Food

This old Parsi cookbook is as singular as the community whose recipes it documents

‘The Time & Talents Club Recipe Book’ contains 2,000 recipes, is 500 pages long, and dispenses wisdom from Shakespeare and Voltaire.

In this edition of our monthly column on community cookbooks, we look at The Time & Talents Club Recipe Book, first published in 1935. You can read the previous column here.

The Time & Talents Club Recipe Book is a tome you need two hands to carry. Though it began as a single-sheet cookbook, it has been republished six times over 40 years, between 1935 and 1975, and is now a hardbound doorstopper that is 500 pages long and home to over 2,000 recipes.

This is a cookbook deeply cherished by Parsis, not only because it is a collection of traditional recipes – it goes beyond restaurant menus and into the kitchens of traditional homes to offer intriguing and unique recipes like vaal ni dar with aloo na patra (bitter beans cooked with arum leaves) and dodhi no doombo (stuffed marrow or pumpkin) – but also because it is considered a commentary on the singular community.

Labour of love

The book’s origins lie in The Time & Talents Club, of Marine Lines Bombay. Founded in 1934 by Gool Shavaksha, the club, open to members of all communities, was predominantly full of Parsi women. Driven by social conscience but limited by agency, the women were determined to channel their cultural activities to charity. They put together The Time & Talents Recipe Book to document the community’s unique culinary traditions and their proclivity for a good meal. All proceeds from cookbook sales were donated to charity.

The book today is out of print, but will most likely be found on the bookshelves of any self-respecting Parsi cook. Our friend (and gifted chef) Farhad Karkaria, lent us his well-used copy, extensively marked with recipes he has tried and loved – “Their chicken liver pate is one I absolutely love! And a bheja masala on page 78 that is a favourite I keep returning to.”

Farhad grew up on stories of the club: “My friend’s grandmother, Jeru Patel, would visit the club whenever she was in Bombay. These women would meet every weekend, and bring three dishes each with them. From tasting 60-odd dishes each weekend, only three would make the cut into the cookbook. And they did this over several years, collecting recipes, and staying mostly true to the families they came from.”

The cookbook includes recipes from legendary Parsi chefs and authors like Bhicoo Manekshaw and Villie Mehta, who collected recipes from their mothers and mothers-in-law. Niloufer Ichaporia called it “the Bombay Bible…. a perfect window into the changing food-of-everywhere culinary culture”. Its recipes have been used by Parsis everywhere to teach themselves cooking, and find courage and solace in a foreign country, through the food of their hometown.

Photo credit: Aysha Tanya
Photo credit: Aysha Tanya

Old-fashioned

The book, which is almost encyclopedic in scope, is a decidedly different breed of cookbook from the 21st century versions that we are now accustomed to – the one that strives to be both equally at home in your kitchen and on your bedside table. The Time & Talents Club Recipe Book, right from the start, establishes itself as a cook’s book. Contrary to what its size might suggest, its practical, no-nonsense instructions are meant to be a companion in the kitchen, a reassuring voice as you’re fumbling your way through a long-forgotten Parsi recipe.

The book opens with a section that lays down the ground rules such as measurement conversions of all kinds between tablespoons and ounces, Celsius and Fahrenheit and between liquid and dry ingredients. The importance of these measurements is established with quotes that dot the page: “Measure for measure” (Shakespeare), “The mouth is an unlimited measure” (Lao Tse) and – our personal favourite – “Drink by measure, bread by pleasure”.

The book is categorised into 12 sections and while most of the categories are obvious, some seem forced. For example, Breads, Chappatis, Cakes and Puddings is a chapter unto itself, followed by Quickies, Desserts, Puddings and Sweets. There is even a section on International Dishes that includes the likes of Turkish Coffee and Zuppa di Vongole. Each section is preceded by a page of helpful hints, some of which are truly inspired – “Drop one or two marshmallows into a cup of black coffee. This is an excellent substitution for cream and adds flavor to the coffee.”

To break the text, there are a few italicised quotes on every page that are meant to inspire you in your search for culinary nirvana. You may wonder, however, if the book may be a few hundred pages shorter had it not included so many quotes, but that would be missing the forest for the trees.

Worth the effort

The first dish we set out to make is, predictably, one with eggs – Eggs on Potatoes and Onions. The Parsi obsession with eggs is legendary and with good reason. It could be argued that no other cuisine has found as many creative ways to put the humble egg to use. The dish starts with sautéing potatoes and onions in ghee. A couple of eggs are then cracked over this mixture and baked in a gentle heat, until the potatoes turn golden with crisp corners and the yolks turn into pools of velvety, fudgy bliss. The recipe is very forgiving, versatile and utterly delicious.

Photo credit: Aysha Tanya
Photo credit: Aysha Tanya

Having established trust in the preciseness and reliability of the recipes, we opted for a more challenging recipe next – Bhatiarkhanna-na-Bhejan. The recipe unfortunately assumes that you know how to clean a sheep’s brain, which we didn’t. But besides this oversight, the instructions were sufficiently detailed and straightforward. A simple cocktail of ingredients, including jaggery and dried red chillies, were cooked and the brain was added to the mixture and fried. Although brain is an acquired taste, the resulting dish was perfectly cooked and the flavours well-balanced.

Even though The Time & Talents Club Recipe Book is best known as a resource for Parsi recipes, it is an invaluable to anyone with a keen interest in cooking or simply eating delicious, nutritious meals. After all, in the words of Voltaire, quoted in the book, the fate of the nation has often depended on the good or bad digestion of its prime minister.

Eggs on Potatoes and Onions (Serves 6)

Ingredients
6 eggs
1 lb potatoes
2 tbsp ghee
1/2 lb onions (slice thinly)
2 green chilies (chopped)
2/3 tbsp salt
1 tbsp chopped coriander leaves

Method
Cut potatoes into small cubes. Heat ghee and fry onions for 2 minutes. Add potatoes and cook both vegetables till almost done. Add salt, chillies, and coriander leaves. Remove from fire and spread in a flat greased baking dish. Break six eggs on the potato mixture, sprinkle with salt, cover and keep on a low fire or in a slow oven till eggs are set. Serve hot.

Recipe by Hilla JK Daruvala

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