Not that the British will ever lose their penchant for keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of peril and adversity. The “Blitz Spirit” lives on; moreover, it has infected many an adopted Brit. It was certainly alive and well on the battered south coast of England where, on Christmas Eve, a close Filipina friend of mine stoically carried on preparing her festive menu for thirteen despite howling winds that made her house tremble and her perimeter fence collapse.
So it was that “neither wind, nor rain nor gloom of night” could keep people away from celebrity chefs and restaurateurs Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala’s fundraising dinner for the victims of Typhoon Yolanda (or Haiyan, as it is called here) on Monday, 23rd December 2013 in London.
Hosted at Cafe Spice Namaste, the Todiwalas’ Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant in the shadows of the Tower of London, the event was a slight variation on their monthly ‘Khaadraas Club’ — or Greedy Gourmand’s Club — dinners designed to bring Parsee heritage cuisine to a wider audience.
Parsee cuisine, for the uninitiated, is sophisticated and refined, yet little known outside the small Zoroastrian community of India that left Persia, then known as Pars, some 1,400 years ago to escape religious persecution. The cuisine has evolved over the centuries and remains predominantly non-vegetarian with nuances from Gujarati, Goan and Maharashtrian culinary traditions, reflecting the regions where Parsees settled in India.
Today, there are only about 100,000 Parsees in the world, the majority of whom reside in Bombay, but their achievements are a testament to quality over quantity. Think Tata (whose multiple interests include Tata Motors, manufacturers of Jaguar and Land Rover), conductor Zubin Mehta and the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the legendary rock band Queen. Cyrus Todiwala himself has been awarded an OBE by Her Majesty The Queen, for whom he cooked the very first Diamond Jubilee luncheon. He is a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London, and appears regularly in the media, including the BBC Food Program “Saturday Kitchen” on BBC1 and the recent BBC 2 cookery series “The Incredible Spicemen.” Indeed, he is one of only a handful of chefs to have an entry in the Who’s Who.
I have known the energetic and innovative Cyrus for almost twenty years, the last six spent helping him, his wife, Pervin, and the team at Cafe Spice Namaste navigate the competitive waters of the booming London restaurant sector. More than anything, they are like family to me.
It was touching, therefore, to hear how deeply affected they had been by events in the Philippines. “Many Parsees count Filipinos as close friends, even part of their extended family. There is a real cultural and heartfelt connection between us as fellow Asians. There was no question we wanted to do something to help,” Pervin said.
To help differentiate this fundraising dinner from the other excellent efforts being run in the UK, Cyrus decided to make the centerpiece of his four-course gourmet menu the quintessential Filipino dish Binagoongang baboy, pork in shrimp paste. He would, however, add a Parsee twist — a bit of chilli here, a few additional spices there.
Arguably, this will have been the first time a professional chef of his calibre, at least in this part of the world, chose to recreate and serve up a Filipino dish. Herein lies an interesting story. Cyrus first tried his hand at preparing Kapampangan foodie Des Rodriguez Torres’ recipe of binagoongang baboy (which includes coconut milk) two years ago after I’d shown it to him alongside the other Filipino heirloom recipes in "Kusina to Cuisine: A Theresian Cookbook", a compilation published by alumni of St. Theresa’s College, Manila. Although he says he mistakenly stirred in too much bagoong into the recipe then, he was impressed by its essential flavor. Two years later, a fundraising dinner for the Philipines would prove his chance to recalibrate portions while using the best cuts of rare breed British pork.
“I wanted to prepare something Filipino as an additional tribute to the Philippines. I am determined to learn more about this cuisine which like Indian food is the product of many influences,” Cyrus said. “As it happens, the binagoongang baboy turned out to be the highlight of the evening. Everybody enjoyed it.”
Among the guests tucking into a feast that included leelimMurghi ni curry, a Parsee-style mild, light green chicken curry and octopus no patio, slow-braised octopus with garlic, chili and malt vinegar blended with patia sauce, were Malcolm Douglas, former Deputy Editor of GMTV and now a senior consultant to charity Save the Children, who came with his wife the journalist and media trainer Roz Morris. The charity, I learned, plans to reach 760,172 people across Leyte and Panay through a range of relief and recovery programs. Also braving the weather were long-time London residents Jose Macicior and Isabel Aspillera, originally from Navarre in Spain and Manila and the energy behind bespoke tour company Travels and Tapas. Altogether, despite the heinous weather, the evening helped to raise £2,000, with support as well from sponsors i heart wines, Lotus Biscoff and Flint & Flame.
Thank heavens, therefore, for Parsees and the “Blitz Spirit,”the latter best summed up by a guest who tweeted the next day: “It was worth it (even if) we got home at 3 a.m. after three train changes and a coach! Only to find … we had no power!”
Gina Consing McAdam is a communications consultant, writer and editor. She is also a director of Cafe Spice Namaste. She has been based permanently in London since 1990.