This post was originally contributed to me by Ms Asha Nayak
Mumbai’s romance with its Irani Cafés dates back to the early and mid-years of the 19th century. Irani cafés had begun to appear on the scene of Mumbai, then Bombay which was in the process of being metamorphosed into a financial powerhouse of the newly independent India propelled by the flourishing textile industry. These cafés soon became the icons of cosmopolitan Bombay and gave the city a ‘restaurant culture’ which it lacked till then. People from all ethno-religious communities were welcome at these cafés, thereby shedding the social and religious barriers of those times. Bombay boasted of around 350 Irani cafés then, thriving at almost every street corner. Pune and Hyderabad too is home to quite a few of them.
Let us now delve a bit into their history. It is important to know here that the Parsi community differs from the Irani community. Both Parsis and Iranis are followers of the Zoroastrian faith.
Around the 8th century, when Iran (originally known as Persia) was invaded by the Arabs, many people fled the country. Some of them migrated to a province named Yazd in Iran. Many opted to leave Iran for good and migrated to China, Germany and India. In India, when they landed on the coast of Gujarat, they pleaded to the then king of Gujarat for refuge who whole-heartedly assimilated them into his land and its culture. The migrants too easily blended with the locals of the region and adapted themselves to the Indian culture. They began to be known as ‘Parsis’ (Persian).
The Iranis migrated to India much later – somewhere around the 19th century and hence have a stronger connection with their native land as compared to the Parsis.
After migrating to Bombay and other parts of India, they had to build their lives from scratch. Many started off to do what they were good at – selling bun and Irani chai on their bicycles. Those who were financially sound started their bakeries and eateries.
A typical Irani café is characterised by its corner location and the classic colonial ambiance – high ceilings, Persian artifacts, dark paneled wooden showcases, huge glass mirrors, Belgium bentwood chairs, vintage posters, a grandfather’s clock and weighing machine, Burmese teak wood tables with Italian marble tops covered with chequered mats. One cannot miss the see-through glass jars that entice you with their goodies.
In earlier times, these cafés had areas partitioned by screens and marked as ‘Family Room’ to encourage women to dine at these places which was otherwise considered to be a taboo.
One unmissable note – It was the Irani cafés who pioneered to introduce the ‘Jukebox’ to Bombay. A jukebox is a coin operated ‘musical ATM’ which can play unlimited music. This too is now only a faded glory!
Irani cuisine : Iran is naturally abundant in fruits. Hence, raisins, prunes, apricots, berries, pomegranates etc. feature widely in their food preparations.
The Irani cafés of Mumbai mainly serve their trademark ‘bun maska’ or ‘brun-maska’ and the specially brewed ‘Irani chai’ a.k.a ‘paani kam chai’ (milky tea). It is interesting to note here that in Iran, milk is not added to chai!
Other special items on their menu include mutton samosas, keema pav, akuri, berry pulao, dhansak, biryani, cream custard, bread pudding etc. Many also offer khari biscuits, Shrewsberry biscuits, til-rawa coconut biscuits, nan-khatai, tea-cakes and Raspberry drink.
These institutions which thus left an indelible mark on the fabric and culture of the city are now on their downhill path and are fast disappearing from the landscape of Mumbai.
The latter years of the last century witnessed the mushrooming of many Udupi eateries and street food joints of vada-pav, sandwich, chaat etc. all over the city; add to it the onslaught of fast food giants viz. McDonalds, Dominoes, Café Coffee Day etc. As a result, these cafés have now diminished to a mere 25 as against the 350 in the 1950s.
One of the major reasons for their downfall is family disputes among business partners leading to shutdown. Gen Next and Gen Z Iranians, armed with higher education land up with lucrative corporate jobs, turning their back to their legacy. Also, business big-wigs and corporate houses are constantly on the hunt for alluring buy-outs of land on which these establishments stand.
The electronic and print media loves to mourn about the near-demise of Irani cafés and have become their object to film, write and blog about. Actually, it is not lamentation but ‘patronage’ that these dainty ones are vying for. But, do the millennials have the time and taste for it?
Many of the café owners who are now in the sunset years of their life opine that it is sheer passion, determination and emotional attachment to their legacy that has kept them going. Most of these cafés are certified as Grade III eateries. It is strongly felt that if a special heritage tag is assigned to them as is done for century old structures, then it could ensure their longevity.
…. Hope floats
It is heartening to see that Irani entrepreneurs of the newer generation are engaging in innovative ventures to ensure that this piece of their culture lives long and strong!
The trademark menu is being experimented with to make it more appealing. Customers who are tourists, students, physically challenged, uniformed personnel, activists etc. are meted with concession in price. Specialised Irani delicacies are now supplied to various restaurants all over the city. Alcohol has been added to the menu and music bands perform live. Interiors are re-modelled to suit the taste of the present clientele. New age restaurateurs are successfully re-creating the Irani café theme and offering the trademark dishes in outlets not only in India but abroad too.
Many documentaries made to depict the journey of the Irani chaiwallas from Persia to the cafés of Bombay are showcased on various occasions. Organisations like the ‘Irani Chai Foundation’ and ‘Indo-Iranian Friendship Society’ strive to provide assistance to Iranians to keep their culture alive in India and to promote peace and goodwill.
So, Dear Reader, the next time you happen to pass by an Irani café, do hop in for some Bun Maska Chai…
Feature Image Credit: Just Dial