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From bun maska and chai to palak paneer and aamras: The reinvention of Mumbai’s Irani cafés

One of the most abiding icons of our city, these cafés have become quaint fixtures abroad too

mumbai Updated: Aug 03, 2018 14:09 IST
Anubhuti Matta
Anubhuti Matta
Hindustan Times

What’s the secret to surviving in Mumbai? The truth is there is no one secret, is there?

Some make it here by doing what they do best. Others reinvent themselves every fortnight. Still others may find success elsewhere and return home to bask.

So it is with one of the most abiding icons of our city.

There are Irani cafés here that refuse to change a thing, and thrive. Even the paint on the walls is peeling at Britannia, and there’s usually a pet cat at the cashier counter, but the tourists stream in with their guides all day and sit down to plates of berry pulao — that now cost more than Rs700 (yes, one thing changed).

There are Irani cafés that have added cocktails, beer, palak paneer and aamras to their menus, and thrive.

“We have Chinese chop suey too. We changed our menu about 15 years ago, because we want to serve what the young ones like most,” says Ardeshir Mazkoori, owner of the 98-year-old Café Excelsior at Fort.

No sitting for long; No asking directions; No arguing; No gambling; No discussing politics — the list of don’ts in an Irani café is as endearingly grumpy as it is specific. (Shrikrishna Patkar)

And then there are the ‘foreign-returned’ — the Mumbai SodaBottleOpenerWala is actually the fifth.

AD Singh launched the chain in Gurgaon in 2013. “We were really worried about how it would do in the land where these cafés were born,” he says, laughing. “But they had done so well in Delhi, Noida and Bangalore too that we decided to open in Mumbai. Today, our Mumbai branch is doing the best and another branch is opening in Powai next week.”

No combing hair

So what makes a café Irani? You don’t have to be an Irani to open one, and you can have pretty much anything on the menu.

But you cannot be an Irani café if you do not have at least three of these: bun-maska, chai, marble-topped tables, bentwood chairs, glass jars full of stuff no one ever buys, and some really odd rules.

No sitting for long; No asking directions; No arguing; No gambling; No discussing politics — the list of don’ts was as endearingly grumpy as it was specific.

“The owners didn’t want to say these things directly to their customers; they didn’t want to seem rude,” says historian Rafique Baghdadi, chuckling. “Hence the boards.”

As the world changed around them, the cafés and their quaint boards became icons of another time. No Irani café worth its bun-maska would open without some version of the rules — not even the new ones in London (Dishoom, now a chain of five, was launched here in 2010) and Paris (which has an Irani café called MG Road).

Dishoom’s walls, in fact, are rather startlingly rude — ‘Simon Go Back’ shouts one word cloud. A list of rules at the King’s Cross outlet declares: ‘No Rowlatt Act’, ‘No Salt Tax’, ‘No Lathi Charging’ and also the more familiar ‘No making mischief in Cabin’ and ‘No cutting nails’.

‘All are welcome, whatever caste’
  • It was a famine in Persia in the 1890s that gave Mumbai its Irani cafés.
  • * Desperate and starving, Iranis fled their homeland on foot, crossing mountains and travelling thousands of miles in search of refuge.
  • * Many arrived in Mumbai with little more than the clothes on their backs and the stove-like sigdis that they had used to keep warm on their journey.
  • * They used to coal-fired sigdis to make chai, and in the bustling port city, they found that they could sell the chai and earn a living. Those chai stops turned into the city’s first cafés.
  • * “They set the precedent for dining out in Mumbai,” says food consultant Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal.

A warm welcome

Back in Mumbai, the revamped menus are finding the new takers they were designed to woo.

Jeremy Cardoz, 29, is a banker based in Toronto who visits his granddad in Mumbai once a year. On these visits, he now spends every Sunday at Sassanian Café in Marine Lines — because that’s been his grandfather’s routine for 42 years.

“It’s only after they began serving something other than Iranian and Parsi cuisine that I started eating here,” Jeremy says. “I love their chicken lollipop gravy with fried rice.”

His grandfather Sam, 75, a retired banker, first visited the café with a Parsi friend, on a Sunday, for their dhansak. The chicken dhansak with brown rice remains his favourite thing on the menu.

It’s the marriage of old and new that Sassanian was going for when they revamped their 80-year-old menu in 2000, cutting down on the tea cakes and plum cakes and adding sizzlers, burgers, rolls and Chindian fare.

Around the same time, Café Excelsior (1919) in Fort started offering paneer bhurji and palak paneer. “We needed to cater to every demographic,” says owner Ardeshir Mazkoori.

In 2003, Café Universal in Ballard Estate introduced a full bar, Indian-Chinese dishes, burgers, sizzlers, wraps and rolls. “We realised that demand for Parsi food was limited,” says head waiter Vasudev. “Today, our sizzlers are one of our most-ordered items.”

Across the board, menus were changing at the turn of the century to cater to a rapidly changing city — there were far more youngsters and far fewer blue-collar workers in Mumbai now, more vegetarians in the island city, and a growing demographic of young professionals and college students looking for places with varied menus where they could hang out in groups.

Add to that the growing competition from first lunch homes and Udupi restaurants, then the growing standalone eateries and finally the post-liberalisation multinational fast-food chains (McDonalds came to Mumbai in 1996), and the cafés were fighting for their lives.

“One big hurdle was the disinterested third generation,” says Rashid Irani, film critic and co-owner of Brabourne, an Irani café in Dhobi Talao that shut in 2008. “These were educated and well-travelled young people who didn’t want to survive on a pittance just to keep the family café going.”

Farokh Shokriye, the third-generation owner of Mumbai’s oldest Irani café, Kyani & Co (Marine Lines, 1904), was in his 30s at this pivotal time.

“I had to choose between migrating abroad and continuing this legacy,” he remembers. “I chose the latter because I thought it would be selfish to kill our forefathers’ legacy.”

Instead, he reinvented it. “We added grilled sandwiches, sausages and baked beans, samosas, fruit bowls and aamras,” he says. “And today, it feels like a weekend every day.”

Sepia toned

There were many stalwarts that didn’t make it. In fact, most of Mumbai’s 400-odd Irani cafés succumbed to the cocktail of challenges.

In 1998, Café Empire shut. Brabourne downed its shutter for the last time a decade later. In the same year, Fairdeal Café in Bandra and Cadell Café in Mahim closed. “About 30 remain today,” says historian Baghdadi.

As a tribute to those that were gone, filmmaker Mansoor Showghi Yezdi made a documentary called Café Irani Chai in 2013, and two years later opened an Irani café of the same name in Mahim. It was the first new Irani café in the city in 50 years.

Gleaming wooden furniture, mirrored walls, checked tablecloths, delicious berry pulao and bun-maska — it ticked all the boxes. In a nod to his ancestors — the famine-fleeing Yezds from Iran who set up the first cafés in Bombay — he placed Irani samovars and uris in the corners.

“We don’t make more than 20-25% profit, but we aren’t aiming for more. This café is a way of thanking India for letting us take refuge here,” he says. You can get a meal here for about Rs 200.

It’s the perfect Irani café for a Mahim that is changing fast but holding on tight to its heritage of Wednesday fairs, novenas and low-rise housing.

In much the same way, SodaBottleOpenerWala is the perfect Irani café for the glass-and-chrome business district of Bandra-Kurla Complex. You don’t come here to reminisce; you come here to chat over retro music and take selfies against the décor.

“We’re a Parsi home menu-meets-Mumbai favourites place,” says Singh. “We knew the under-30s weren’t going to the old cafés, so we set one up that offered the same experience — with a very different vibe.”

There’s a full bar and a jukebox. The jars full of boiled sweets are shiny clean, a colourful bicycle holds bulls-eye and lemon-orange sweets that you can pose against or grab a handful of on your way out.

Dhansak and bhajiya are on the menu, but so are vada pav, Eggs Kejriwal and seekh-paratha. “We wanted to include very ‘Bombay’ dishes because these cafés are very Bombay too,” Singh says.

There’s even a board of stern rules — ‘No flirting’, ‘No asking recipe’, ‘No talking to cashier’.

All along one wall is a life-size photograph of an original Irani café, taken some time in the ’80s, a bicycle and two scooters parked outside. Old meets new, and takes a bow.

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First Published: Apr 20, 2017 09:45 IST