here was a time when every street corner in Mumbai had an Irani Restaurant/Café that attracted everyone under the sun, starting from Mill workers to casual labourers. The level of intrigue stems from the contrasting nature of Iranian cafés, when compared to, ‘modern’ cafés and their franchisees.
When the Zoroastrian Iranians came to India in the 19thcentury, they had no riches and were in search of a better livelihood. Mumbai (Bombay), at that time, was already home to another Zoroastrian community, the Parsis. A couple of Iranians worked in Parsi homes as caretakers and met in the evenings to discuss the life they had left behind, and their future prospects. One evening, a man served tea to everyone and charged them a small amount. The result: A business was born, of serving tea, and this was the beginning of an Irani café .
Typical of Irani joints- ‘bun maska’ or bread and butter is served along with ‘paani kam chai’or ‘khari chai’ (strong indian teas), mutton samosas, and Kheema Pav, akuri (a scrambled spicy egg preparation), vegetable puff, Veg/Chicken Dhansak (a wholesome spicy broth with lentils, pulses), Rice preparations of Biriyani and Pulao, cherry cream custard, cheese khari biscuits, plain khari biscuits, coconut jam and milk biscuits and Dukes Raspberry drink, an absolute world of biscuits ranging from coconut jam and milk to plain and cheese khari bisuits normally had with a hot beverage. The Parsi Bhonu (meal) is still served at most of the cafés.
From a total of 350 cafes all over Mumbai in previous years, down to a mere 25 today, many of them have revamped the cafes in an effort boost sales. The classic format of these cafes is basic with an elusive colonial touch; high ceilings with black, bent wooden chairs (now cane in some cases), wooden tables with marble tops and glass jars that allow a peek into the goodies they hold. Using glass on the walls to create a feeling of space, visitors are greeted with eagerness and the beautiful whiff of baking. The speed of operations is impressive and service quite hassle-free.
Some still believe in serving that odd irani chai for a meagre Rs. 3 , ” The sound of the brun bread is music to my ears “, says 72-year-old Zend M Zend, owner of Yazdani Bakery. He says it’s essential to keep prices low in order to serve the people that help him create the magic of an Iranian Café. It is a trend among these cafes to keep prices nominal which, frankly, makes one dance in happiness (figuratively!)
Younger Iranis with a higher education and better skills have become interested in more lucrative vocations in India and abroad, and they do not wish to carry on with the legacy, of the Irani cafés, of their parents. When I even ask my daughter, she tells me to “chill”. Only time shall tell whether it is yet another tragic case of a Mumbai tradition crumbling away like a delicious Shrewsbury cookie.
Sarosh Naushir Irani, who handles B Merwan & Co bakery, along with his brother Bomi and sister Perrin, says, “Today, after 7 PM, people want to go and drink. So we shut shop and go home to get ready for the next day.” Imagine that! These Irani Cafes were also seen as very welcoming and were touted as being a microcosm that was “classless and casteless” where religious boundaries and societal divisions were blurred
In his very popular work-‘ The Moor’s last sigh’, Salman Rushdie describes an Iranian cafe called the “Sorryno cafe” (so called because of the huge blackboard at the entrance reading Sorry, No liquor, No answer Given Regarding Addresses in Locality, No Combing of Hair…No Raising of Voice, No Change, and a crucial last pair, No Turning Down of Volume — It Is How We Like, and No Musical Request — All Melodies Selected Are to Taste of Prop).”
The city of Mumbai, in a way, was built by the Iranis. Their roots lie in their heritage and if a revitalization of sorts isn’t begun soon, there is a good chance that this city might lose this pillar of character, uniqueness and to cheekily add- admonishment. Wouldn’t that be a shame? These cafes are like little pockets of nostalgia dotting unlikely corners of the city staring out as the world outside moves just a little faster every year.
With foods such as the bun maska, which is synonymous with this culture, frocked with the amount of butter they apply! (Softened by dunking it in milky, sweet tea), a plate of keema pav (minced mutton with soft bread) or the chicken and mutton cutlets swimming in thick gravy, life cannot get any simpler and more flavoursome than this.
Our lives now revolve around brands heavily marketed through every media possible. The “Café” culture that envelope our generation rhyme with a totally different genre now- the whims of a franchise. The Irani cafés of the city are places that evoke sepia-tinted nostalgia. They make you feel warm, cosy and relaxed in a way that the new pub down the street fails to. Decades of knowing how to keep their patrons happy makes you feel almost at home there.
Do not spit
Do not sit more
Pay promptly, time is invaluable
Do not write letter
Without order refreshment
Do not comb
Hair is spoiling floor
Do not make mischief’s in cabin
Our waiter is reporting
All are welcome whatever caste
If not satisfied tell us
Otherwise tell others
GOD IS GREAT
- Irani Restaurant Instructions by Nissim Ezekiel
Compiled by Bhanu Pratap Singh
Written/Edited by A. Swarup
For more and more interesting updates, follow us at our twitter handle- Emaho Magazine on Twitter