The kitchen of the Zoroastrian Ladies Cooperative Society (ZLCS), in a busy lane in Khanpur in the walled city of Ahmedabad, is brimming with activity. In a corner of the impeccably clean kitchen is a woman on a roti-making marathon. As the vessels pile up, another woman ensures that they are washed immediately and dried in the sun.
The smell of mutton wafts through the air as a pot of dhansak simmers on the flame. As a woman is about to sprinkle garam masala on the mutton-dal stew, a gentle voice stops her. “Not yet. Let it get a bit softer,” says Lily Sahuna.
The 67-year-old is the only Parsi in the kitchen, and also the last to cook in it. “The younger generation of Parsis do not want to be a part of this society,” says Sahuna. It is a rare day that sees her here now, when she has to supervise large orders on the weekend. Five years ago, she was diagnosed with a heart ailment and then stopped coming in regularly to the ZLCS. In her absence, the kitchen is run by six non-Parsi women, who started off with smaller tasks in the kitchen, like chopping vegetables.
The only commercial and exclusive Parsi food joint in the city, ZLCS has many faithfuls in Ahmedabad. “I order the daar ni poori as often as twice a month. My children love the bhakra. We have been ordering for over six years now. I do not know where else I can get Parsi snacks and dessert other than ZLCS,” says Shradhavi Suchde Dalal, who owns a city-based art gallery.
The snacks they make — bhakra, methi para, dates ghari, daar ni pori, patrel and coconut macaroons — vanish as soon as they are made. The ZLCS gets around five-six tiffin orders a day — mostly from single Parsi men and old couples of the 16,000-strong community in the city. “We get a lot of orders from Mumbai for the snacks. But we find it difficult to cater to all the orders as there is no expert left in the kitchen. We have stopped making delicacies like the popalji (a sweet bhajiya) and sandhra (which is made of coconut milk and is similar to a malpua) because there is no one to make it,” says Dhun Anklesaria, who is the treasurer of ZLCS. This is the only co- operative society in Gujarat which serves Parsi delicacies.
Sahuna was 19 years old when she became a part of ZLCS, a common thing for Parsi women in the 1970s when they wanted to learn Parsi embroidery. Her father, a havildar, had died when she was 18 and she needed money and a job. She enrolled in a stitching course and stayed on to cook.
“In 1967, we started making food and snacks as not many people wanted to learn embroidery. I was first taught to make cakes and biscuits. Two of the best ladies from our group were sent to the Ratan Tata Industrial Institute in Mumbai to learn cooking. They trained the rest of us,” says the frail woman.
The Ratan Tata Industrial Institute, which ran from a building on Hughes Road in Mumbai, was considered the last word on Parsi cuisine, cakes and pastries.
“I would make over 35 tiffins in a day. Each would consist of two non-vegetarian items, rice, salad and either roti or poli. We would also make Parsi snacks and desserts, which became an instant hit. We started getting orders from all over Gujarat. I remember this kitchen full of women cooking, laughing and singing. We would often work for 12 hours straight,” recalls Sahuna, as she wipes a tear from the corner of her eye. Her special skills lay in making sandhra and daar ni poori. For her efforts, she was paid Rs 7,000 a month. She would often get a bonus on big orders. Sahuna is now grandmother to three children, and her housing and health needs continue to be taken care of by the Parsi Panchayat and the ZLCS.
The future of ZLCS, and its recipes, does not look too bright to Zarin Cambatta, 80, president of ZLCS. “We are an endangered species and, with our generation, all the Parsi recipes will go,” she says.
“We had plans to start a restaurant but there are no takers left. The younger generation does not show any interest. They will prefer being chefs in hotels but will not want to be a part of this food unit. It is an important part of our culture and it is heartbreaking to see it slowly collapse,” says Mehroo Cama, vice-president of the ZLCS.