Irani Cafes are Not Yet History

While cities like Rome, Venice, Paris and New York have vibrant café culture, Mumbai too boasts of its unique Irani bakery/café culture. The cafes and eateries set up by immigrants who came to India from Iran have popularised food products that was not heard of in India till they set up shop here.

Many of these cafes went on to become iconic destinations and an integral part of Mumbai’s F&B culture. Sadly, these cafes, which were the centres of Mumbai’s illustrious eating out culture, have not been able to keep up with the changing scenario and most of them have closed down.

But Ashok Malkani finds that all is not lost for Irani cafes as new ventures of similar character, with a slight tweak, are now coming up not just in Mumbai but also in other parts of the country.    

One of the most important must-do things that a foodie should do, when he/she visits Mumbai, is to visit one of the city’s popular Irani cafes.  There aren’t many of them left but few still dot the city’s landscape as a reminiscent of good old days.

Though Mumbai is famous for its vada pav and dabbawallas (tiffin carriers), but for a genuine Mumbaikar Irani cafes are the classic symbols of Mumbai. A true Mumbaikar would never like to miss the Irani or Persian-styled cafes.  It has been said often, and in many different ways, by people of all castes and creeds that ‘There is no bigger culinary celebration of Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism than the city’s many Irani cafes.’

Some of them are still there; churning out mouth-watering fare for almost a century now. Many die-hard customers continue to drop in there for the delectable dhansak, kheema pav and patrani machhi, to mention a few. In the bakery section they yearn for the crisp butter kharis, layered salted biscuits, and the Irani cha, a thick overly milky, sweetened tea, delicately flavoured with cardamom.

A city that once boasted of 400 Irani cafes, now has only about 25-30 cafes of such character. There has been a tremendous decline in the number of these cafes, which is mainly due to the fact that multinational players like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, et al have muscled into the market and tweaked their menus to cater to Indian tastes. And, as everyone knows, India is an attractive market for fast food chains due to its large population of young people, who typically are more open to trying new food products.

History

The history of Iranian cafes can be traced back to the Zoroastrian Indians who came to India in the 19th century. They were in search of livelihood. There they met the already Parsi community, who migrated to India, more precisely to Gujarat, during the 8th century.

A few of those Iranians worked in Parsi homes and, in the evenings, they met to discuss about the life that they had left behind and their future. On one of those occasions, a man served them some tea and charged them for the beverage. And that gave birth to a new business idea: Serving tea!   

Mansoor Showghi Yezdi, the Director of the documentary named Cafe Irani Chai, claims that the Irani cafes were the outcome of a long caravan of people, who escaped the great famine of Persia, in 1890s. They crossed the Hindukush mountain range – a distance that would, today, encompass four countries and two continents, to seek their fortune in what was then called as Hindostan. Haji Mohammed Showghi Yezdi, a young man from the Yezd province in present-day Iran, was one of those who made the journey.

He eventually reached the shores of a city then known as Bombay after a treacherous eight-month journey. With no work, no money, no home or family, Haji followed in the footsteps of his countrymen who had made the same journey before him. Carrying a large sigdi (a tumbler with flaming coals at the bottom to maintain heat), he would sit at Apollo Bunder, the port area of Bombay, by the Gateway of India, and sell Irani chai (tea) to workers and passersby. This was the beginning of the Irani tea and, subsequently, the Irani cafes, claims Mansoor, who is the grandson of Haji Mohammed. “This is our root”, he says.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Irani cafes had sprung up on almost every prominent street corner in Bombay, Pune and Hyderabad; becoming a symbol of Iranian cultural integration and distinctiveness.

Classic Features of Irani Cafes

These rather quaint establishments with their high ceilings had – and still have – a nostalgic European décor, meshed with Persian icons and artifacts. High bent chairs, wooden tables with marble tops and glass jars that allow you to have a peek at the goodies inside them are essential parts of their ambience. The huge glass mirrors on the walls create a feeling of space.  

The characteristic outlook of these cafes can be easily distinguished from those around them. The features that set them apart from the other food service establishments are:

Bent Wooden Chairs: These chairs, which are the distinctive mark of an Iranian café, are manufactured by steaming the wood, bending it into a curved shape and pattern before allowing it to harden.

Marble Top Tables: The white marble top tables are usually in square shape. However, these are being replaced, in some places, by wooden tables with table cloth underneath a glass top. Under the glass top you will find the menu.

Chequered Table Clothes: Almost all Irani cafes have a red, blue or green chequered table cloth, similar to the fabric worn by the Iranians.   

Chandeliers: Adding quaintness to these cafes are the chandeliers which can be found in most of the Irani cafes. These chandeliers give these Irani cafés a pre-independence ‘continental’ flavour.

Family Rooms: While some of the Irani cafes have removed them, most of the cafes still have these cubicles with wooden swing doors, for providing privacy to courting couples. These family rooms were so popular in the 70-80s that they were also featured in several Bollywood movies, including Raj Kapoor’s superhit Bobby.

About the Cafes

The oldest Irani café of Mumbai, which is a well-known landmark of the metropolis, is Kyani & Co. at Marine Lines. Founded by Khodamrad Merzeban in 1904, the café still retains its original atmosphere with red chequered table cloths, large glass cabinets full of jars of jujubes, cookies, biscuits and other savouries — the true image of a typical Irani cafe! 

Farokh Shokriye, who took over Kyani in 2000, was not sure if his humble Parsi chicken patties and traditional mawa cakes would withstand the competition from Big Mac. But they did!  Farokh recalls that his father Aflatoon Shokriye took over the shop in 1959 with his brother-in-law. “Since then we have been running the show,” he stated. Here you might notice a portrait of Aflatoon done by legendary MF Hussain, who was a regular at the café. 

Britania &Co is another much-loved Mumbai restaurant. Started by Rashid Kohinoor in 1923, it was subsequently run by Merwan Kohinoor, till May this year, when he expired after a long illness. Now his brother, Boman along with the third generation, continue the tradition of serving one of the best crème caramels in the city.

As you consume this delicacy and sip fresh lime soda – a quenching mixture of lime juice, salt, sugar and fizzy aerated water, life-sized cutouts of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge smile down at you from the dining room’s slightly slanting balcony. On a wall, one can find a painting of Queen Elizabeth II next to a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, both hanging beneath a gilt-framed picture of Zarathustra, the Zoroastrian prophet worshiped by the Parsis. The decor at Britania has remained more or less the same over the years, including the ‘Bentwood furniture imported from Poland’ during its early years.

An important item on the menu here is berry pulav. The authenticity of this dish is maintained by importing the berries from Iran.

For all those in a rush and wanting to grab a quick brun maska (a crusty bun-shaped bread with butter) or bun maska and chai, there is no better option than B. Merwan & Co., located just outside Grant Road railway station. When you enter this 104-year-old café, the wafting aroma of fresh mawa cakes will entice you to not only order for them but also for mawa puff, jam puff and all kinds of biscuits and breads. The mawa cakes are finished within hours after they are made!

The bakery which was established in 1914, did shut for a few weeks in 2014, for some patchwork and repair work. It still maintains its old-world charm as it continues with its century old Milton tiles, wooden chairs and marble tops. Bomi Hormazji Irani, who runs the bakery, says that things haven’t changed in the café since his grandfather, Boman Merwan, established the café in 1914.

Another popular landmark for foodies is Café Military, located in the back lanes of Fort. This place delights its patrons with its kheema pav (mince meat and bread). Established in 1933, it has stayed frozen in time with its lovely old tiles, wooden tables with checkered tablecloths, chairs, fans, et al. The airy, brightly lit café has the ambience that would introduce an outsider to the real Mumbai.

Its name could be attributed to the fact that Fort area, in the 1800s, happened to be full of army men. 

Sheriyar Khoshravi, who runs the café, owned by his father and mother – Behram  Khoshravi and Shireen – says various celebrities came to the café during his father’s time; one of them being MF Hussain. He claims that film personalities like Madhubala, Sharmila Tagore, Nutan along with her mother Shobhana Samarth (a Bollywood actress who was quite popular during 1930s and 1940s) as well as music composer Vanraj Bhatiya were frequent visitors during his father’s time.

Every day from the time the shutters go up, at the Sassanian Restaurant and Boulangerie at Dhobi Talao, to the time of its closure at 10 pm, Meheraban sits behind the counter, where he keeps a framed photograph of his much-adored partner Sharookh Yezdabadi, who passed away in 2015.

The over a century old café, set up by Rustom K. Yazdabadi in 1913, continues to retain its old furniture. The Polished brentwood chairs, which are put out in the sun once every month to prevent them from getting infested with bugs, are in impeccable shape because they are polished once every two years.

Sassanian, besides being famous for mawa and plum cakes as well as for chicken puffs, is also known for its dhansak, and salli chicken. Several celebrities, including film stars, politicians and academicians swear by the food and charm of this place. Meherban claims that actresses Mumtaz and Helen, late Shiv Sena leader, Pramod Navalkar and the former DG of police, Arvind Inamdar had visited the bakery (Boulangerie).

There are some other Irani bakeries, cafes and restaurants that still are operative and loved by not only Mumbaikars but by also those foodies who visit the city on regular basis.

But with the closure of Bastani, opposite Kyani, in 2004, which was a huge loss to the city’s cultural and culinary heritage, there was a general consensus that the younger generation of Zoroastrians was not interested in preserving the legacy of Irani cafes and bakeries in their traditional format.  

Farokh Shokriye of Kyani’s has candidly stated that the new generation was not interested in taking it up. He also believes that for preserving this culinary heritage, the government must rethink its taxation policy. He disclosed that if things were to be analysed the government was 50 percent partner in business…with 33 percent income tax, 5 percent VAT and 122.5 percent service tax.

However, Mansoor Showghi Yezdi avers that new innovations and initiatives by enterprising entrepreneurs are beginning to turn the tide for Irani cafes.

The Resurrection

Yet, like this writer those who have grown sipping Irani chai, and savouring brun maska and mawa cakes, there is no need to despair and dread for despite the dwindling of Irani cafes from Mumbai’s landscape, there is also the parallel trend of their resurrection across India. Yes, these parallel and even conflicting trends are one of the main reasons which makes India’s food service industry so interesting and worth exploring.

AD Singh, who has a string of successful ventures – old and new – across the country to his name (Olive Bar & Kitchen, the Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao among others), decided three years ago (in 2015) to open a new chain of Irani food restaurants under the brand SodaBottleOpenerWala, which, besides the popular Irani dishes, does serve up a large dose of nostalgia. “There are wonderful stories about Irani cafes. Take the case of Leopold in Mumbai and how it has evolved over the years; so will these SodaBottleOpenerWala outlets will evolve,” declared Singh. Presently, SodaBottleOpenerWala has presence in Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, and Bengaluru.

And there is little doubt that this is going to be the game changer. Irani cafes, once the domain of Mumbai and Pune, cafes which were on the verge of extinction till recent past, perhaps have been given a new lease of inspiration to continue by SodaBottleOpenerWala.

AD Singh and his wife seek to position SodaBottleOpenerWala as the modern day neighbourhood Irani restaurant with a difference. The reason for its fast expansion could be attributed to the fact that, like so many other restaurants, it is tapping into the trend of recreating nostalgia by way of crockery. 

SodaBottleOpenerWala’s menu too is dotted with elements of nostalgia. It creates a wealth of wonder around the sumptuous Parsi fare. It draws from the stereotypes of both, the commercial cafés and the private Parsi homes, and gives you the essence of what the Mumbai Parsi food is all about.

The new found popularity of Irani restaurants, which are spreading across the country, is perhaps mainly due to their authenticity. Most of them are set up like a typical Irani café in Mumbai with checkered floors, large mirrors, fuss-free furniture, and high ceilings.

Here, it may be added, that in days when the Irani restaurants-cum-bakeries started in India, functionality was the reason behind all the décor. The mirrors were put up to keep an eye on the staff and customers, the floor was made of sturdy kota and kadappa stone, so that it did not get damaged easily, high ceilings ensured the place stayed cool. Today all these elements have become a necessary part of décor.  

What is heartening that the aroma of Irani bakeries and cafes has even spread to places like Jamshedpur. Café Regal has become the favourite haunt of the young and the old of Jamshedpur.

Hot Bakery Items

Irani bakeries and cafes in India have become popular not just for brun maska but for several other food items. Here are a few of them which are relevant for the bakery and confectionery industry. Any entrepreneur thinking of launching an Irani bakery or café must include these delectable items in her/his future endeavour.

Brun Maska & Bun Maska: Brun or gutli pao is a local bread that is germane to the Irani bakeries and cafes of Mumbai. It is crisp and hard and crumbly on the outside but delectably soft on the inside. The brun is sliced and butter is applied liberally. Dip this in the sweet tea for a heavenly delicacy. In bun maska the butter is layered in a sweet bun.

Chai: Tea in Irani cafes and bakeries  is prepared with extra milk and masala to give it a typical taste.

Khari Biscuit: These fresh crispy salted biscuits are dipped in paani kam chai (strong Irani tea) to give a heavenly feel.  

Mawa Cakes: This is a popular item sold in Irani cafes/bakeries. They are soft and buttery, infused with cardamom and rolled in wax paper. It is believed that these cakes were the outcome of circumstances. In the early 1900s, milk in India was not pasteurised and there was no refrigeration available. In order to prevent it from getting spoiled it had to be boiled at regular intervals. This frequent boiling of milk resulted in the milk turning into mawa at the end of the day. An Irani café owner experimented with it by adding it to a cake. And thus was born this teatime cake, which has become a ‘must have feature’ in Irani bakeries and cafes.

Kheema Pav: Mince meat with bread. Simply delicious fare for non-vegetarians!   

Akuri:  Rated as one of the great Parsi dishes, every family has its own special way of making this breakfast meal. Akuri is usually made by scrambling eggs with onions, tomatoes (or even raw mangoes when in season), red chilli powder, green chillies and topped with fresh coriander. Others add milk, cumin powder, curry leaves and even ginger and garlic paste to arrive at akuri.

With so many tasty dishes to choose from what are you waiting for? If you are in Mumbai, make a beeline for the nearest Irani cafe and have a delectable breakfast, or even a great lunch and dinner for that matter!

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