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Food Memories with Nargis Mithani

In this interview, Mrs. Nargis Mithani tells us about the Khoja community that she belongs to, its signature dishes, and the process of publishing her own cookbook (Tried and Tasted: A Cookbook by Nargis Mithani) in the year 2020.


[Acronyms: NM - Nargis Mithani; IN - Interviewer]

IN: Why don’t we start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and the community that you are from as well as the recipes you have given us on this community?

NM: Okay, I’m basically born and brought up in Bombay, from Santacruz and after marriage I was in Bombay for a few years and then we shifted to Bangalore about 30-32 years back. And, we are from the Khoja community, which has Shia muslims. Khoja comes from the word Khwaja which means businessmen so mostly our community people are into business and they are mostly from Gujarat. Our ancestors are from Gujarat, and from there people have migrated to Africa. Then, when Africa went through a little civil war issue during Idi Amin’s time, most of them migrated to the UK, USA and Canada, so now we have quite a large population in these areas and of course India as well, of course there are some in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand and all over.

But our food is a little different from Mughlai food, it doesn’t have the rich, kaju, creamy stuff because we are basically from Gujarat. So our food has got a little Gujarati effect, but not sweet like Gujarati food. So it’s a combination of slightly Mughlai but basically Gujarati. We also speak Gujarati, that’s our mother tongue, of course most of the youngsters, me included, speak only Hindi, English. I can understand Gujarati. But our food basically is Gujarati food.

IN: What a diverse community. So is it a mixture of Mughlai as well as Gujarati food?

NM: Yes because if you see our basic cooking style is Gujarati and the food habits are also similar, but yes, non-veg comes in so a little bit of Mughlai effect is there. But basically Gujarati style, not sweet though.

And in our community, there’s a little culture, like on every Friday, 99% of our community people will make dal within a bottle gourd (kadu, the green one) which in Gujarati is called dudhi so we call it ‘Dudhi wali Dal Chaawal’, that’s our Friday culture. If it’s a new moon day (chand raat) then Kheer Puri and some aloo, either the lal aloo or the batter used in batata vada. ‘Kheer Puri Batata’ is a chand raat or new moon day culture. Then there’s Biryani and Sheer Korma, typical Eid festival food.

During festivals like Navroz, because we have a little Persian influence as well, during Navroz it will be egg-based dishes. During weddings, Biryani, Samosa, of course nowadays, the buffet culture is there but traditionally, it will be Biryani, Samosa, and some Pineapple Halwa or Bread Pudding or something like that. With pregnancy, after delivery, we normally make the lady have gur papdi or paak with some herbs added to it which is called Katla in Gujarati. So that is added, which gives a little bitterness, but it’s good for the body and backache and it helps after delivery. So that’s one culture. During a death, we serve Khichda, which is served on the 40th day (chalisma), but nowadays people do not wait and serve it a few days after a person’s death.

And yes in winter time, Lehsan ka Laddoo, that is typical Gujarati culture and Muthiya which is mixed vegetables with bajra atta dumplings made with methi ki dachi, so that is a typical winter food. In the summertime, Aamras Puri Batata, is there.

Left: Lehsun ke Laddo; Center: Keema Kabab; Right: Junagadhi Kabab

Navroz special dish- Nargisi Kabab by Nargis Mithani

(Video Credits: The Ismaili TV)

IN: If I can ask, do you have a different variation for Muthiya? Like a non-veg variation?

NM: Some people add mutton to it, but 99% people make it like how others make it but no sweet flavor to it. It’s like coconut and all the vegetables, all pulses, and then you make the muthiya and you add it to the main dish so it gets cooked in the steam of the vegetables getting cooked and that is called Muthiya, which people usually cook plain.

IN: Mrs. Mithani I’m also very curious about something, like you said you have moved from Mumbai and then to Bangalore, so have you seen any changes in the way you prepare food, or has the locality you shifted to had any influence on the recipes that you have made, or has it not changed?

NM: No, that has not changed. I’ve learnt to make South Indian dishes, and that’s come into my family culture, so most of the mornings we have Idli, Dosa, Vada, that kind of thing but it has not basically made any changes to my cooking style.

I did not know cooking to be very honest because I was, we had a big joint family, 4 brothers, 4 bhabhis, so many nieces, nephews, my younger sister, my grandmom. We were 21 people in the family and we had a big ancestral home there in Santacruz. So my bhabhis, there were 2-3 maids to help, so I never went to the kitchen till I got married. So when I was about to get married, 1 month prior to that, I sat with my bhabhi and noted down, you know roti banate toh kitna atta daloon, itne atta mein kitne roti banegi, aur chawal mein kitna paani dalna hai. Basic, simple, vegetable cooking, I kept asking my bhabhi and then in that 1 month, I followed them in the kitchen to get a little hold of the whole process, but I documented everything.

And then, in my in-law’s house, it was just my co-sister-in-law and my mother-in-law who are very good cooks. So under their hand, I learnt to cook and that was a smaller house, not 21 people and so many servants that you had to cook a lot. This was a small family, so I got to practice and under my mother-in-law’s training. After we moved to Bangalore, my mother-in-law shifted with us to Bangalore so under her guidance I learnt gradually. But I’m not a non-veg eater, I’m more of a vegetarian, though I cook everything, that’s something a bit weird about me. I just go by my gut feeling, if somebody’s around I ask them to taste it and tell me whether this is correct or not.

IN: And like you said all of these recipes have been tried and tasted?

NM: Yes, I’ve actually tried and learnt and maybe not tasted everything. I mean I check the gravy or the rice, whether it’s cooked or done, but it’s tasted by everybody else and confirmed. And, whatever I’ve put in my book is all that I’ve actually cooked. And it’s not very fancy - it's a mix. It’s got typical Khoja dishes - what we cook in our house, but it's got some street food- Chinese as well, some Burmese dishes there so it’s a multi-cuisine book, you know. And it is more like a target group for first-timers or for a girl who’s getting married you know, who doesn’t know cooking, what I underwent, you know. So I am giving even the smallest

IN: No, please go on

NM: So even the smallest of things like what I’ve learnt, I’ve put that in the tips and tricks section, so that you actually know ki this can happen, yeh aise galat ho sakta hain- because I’ve gone through all that. And the whole idea of putting it in the form of a book is that when I started cooking and all, people normally asked me, you know, in our community events, if we meet or anything that we had tasted this, you had made - how do I make this? Share your recipe. So, during the lockdown, just me and my husband, I was getting a little frustrated, scared, worried, you know - kya hoga , kya nahi and that time I said let me start documenting all my recipes, and so I started typing them, and… First I thought of going to a publisher and getting it published, but then that was-I was wondering how will I sell it to them, you know- what will I do with the book, the shops are closed. And although that was working out cheaper, they wanted an order for a thousand books minimum - which would be 2-2.5 lakh rupees. And my husband was not very eager- he’s saying yeh kya for past time you’ve documented everything to give to your nieces and your daughter and your friends and all and now you want to get it published like a book. I said yeah, why not? If everything is done neatly and I’ve documented it, kyun nahi karu? toh then someone suggested something about Notion Press.

That you go to them, your profit may be less, but then they do the marketing, they do the publishing, you don’t have to - not marketing, they do the delivering and everything, you know, and they do it on Amazon, Flipkart- you don’t have to bother about the courier and this and that because who is there? I mean I am 65, my husband is 71, who’s going to go for every order to deliver- and it’s not practical. So I went to Notion Press and it worked out, you know.

Tried & Tasted: Cookbook by Nargis Mithani

IN: I’m very glad it did! And I also wanted to just know about what - how would you describe your relationship with food then, since you originally didn’t know how to cook and then you slowly learnt from those around you and you came all the way to actually documenting your recipes in a cookbook. So what has your relationship with food been?

NM: So I enjoy cooking you know, I find it like a stress-buster. I like you know, even if I’m very tired, if somebody tells me: cook this, I’m ready to. So, I don’t know why, but I’ve got a passion for cooking. And that’s what I’ve learnt. I would like to just share with you a little funny incident in my life, like when we shifted to Bangalore, and it was just about 1 month and there was a cricket match between our community people from Chennai, which was then called Madras, and Bangalore. So, there’s a youth and sports club in our community, so the boys from that team came to us, you know, - came over to my place and they said we would like you to give some donation, there’s this cricket match. People are coming from Madras and all and we would like some donation. So, I said, we have just recently moved, I don’t think I can help you much in cash, but if there’s any service or any type of help I can give you in time, then okay. So they said, can you cook? I said yeah yeah I can cook. So they said, okay, will you make Mutton Pulao for our cricket match?, so for all the participants we will be having a canteen and we will sell, so we want somebody to make it and just at a cost, no profit. I said yeah yeah I’ll do that for you. For how many people do you want? So they said we will be about 55-100 people. I said “done, I’ll do that for you but I don’t have a big container, so you’ll have to get for me that big [thetcha?] which the caterers use”. So they said “yeah we’ll do that, we’ll get it washed, we’ll deliver it to your place and we’ll come and pick it up around 12:30 in the afternoon”. I said “okay done” and my mother-in law was sitting there and she was listening and she kept swaying her head right and left saying “no, no, no”. But I was too engrossed talking to these people I ignored her and I said yes.

And the moment they left, my mother-in-law saying kya aata hai ithna khana pakana? I said haan likhi hun, bhabhi se poocha Maine, book me likke laayi hun. 10 logo ke liye ithna, tho, 10 multiply by ten 100 people ka khana ho jayega. [wo sab?] hai mere paas. So she said, how will you cook? Do you have such a big container? I said I’ve asked them to get one. [she] said, and which stove will that go up, I said that I did not think. And can you stir so much rice? Have you got any brains? The cook cooks it, you know, on fire logs and all, how are you going to do it? I said abhi mene bol diya and they have gone confirmed, you know, ki this aunty is going to make for us Mutton Pulao. So I said what do I do now? So she said abhi you think about it, it’s your problem, you decide what you want to do. Then I just thought, thought, thought over it and what I did was, it was a Sunday, so the previous night, like I chopped the onions, half fried them and kept them, transparent fried, and masala also I ground and kept it ready, potatoes I peeled and kept, mutton I marinated and kept, and then I made packets, you know, 1.5 kg rice ka packets and kept. And I started cooking at 4 in the morning, like one container of that pulao done - I emptied it in that big [thekcha] which they sent to me, then another, then another, and by 11:30 or 12 in the afternoon, finally I finished cooking 10 kg mutton and 10 kg rice for pulao, and although it would not come, because if you’re not cooking in large quantities, there should be heat on the top as well. I don’t know how to say it in English, but aana chahiye poora chawal khana should get cooked, which was not possible if I put that whole [thekcha]. So, even though it would not get completely cooked from the top, I kept emptying it in that big container and when hot pulao came on it the ones that were little half-cooked also got well done and by 11:30-12 I had that complete 100 people ka pulao ready and they took it and when they came back, they said aunty, it was so well-cooked, each grain was well-cooked, separate and mutton and potatoes, everything was well-spread, and nothing was burnt down. I just kept quiet, I said you’ll don’t know what I've done and I’ve kept awake the whole night working on this.

IN: Wow

NM: This is an incident in my life which I’ve never forgotten, after that I became more alert. So, whenever my mother-in-law, I would agree for anything for community gatherings or anything , I would look at my mother-in-law, take her approval, and then go ahead, you know. But I was that stupid, did not have the brains to think that you know how will I cook for 100 people, so much rice, how will I stir it or how will… I don’t know, just sharing it with you.

IN: Oh, thank you for sharing the experience. In fact, I’m very intrigued with your recipes, like I will definitely try some of them out, I think all of us will. They look really, really interesting. And, you know, like you said, I think cooking is often a very labor-intensive activity, you know, like the women of the house, in the kitchen and they’re cooking almost everyday - 3 meals a day. And like you said, you also had a huge family before you got married. So I was just thinking it is a very symbolic, important activity, like even when you cook for 100 people you know, I’m sure you must have seen everyone loving your dish and they were smiling.

NM: Well I did not go for that cricket match, but I got feedback, you know ki everything was sold out and they served everything and then they sold whatever was left and even the rice, with only potatoes left in it and no mutton, got sold you know. And, it was like everyone came and appreciated it and after that, for any of the community events, where they want to do something, but they don’t you know want to pay and get it done outside, you know, just a material cost they want to pay, they would approach me and that gave me more opportunity to practice and, you know, improve my cooking skills.

IN: I also had one last question, which is, how did you choose what recipes to include in your cookbook? Because as far as I know it's a multi-cuisine cookbook, so you have recipes from your community, but also from Mumbai, Bangalore. So, how did you choose these recipes?

NM: So these are things which we have been cooking normally in our houses, right? And in our community like for all these events we have a youth board, health board, education board, social welfare board, women’s activity portfolio, economic planning board, so all our community events whenever there is a gathering, normally they have some snacks or whenever there is a meal or something. So, in that we learn from each other, you know, so these are all traditionally the things that we cook in our houses. So whatever I cook in my house, I first just documented the recipes because so many times somebody calls up, “share with me this recipe, I want this recipe” and I sit and type it on WhatsApp. So, then I put it on a Word Document, then I ask my daughter, my nieces are there, one is in Pune and one is in Bombay, others are all abroad. So I will take their feedback, they say, “Now that you have documented everything, separate the starters. So, they started guiding me, “Abhi starters ka ek list banao, abhi non-veg gravy ka, tumahre roz ke khane ka, fir mithas mei kya banate hai” So, then they started guiding me, “make these categories, make a glossary, tips and tricks, they started telling me.

I did not have all that idea, I was just documenting and documenting, and after finishing documenting everything, one of my niece said, “You should mention how many people can have”. So although the documenting of the recipes was done, all these other things that they kept telling me, you know the finishing of the book that, “Yeh hona chahiye, this should go like that”, that took me more time than actually typing out recipes. My nieces and daughter were the ones and my husband was not happy he was like, “kyu chahiye? Just send it to everybody on WhatsApp”. So at that time I was like, forget it, I’ll just mail it to everyone whoever asks I’ll send it to them. My niece was like no no, you stick on, don't take a hasty decision, wait wait wait! Then one day my husband said, “Okay go ahead”. As soon as he said yes, I called up Notion Press, made their payment through credit card and closed the deal with them.

Left picture: Nargis Mithani with her cookbook; Right picture: Dishes prepared with the recipes in the cookbook

IN: Wow, that's lovely! I have one last question.

NM: Yeah sure, go ahead.

IN: I know that your community is very diverse, and like you said, you have people in Africa in the UK and like in all other countries, not just in India. And I personally have been born and brought up in Africa myself for 16 years of my life. So I was wondering when your community, like the case with me, is that I have never physically been in India in the presence of migrant families. So in that sense, any cooking that I have been exposed to has been from my parents but, of course, there have been lots of other situations in terms of like what materials are available to you, what ingredients are available to you, you know the vegetables, the fruits, sometimes you are not able to make the exact same recipe/ exact same community recipe. So I just wanted to ask since your community is so dispersed across the world, do you think it has a very big impact on the community cuisine in general, or does everything still stay intact, like the next generation also remembers these cuisines or the recipes the way they are meant to be made originally?

NM: So, basically everybody started out from Gujarat and went right, so they had this cooking style and then that is just how I learnt it from my family so this culture is going on. So, maybe yes, this generation or my granddaughters generation, they may be a little different but in their daily household this goes on right, this type of cooking and all, and in our community we are followers of The Aga Khan, in our prayer place we all interact a lot, ladies and gents both attend, there is a lot of interaction with each other and as I said various activities are held because of the various boards. So we learn from each other and then that culture continues, I don't know, it is still going on. Like if you ask my granddaughter she will say, today is Friday, aaj dudi wali dal banegi, you know like this is our culture, it is like that. On chaand raat, on new moon day everybody would have kheer pudi batata maybe lal or peela batata whatever, but this is how it is.

IN: Right, I understand, even though you are far away, food is something that does bring you together at the end of the day, that's basically the identity.

NM: People from Africa, maybe they have their own cuisine extra added on. They have something called ‘Kuku Paka’ which is more coconut based and a bland chicken dish. So that way they may have added on, but I am not exposed to that much. Indian Khoja community, maybe we are aware of that but not much into the African eating style or whatever. They have something called ‘Mandaza’, I don't know what it is though.

IN: I also wanted to ask you, do you have any favourite dishes or any favourite memories from childhood? Something that you loved having as a child, like your mother used to prepare it for you. Anything like that?

NM: So in our house in Santacruz, yes, because there were so many, I mean like I was the eldest, my younger sister was six years younger to me, my niece was 6 ½ years younger to me, so you know we were a big gang like that. So, Pani Puri was one big favourite thing in our family and Biryani of course, and all types of Bhajjiyas during the rainy season, this was it you know. I am more of a chaat person, I prefer and love chaats. So, for me chaats was the main thing and yes mango season I remember, there used to be one entire room full of mangoes, so during the mango season- Aamras Puri Batata which was there in my childhood, a very important one.

IN: And what about the Khoja Food?

NM: Khoja Food, like Ek Handi ka Dal Chawal was there, Masoor Pulav was there, these are things that every 15 days we have like a fixed thing. Like on Mondays there will be this gravy, because it was a big family, Sunday ko yeh hoga iske saath yeh banega, gwaar ki sabzi hogi and moong ka saalan hoga, that way you know, Wednesday would be boiled eggs and potato curry, but then everybody doesn't eat boiled eggs so there would be dahi ki kadhi and some sabzi. So we had a standard Khoja thing. Friday was of course Dudi wali Dali Chawal, Sunday would be for gosht pulav, masoor pulav, ek handi ka dal chawal. So there was one Monday to Sunday standard menu with variations getting added on. So, Masoor Pulav, Ek Handi ka Dal Chawal, SheerKormaBiryani, Dudi wali Dal, Dahi ki Kadhi so all these are typical Khoja dishes. And the way we prepare our vegetables was traditionally a Khoja thing, you know. Even Churme ka Ladoo.

IN: That's lovely! Thank you so much Mrs. Mithani and also Thank you for contributing your recipes to the website also, we really appreciate it.

NM: Thank you, my pleasure.


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