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A Parsi tea tutorial in bustling Mumbai

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

When an affable, interesting, infectiously enthusiastic Mumbai travel guide invites you to his apartment to sample homemade Parsi tea and a seasonal, date-based power sweet called Vasanu, it’s an easy yes.

Fast forward to me watching Khurshed Mogrelia peel back the layer of fat on a saucepan full of yellowy buffalo milk, then spoon-shovel a generous portion of black pepper on top of it, and the enthusiasm flagged. I steeled myself for a polite ‘oooh-that’s-good’ sip as he fetched the rest of the ingredients from the fridge.

Fast forward another 10 minutes and I was drinking the best cup of tea I’d ever tasted – a rich chai-like brew with an aromatic sweetness and just enough bite from that pepper.

One of the things we look for when traveling is authentic experiences. This can be problematic, as “authenticity,” in the context of travel, often means its opposite – an experience designed with tourists in mind to recreate an experience believed to be authentic. Sometimes you really do find it, though. And you remember why you look.

Khurshed – “Call me K” - was our guide for a “Mumbai at Dawn” tour that started at 5:30 a.m.. The highlight was the bustling Sassoon Dock fish market, where 40 tons of fish are sold at hundreds of impromptu live auctions every morning, in a breakneck race against the rising sun and Mumbai’s sweltering heat.

Later we passed a Parsi cafe, and K explained his own ethnic and religious heritage.

Parsi – sometimes spelled Parsee – refers to the ethnic group of Zoroastrians, many of whom fled Iran centuries ago. They now make up a small-and-getting-smaller religion, one of the oldest in the world. But because it does not allow people to join by converting and insists that only children of two Parsi parents can call themselves members of the group, its numbers are declining.

There are about 120,000 Zoroastrians in the world today, many of whom live in Mumbai. K explained that his apartment building is a Parsi community. That’s when he invited us to his apartment after the tour, for some of his Parsi tea and a chat with his mother, a Parsi chef.

We arrived at the apartment and met Mahrukh Mogrelia, K’s mother. Though just waking up, she was unfazed by the surprise visitors and welcomed us as her son began to assemble his tea.

First came the aforementioned buffalo milk, which was stored in an open saucepan in the fridge. K explained that he and his family prefer it to cow’s milk, then he held back the layer of fat that sat on the top and filled four tea cups halfway. He topped each of them off with water, then poured them all into another saucepan.

“That’s the easiest way to get the right amount,” he explained.

Then came the pepper, several spoons of black pepper to be exact. Well, exact is probably the wrong word. There were no measuring spoons or cups in sight, as K said he goes "by instinct."

As the pan began to heat up, he added a generous portion of loose tea leaves. Although they were store-bought, he pointed out that they were “premium.” Then he retrieved bunches of mint and lemongrass from the fridge. He took a handful of mint, twisted it in his hands to tear it and extract some of the juice, then put the whole thing into the pan. He repeated this process with the lemon grass.

He let everything come to a boil before turning it down to a simmer. Then he announced that we would also try some of his mother's Vasanu, a nutritious Parsi recipe made in winter. Mahrukh explained that the cooking process is complicated, involving many ingredients that are cooked at different times, then all mixed together at left to settle, either in a cool spot or in the fridge. At the heart of it is ghee – clarified butter.

While she served up the Vasanu, K gave the tea a last burst of heat, raising the temperature until it almost bubbled over, then turning it off. He poured the mixture through a strainer into four teacups, and brought them to the table.

“Would you like it with sugar, or jaggery?” he asked.

“I don’t know what jaggery is,” I replied. I might as well have said I didn’t know what salt was, or bread.

“Jaggery! Jaggery!” he repeated.

Mahrukh explained that jaggery is a sort of natural sweetener commonly used in India. She also suggested that I take my tea with sugar, which I did.

We bravely sipped this buffalo milk/lemon grass/mint/pepper/tea concoction, while K eyed us for a reaction. He must have noticed my look when he was loading on the pepper, and his face lit up when I so obviously liked the finished product.

You notice the pepper, of course. But it is balanced against the sweetness from the sugar, mint and lemon grass, as well as the creaminess of the milk. I could imagine myself getting used to this pleasant taste-jolt on a cold morning back home.

Then we tasted the Vasanu, which is also sweet, with a dense, nutty flavor. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine being cut into protein bars, and Mahruhk said it is filled with nutrients.

“Eat just a little bit of this in the morning, and you are all set,” she said.

I've looked up the ingredients, which it's hard to imagine I'll find them back in the states. The tea, on the other hand, will definitely be on my menu back home, though likely with good old cow's milk.

You can't always get invited into people's homes for tea. But the lesson here is to seek out people like K, who love their culture and want to share it. After rising before the sun and touring the city while most others slept, we headed back to our hotel for a mid-morning nap, nourished by the new flavors we'd discovered, and the new friends we'd made.

Check out our other travel stories here.



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