Dwindling Irani cafes in Mumbai

Dwindling Irani cafes in Mumbai

A true Mumbaikar would never like
to miss the Iranian and Persian-styled cafes

“No talking to cashier/No smoking/ No fighting/ No credit/ No
outside food/ No sitting long/ No talking loud/ No spitting/ No bargaining/ No water to outsiders/ No change/ No telephone/ No match sticks/ No
discussing gambling/ No newspaper/ No combing/ No beef/ No leg on chair/ No hard liquor allowed/ No address enquiry/ — By order.”

This was written by Nissim Ezekiel, the famous Indian Jewish poet, playwright, editor and art-critic, who was a well-known figure in post-colonial India’s literary history, specifically for Indian writing in
English.

“These lines sum up what Irani cafes are to Mumbai,” says Rafique Baghdadi, veteran journalist, writer, film critic and an expert on Mumbai. With a ball-point pen in hand and a notebook in another, he tells the story of Mumbai’s Irani cafes – how they were frequented by celebrities, writers, artists, actors, cricketers and so on.

“At one point of time, there used to be 400 Irani cafes in whole of Mumbai, but today about 30 genuine Irani cafes are left,” Baghdadi points out – as he takes through the heritage lovers to the history of Irani cafes, how it had been portrayed in Hindi

cinema, its food and so on. These cafes – with unique ambience and furniture--are part of the history of Mumbai and some of them have even become landmarks. At one point of time, these used to be places for discussions, entertainment and even business meetings. Some of them also had jukeboxes.

Migrant Iranis — both Zoroastrians and Muslims — established nearly 2,000 restaurants, bakeries and cafes in Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad in the 19th century and now they are known as Irani cafs. Some of the famous Irani cafes in south Mumbai area include Kyani & Co at Dhobi Talao-Metro, Caf Military at Fort, Stadium Restaurant near Churchgate, Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery in Fort, and Britannia & Co in Ballard Pier.

Irani cafs serve “bun maska” (bread and butter) and “paani kam chai” (a strong Iranian tea), or khari chai (very strong tea), mutton samosas, and Kheema Pavs, akuri (a scrambled spicy egg preparation), berry Pulao, vegetable puff, Veg/Chicken Dhansak (a spicy broth with lentils, pulses) and Biryani, cherry cream custard, cheese khari biscuits, plain khari

biscuits, coconut jam and milk biscuits and Dukes Raspberry drink. The Parsi Bhonu (meal) is available at most Irani restaurants.

Many Irani cafes offer sweet and salted biscuits like Rawa (semolina), Til Rawa Coconut, nan-khatai (sweet, crisp flaky Irani biscuits), Madeira Cake (tutti-frutti biscuits).

The main reasons for dwindling Irani cafes are mushrooming malls and new-age coffee and tea shops, fast food chains, reduction in profitability
because of mounting taxes and the high cost of maintaining real estate in areas like south Mumbai.

Besides, the new generation owners are not very keen and they are switching to other businesses.
“The next generation is not interested in taking it up,” says Farof Shokri, the owner of Kyani & Co. “The government too needs to think of it. We hardly make profits. If we analyse things in perspective, the government is 50 per cent partner in business....

33 per cent income tax, 5 per cent VAT and 12.5 per cent service tax,” he pointed out. Kyanis is a great place to have chai and special khari (salty) biscuits. Their confectionary is popular. The Irani caf
ambiance is completely intact.

Behram Khosravi, the owner of Cafe Military,
recalls the days when writer Salman Rushdie, cricketer Dilip Vengsarkar, poet Arun Kolhatkar and novelist Kiran Nagarkar used to visit his restaurant. “This restaurant started in 1933,” says the 75-year-old Khosravi, pointing out to how egg-on-keema, keema

ghotala and beer of his restaurant are still a hit.

In Britannia & Co, 92-year-old Boman Kohinoor personally attends to each and every patron, going from table to table. Boman, who owns the cafe, said at one point of time during the British era, his hotel used to serve Continental food. “But after the Britishers left, they started serving Parsi and Moglai food,” he said. He claimed that his famous delicacy is the Chicken Berry Pulao.

“The food is authentic and unique. Irani cafes are all about ambience, good food, genuineness. These are part of Mumbai’s culture,” says Dr Suhas Pingle, a medical practitioner and foodie. “Every time we come here, we feel like revisiting it again,” said Nabendu Bhowmik, a central government employee. “The food and the ambience is simply great in Irani restaurants… you feel like discussing art, heritage, sports, cinema and any other subject endlessly once you are in there,” he added.

As fast-food joints and coffee shops gain popularity, the importance of Irani cafes is reducing. “These were and are completely cosmopolitan,” says Baghdadi pointing out that the “mall culture” has come in. “People have started experimenting with different kind of food which is available. People have got some choices, but Irani cafes too have their own place in the history of food in Mumbai,” he pointed out.

“The new generation goes to coffee shops and fast food joints… but the reality is that the Irani caf cannot match them in terms of its cuisine and culture,” he adds.
Another famous Irani caf is the Leopold Caf at Colaba, which was one of the targets during the 26/11 terror attacks – and is located near the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel. Rather than the traditional bun maska and chai, the Leopold had graduated to catering

affluent tourists who visit south Mumbai and these include foreigners.
“It is difficult to match the culture of Irani caf,” says journalist-writer Prakash Akolkar, who had

authored “Mumbai on Sale”, in Marathi. “We need to appreciate the city’s heritage and Irani caf is one of them, whenever I get time, I do drop in and have a chai and bun-maska in an Irani caf,” he adds.
Mrityunjay Bose in Mumbai

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