chance to try otherwise. When I'd make something my mum used to cook for me for a staff meal at restaurants I worked at, people would get a real buzz for it," he explains. "So, I decided to go to India to pester every auntie and uncle for recipes and go to all the markets and restaurants and really learn about Parsi cooking."
Talati continues: "I went to Bombay and hit up every Parsi restaurant I could find and then went to Gujarat, which is a state up north where I have family. My auntie Dinaz lives there and cooks the most amazing food you've ever tried. It's been passed down from her mum to her sisters and her. The stuff that she cooks is unreal. I can't get my head around it. Now, I save up all my holiday and take it one go so I can travel around India and go to visit her every year."
"She knows how to season and how to spice. There are lots of stages when you're cooking food like this where you add your onions but you wouldn't add your ginger and garlic until your onions are just at the right point. A lot of people would just bung the whole lot in and cook it. But she cooks it to point every time."
Reminded of his aunt's words of wisdom, Talati checks the onions cooking on the stove. I ask whether there are any culinary secrets that she is reluctant to give up.
Talati laughs and says: "Sometimes I message her and ask questions and she'll just say, 'Well you should have written it down! You'll have to learn that the next time you come.'"
"This is all food from a little household in Gujarat in some state far, far away that no one would ever get a chance to try anywhere else," he adds.
And it's not just the fact that Talati's aunt is some 4,000 miles away that Parsi dishes are rarely cooked.
"The Parsi restaurants in places like Bombay are closing down because younger generations aren't taking over family businesses and you can't get some of these dishes anymore," says Talati. "There are so few Parsis left in the world, let alone those that can cook or care about cooking. Especially in places like London, there's only one other Parsi chef that I know of called Cyrus Todiwala. I don't know what the exact stats are, but there are only about 200,000 Parsis left in the world so how many are in London, and how many are chefs? How many care about cooking? It whittles it down. I'm lucky that I have this heritage that I can do something with and the food is fucking awesome."
However, Talati tells me that even places like St. John have Parsi influences on their menu.
"There is actually a Parsi dish on the St. John menu which they don't know is a Parsi dish," he says. "It's semolina pudding and Parsis eat something similar called rava at celebrations. It's semolina pudding with brown butter and toasted almonds and raisins on top, spiced with a bit of cardamom and nutmeg."
Adding garlic to the onions, now that the latter are cooked properly, he continues: "That's the thing about Parsi food. Not all of it is what you'd think is food that comes from India. A lot of it is quiet. It doesn't scream out India or curry. It's often quite quiet in the way it comes across."
Later that evening, friends and strangers sit side by side in Maison Bertaux's small dining area, breaking fish with their fingers and mopping up dhandar with rotli. The spicing of the dhandar is gently warming, the coconut and mango cod soothing, and the mutton tender.
Talati is right—Parsi food is graceful and quiet. But the laughs and exclamations of delight shared over the table tonight speak volumes.
All photos by Liz Seabroook.