Bun – Maska Chai

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 pulaodhansakbiryani, 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

 

 

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Author: Moni

A caffeinated Workaholic ✌

95 Replies to “Bun – Maska Chai”

  1. Bun Maska used to be our favourite breakfast when I worked in Mumbai and that charm of sitting at the old Iranian cafes in South Mumbai is unmatched. Nostalgic!

  2. I enjoyed reading this very much. Thank you for sharing. I will be sure to try some Bun Maska Chai as I am intrigued. Such a fascinating culture.

  3. Moni,
    I would like to visit an Irani cafe, but we do not have any in the vicinity. But I have learned so much about them already from your post! Would be quite an experience to try the food and drinks they serve.

  4. I recently saw a movie about Iranian cafe owner and his story. And that’s when I realised how much character they add in Bombay. It’s so fascinating to know more about them. I would love to visit one of them the next time I am in Bombay.

  5. Enjoyed reading the detailed description of Irani cafe’s. I would love to visit that cafe and try all the amazing things there

  6. True that! Irani cafe is famous for Bun maska chai.
    You should visit Pune too for the same, on FC road, you will find it.
    Even I have mentioned about it in my blog in Pune travel.

  7. To be honest this is the first time I’ve heard of this kind of cafe, thanks for sharing this post and next time I’ll definitely hop inside when I see one.

  8. Irani cafes area must visit when one visits to Mumbai and I make sure anyone of my friends or family visiting me in Mumbai is taken to an irani cafe. My husbands fav n regularly visited are Britannia and Universal Cafe. The berry pullow of Britannia is to die for. 😛

  9. I loved reading about the history and where everyone ended up. That has always been fascinating to me. And so many cafes! I thought that was more of a modern day thing. It’s funny that there are so fewer now.

  10. It’s such a shame that the big chains have forced so many Irani cafes to close down. I’d love to go there for lunch and a cup of tea, especially that they are so old and have such a tradition behind.

  11. This is the sort of place I love to go to. I’ll be over the moon when lockdown is over and I can start visiting independent cafes and restaurants again 🙂

    Louise x

  12. I haven’t been to an Irani cafe. I am not sure if there is one here in Arizona or not. If I find one, I will definitely check it out! I love middle eastern food!

  13. That is really cool about the Jukebox! We had an Irani cafe where I used to live that I was obsessed with, Miss it so much!

  14. Never knew about Bun Maska Chai an Irani cafe, until this. Sad to say that because of this pandemic, these cafes has to be closed. But in no time it will continue to serve its teas.

  15. This was an interesting read. I hope these restaurants are not going to all disappear. I would give my support and visit them if I had the opportunity. Just a small way to help preserve the culture.

  16. This certainly brought back nostalgic memories of days gone by. It was in the mid nineties when I was in Bombay for a month, And there was this Irani restaurant in Bandra where I used to be a frequent visitor. Keema Pav, Chai and their Biryani used to be my favorite.

  17. I love everything about the Persian culture… the food, the music, the decor. I really hope that all these places will stay open and will thrive in the future, it would be a real shame if they disappear.

  18. I haven’t heard of Irani cafés before. Therefore, this is really educational and inspiring. Too bad I won’t have a chance to visit as soon as I’d wish.

  19. This is an interesting piece of article dwelling more on the important historic aspect of Irani cafe’s! Such a fascinating discovery.

  20. This is an awesome blog! No wonder bun maska chai is a huge hit. Also, I would love to try their samosas 🙂

  21. I had my first Bun Maska in a restaurant here in Manila and I like it a lot. I would love to try authentic one someday. That cafe looks busy though.

  22. Oh wow how much of a good read was this. I love to learn through food and drink about the culture and history. thanks x

  23. This is so fascinating. I have never been to Irani Cafes. Being an expat myself (German living in the USA), I am especially fascinated with any cultural co-mingling and ways one culture holds on to its roots in another culture. It does make me very sad that such institutions have such a hard time surviving the globalization of our culture, when big brands from the USA or Sweden or from wherever, take over all the small mom’n’pop businesses. It’s quite different if we learn about other cultures because people migrate and bring their cafes, than if a big brand from another country just comes in and takes over.

  24. I am a bun maska chai lover. They just uplift and you can have them easily on the go. Thank you for sharing about the Irani caffes history.

  25. Thee last time I went to Mumbai, I made it a point to visit as many Irani cafes as I could! They are a true custodian of the old school cafes.Loved your post!

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