In Conversation With Tanaz Godiwalla, The Queen Of Parsi Catering

In Conversation With Tanaz Godiwalla, The Queen Of Parsi Catering

Parsis love food. We’re always talking about it. At breakfast, we discuss what’s for lunch; at lunch, we discuss what’s for dinner; at dinner, we discuss the next day’s menu. While Mumbai’s many Parsi-Irani restaurants are testaments to our deep love for all things gastronomic, there’s no time of year that showcases our love for food better than the months of November to February. That’s how you know them. I know them as ‘lagan-navjote season’.

A ‘lagan’ is a wedding, while a ‘navjote’ is an initiation ceremony, where young Zoroastrians are formally inducted into the religion. But these milestone functions are usually less about the festivities and more about the food. These functions usually take place in a baug, which is really just a large open space conducive to the set-up of row after row of tables and chairs for al fresco dining. There’s also a stage where the bride/groom/host/whoever (no one really cares) spends most of their time sweating under bright lights with smiles frozen in place waiting to greet the well-wishers—no different from the formalities at any community’s wedding.

But, the one person who has everyone’s attention usually sits way at the back, past the rows of tables, almost shying away from everyone. Her name is Tanaz Godiwalla and she is the undisputed queen of catering as far as Parsi functions go. Before the friends are told, the guest list is made, or even the baug booked, Godiwalla is telephoned and informed of the date. As far as modern day figureheads of the dwindling community goes, few names evoke as much familiarity and flavour as hers.

Considering that, and the fact that she caters an average of 150 ‘lagans’ and ‘navjotes’ in December alone, surprisingly little is known about her. She prefers to remain low-key, to keep to herself. So I got hold of her number, told her I’m so-and-so’s son, (always works in the Parsi community, everyone knows everyone) and got an appointment to meet her.
I remember being nervous on my way up in the elevator. I’ve met her at functions many times. But nothing more than a casual, “Hi, I loved the food”, sort of conversation. This was going to be different. I wasn’t meeting her in a social setting. I had been invited to her home, to her private space to chitchat and get to know the real Tanaz Godiwalla. In our world, that’s the equivalent of meeting Nigella Lawson.

Just as I was about to ring her doorbell, staccato thoughts struck me: Oh god, please don’t let her offer me food. I just had lunch. But if she does, how can I refuse? It’ll look rude. She’s a caterer. She’s THE caterer! Refusing to eat her food, even politely, is like being invited to paint with Picasso and saying no. I pushed my thoughts aside and rang the doorbell. She came to the door, shook my hand and guided me in to a large, airy living room. I sat down on the sofa, and after a cup of tea and some light snacks—which I politely declined—we began to chat.

Tanaz’s parents Freny and Rohinton were the ones who set up Godiwalla Caterers. Her sister and brother were also involved in the business. Her sister married and moved away. After the death of her parents and her brother, Tanaz took charge. Seated across from me in an armchair, Godiwalla says, “I love what I do and I do it with a lot of passion and happiness. Money always follows when you do something with all your heart. So in a way, I’m blessed to be able to do something that I love.”

She does however lament the fact that things are beginning to get a bit tedious. There are days when she caters up to five functions at a time. “It’s exhausting and mentally challenging to procure things and to put it all together.”

Speaking on the community, Godiwalla feels that along with their diminishing numbers, the Parsis seem to be losing pride as well. “I don’t see the sense of pride any more. Today’s youngsters are very complacent. They’re happy with a house in a colony, parents to look after them and a regular job. Earlier Parsis used to hold respectable jobs in industries like banking and law. Not anymore though. No one seems to have a drive anymore.” You may think this sounds a bit unfair coming from someone who, it seems, was essentially handed a successful business to run. But that’s far from the truth. Godiwalla worked her way up just as anyone else would have had to—she’s been on chopping duty, cleaning duty, cooking duty and everything else, before her mother thought she was ready to step up and take on a managerial role.

I ask her how she manages catering so many events in such a short period of time. She laughs and offers to show me her appointment diary. It’s an ordinary little red hard-backed notebook, the kind I used in school. She flips it open. Inside, are pages and pages of scrawled-in dates that she’s already been booked for—some stretching as far ahead as December 2017. This year is even crazier, she explains, as Diwali is pushed back. Which means everything else gets pushed back too. So she’s going to be working an even tighter schedule this year. On the first Saturday of December 2015, she has five functions. As the holiday season draws nearer, it becomes crazier. “Everyone wants those two or three golden weeks because that’s when schools are closed and relatives visit from abroad,” she says.

Photographed by Neville Sukhia

How does she manage to be at multiple functions on a single day? I stop my mind as it begins to wander, pushing out images of Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger and her nifty little time-turner. “I’m blessed with good staff. In fact, we’re more like a family,” she says, offering a much more reasonable response. “I get so emotionally involved with a function when I do it. For that time, I treat it as though it were my own. Once it’s done, I switch off and move on to the next. That’s the only way I can keep going. It gets so bad, that, at times, I can’t even remember the client I had yesterday.”

I ask her what that must be like, considering she’s so famous within the community: Does it ever get awkward? “Terribly,” she grins. “That’s why I keep to myself and sit way at the back. I dread being present at functions, but I have to do it. I don’t remember names too well because I deal with so many people. I remember and identify people by their little quirks and nuances. I’ll look at someone and have no clue who he is, but I’ll remember that he has a potato allergy, or that he likes his eggs a certain way, or that his wife was particularly picky while deciding the menu for their son’s wedding.”
She’s not bragging. It’s true—more people in attendance know her better than they know the hosts.

During the season, Godiwalla’s typical day sees her surfacing at nine. She goes to the baug where the function is scheduled to take place later in the day. Piles of fish and chicken, carcasses of lamb, litres of milk and mounds of uncooked rice litter the open-kitchen in a cordoned off section. There are also numerous logs of wood—Godiwalla cooks everything over a wood fire. It’s how her food gets its characteristic taste. While she isn’t proud of the environmental unfriendliness of the procedure, she also has to make do—these makeshift open-air kitchens only exist for the function. There’s no gas connection or even provision for it. So wood is the only way.

Photographed by Neville Sukhia

While explaining this, her phone rings. Excusing herself, she takes the call. It’s a Bohri woman from Crawford Market who enquires whether she caters full-time or just in season. Godiwalla explains that she does do dabbas, but it’s only during the season and right now, on the occasion of Parsi New Year. The woman apparently wanted Parsi bhonu every day.

Explaining her process, Godiwalla says that on days when she has multiple functions to cater, everything is prepared at one venue.  She’s talking hundreds of kilos of meat and fish. When I ask her why she does that, she gives me an answer that’s so simple, only someone who has devoted years of her life to the craft they love would be able to come up with it: “That’s how I maintain consistency. No matter which function you’re at on that day, the food will taste the same because it’s all been prepared and marinated together—the saas-ni-machhi at Albless Baug will taste the same as the one at Colaba Agiary.” 

Once the food is prepped, it’s transported to its respective baug to be cooked. Interestingly, the actual cooking of the food doesn’t take place till after 5:30 pm. She doesn’t believe in cooking her food early, keeping it ready and simply reheating it before serving. The first dinner seating (there are usually three or four and each seats about 150 people) takes place between 8 and 8:30 pm. That means her staff cooks the food in batches to feed 150 people at a time. The logistics are mind-numbing. Moreover, her assembling and disassembling process would probably be something any festival on earth with a ‘leave no trace behind’ policy would be proud of. “We’re always on the move, from one function to another. We can set up shop and cook anywhere. Almost like a travelling show,” says Godiwalla.

How does she combat wastage, I ask, if she deals with such huge proportions? “I have my raw materials, and I have a person at the gate keeping count. So I know that by 10:30 pm, 800 people are at the venue. 500 have eaten, which means I need to cook for 300 more. So that’s two sittings of 150 each. Every piece of fish is accounted for and cooked. I am very thorough. After all, if there’s waste, it’s my loss.”
As my mathematically challenged brain struggles to keep up with her calculations, she goes on to tell me that when she makes custard, she burns 120 litres of milk per venue. For her saas, she uses 10 kilos of flour, 120 eggs, 15 kilos of sugar and her secret ingredients.

Photographed by Neville Sukhia

By now, I’m curious to find out the favourite food of the woman who feeds thousands every year. But first, I pose the most hotly debated question I can: I ask her if she prefers saas-ni-machhi or patra-ni-machhi. The former is a Godiwalla staple, and a hot favourite at functions. It’s basically pomfret poached in a white, tangy, sweet-and-sour sauce. The latter, is pomfret smeared with green chutney and steamed in a banana leaf. She laughs and confesses she’s all team saas. If you don’t have very many Parsi friends or aren’t privy to Parsi ways, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to choose a side between the two.

But, what does Godiwalla herself like to eat during the season? Dahi kadi and rice. “I invariably find myself taking home the the thaali-walla’s food,” she confesses, referring to the caterer who supplies vegetarian food at Parsi functions—the first three rows of chairs and tables, also referred to as ‘no man’s land’. “I’m pretty simple when it comes to food. I like vegetables. I enjoy eating them.” My heart, which already sank at the words ‘dahi kadi’, is now experiencing a steady plummet towards my stomach. She, who makes some of the Mumbai’s best, most sought after food, elevates dahi kadi and vegetables to the top of her personal food pyramid? Thankfully, she confesses that otherwise, she’s a huge fan of Chinese food. In fact, on Parsi New Year, while scores of people tuck into her Parsi food, she’s probably going to go to a Chinese restaurant with her family.

All through the season, she won’t eat a single piece of her famous fish, tuck in to pulao dal or indulge in lagan nu custard either. At the most, she eats a topli paneer every now and then. This bit about the paneer I totally understand. Sheepishly, I confess I eat no less than five of them each time I attend a function. They’re my weak spot.
I ask her whether she’s ever been asked to cater a non-Parsi event. “I have and I would,” she says, “but I’m so booked with Parsi functions that I don’t think I’ll get the time in the near future.”

I ask her about the most absurd menu request she’s had till date. “A client once had a pink-themed function,” she says. “So we dyed the otherwise white paneer, pink. It was quite a sight.”

“As far as possible, I will never say no. My parents always said ‘the customer is king’, and I believe that wholeheartedly. I will do my best to make sure I meet every demand a client has. And when you open yourself up to suggestions, instead of thinking Oh, I’ve been doing this for years, I’m the best there is and I know what I’m doing, you wind up learning so much. There have been so many things that have been requests and I’ve appreciated them and even incorporated them into my work. For example, a client once asked if I could serve certain items in cane baskets instead of serving trays. I obliged and discovered it looked so much nicer. Now, I use cane baskets to serve many items. We may eat off a banana leaf, but let’s not forget—presentation is important,” she laughs.

Photographed by Neville Sukhia

My second cup of tea is now over and Godiwalla begins to open up more. She’s a big cricket buff, she also likes to swim and loves a good spa session every now and then at Taj’s Wellington Mews. When the crazy season is over, she shuts shop and heads to Nashik, where she’s setting up a boutique property amidst acres of vineyards. She’s quick to point out, though, that they’re table grapes and not the wine variety. She has enough on her plate without having to worry about competing with other, more established vineyards in the region. 

“I’m really a very straightforward person. And I’m very shy. Sometimes people mistake it as being snobbish, but I’m really not. I just like to keep to myself and blend in. I don’t like to stand out. I don’t approach people, but I love it when someone comes up and talks to me. I wish people would do it more often as opposed to thinking they might be disturbing me.”

“My mother drummed two things into my head: customer is king, and nothing is irreplaceable. Today you may be at the top of your game, but tomorrow you may not. The best thing to do is to stay true to yourself, keep your head down and work for something you believe in because the show will go on, with or without you. I believe my mother’s words to such a great degree, that on the day of my mother’s funeral, I finished the rituals and I was back at the baug in time for the function. Because that’s what my mother would have done. It was trying, but she’s passed down her wisdom to me and I strive to live by it every day.”

She sounds like the CEO of a giant corporation. In all honesty, she might as well be. Godiwalla employs about 15-20 people in her core team. Under them, during the season, she has a staff of 300—and they are constantly on the move. The 300 come from two towns in Uttar Pradesh called Jamnabajaj and Bahraich. “We pay daily wages,” she says, “and they come every year. They’re not bound to me at all. But we’ve become like a family over time.”

She’s even been to their hometowns. “I didn’t know what to expect. But it was life changing. They treated me like I was Shah Rukh Khan! They would follow me everywhere. When I asked why they behaved like this, I was told, ‘because you are like Shah Rukh to them. You are that big. It’s because of you that they can afford to light their stoves each night.’ I was overwhelmed.”

“I slept in my cook’s house, on a khat on the terrace. When I woke up the next morning, about 60 villagers were outside the house, squatting in the dust just waiting for me to wake up. When they’re here, working for me, I hire out Cama Baug at Grant Road in its entirety every night from 11 pm to 7 am for three months so they have somewhere to sleep.”

So what’s next for Mumbai’s Parsi queen of catering? “I don’t intend to retire. But I do want to streamline. I’d like to spend less time in Mumbai and more time in Nashik, looking after my farm and developing it further.”

And while that’s her long term plan, ours is to continue eating her food.

Photographed by Neville Sukhia
Photographed by Neville Sukhia

All Photographs By Neville Sukhia 

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