Bun maska and Irani chai

Merwan Kohinoor sits by the enterance of the 91-year-old Irani restaurant in South Mumbai. Photo: Vivek Bendre   | Photo Credit: VIVEK BENDRE

Please/Do not spit/Do not sit more/Pay promptly, time is valuable/Do not write letter/without order refreshment/Do not comb,/hair is spoiling floor/Do not make mischiefs in cabin/our waiter is reporting/Come again/All are welcome whatever cast/If not satisfied tell us/otherwise tell others/GOD IS GREAT

‘Irani Restaurant Instructions’, a poem by Nissim Ezekiel (1972)

“This is Munna. He likes sleeping here on the counter. His father Circuit must be around somewhere.” Afshin Kohinoor introduces his cats to me, in between tending change and shouting orders to his waiters. It is just another day at Britannia & Co, a 91-year-old Irani café located in South Mumbai, which has seen the days roll by unchanged for decades.

A third generation Irani-Indian, Afshin mans the cash counter, while his nonagenarian father Boman Kohinoor moves from table to table taking orders and chatting up customers: “That Abishekh (Bachchan) is a badmaash! Do you know that William and Kate (Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge) are having another baby? I asked the U.S. ambassador for the recipe for Coca Cola in exchange for my Berry Pulav recipe — it’s a secret, you know!”

I spent my first weekend in Mumbai meeting new acquaintances over a meal of dhansaak and ice-cream soda there, especially because it was one of Mumbai’s ‘must-visit’ places. Looking back, it was a good place to start understanding the city. Britannia & Co and similar cafés are not mere eateries but institutions — witnesses to an aspirational Bombay unfurling into today’s cosmopolitan Mumbai.

A few things that have come to define Irani cafés are the marble-top tables, red-checked table cloth, bent wood chairs of Polish/German design, biscuits in glass jars, signboards with instructions and the inimitable Irani at the cash counter. Some call them ‘eccentric’, others ‘loud’, and some ‘friendly’, but always passionate and proud. Proud of their lineage, culture, food and cafés; and passionate enough to turn teary-eyed at the mention of their ancestors’ struggle and the future of the café s’.

Dr. Mansoor Showghi Yezdi is well aware of that struggle. Born into a family of Irani chaiwallas, he wanted to tell his ancestors’ story to the world, and came up with the idea of documenting their history through a documentary, Café Irani Chai.

“This is the road where my grandfather sold tea,” says an emotional Yezdi, pointing to the stretch adjacent to the Gateway of India on his phone. “He would sell tea all day and sleep on the pavement at night. We came up the hard way. This country has given us so much. The people of India have taken us in like one of their own. We are forever grateful for that.”

The people are thankful too for a place where chai and conversations take priority in a setting that is not trying too hard; in fact, not trying at all — a Titanic movie poster, monthly calendars, hand-painted menu, paint peeling off the walls, and old wooden shelves stocked with everything from bread to talcum powder. Change, clearly, is not their biggest strength.

Irani café s and restaurants are places frozen in time. The late 1800s and early 1900s was when these cafés mushroomed across Mumbai, making them a hub of the city’s social evolution. It was a time when the dreams of a million people was at stake — migrant labourers, struggling actors, aspiring professionals, nascent politicians and dreamy students; all regular fixtures at the Irani café s making a meal out of bun maska dipped in Irani chai.

That sense of nostalgia is still evident in the numerous articles, blogs, posts, tweets and voices lamenting the dwindling numbers of these iconic institutions. When the 100-year-old B. Merwan and Co downed its shutters in March last year it spawned dedicated FB pages, photo tributes, articles and skyrocketing sales just before its closing. Its famous mawa cakes were mourned the most. The chai, bun maska, brun maska, kari biscuits and omelettes — like in most Irani café s — were a staple diet for its patrons. But it reopened in May with people wondering if it was just a PR stunt or the effect of people rallying around it. Not all cafés are as lucky though. Locals still mourn the loss of famous café s like Café Excelsior, Bastani & Co and A1. From a flourishing number of around 400 to just around 30 in 100 years, the transition from buzzing social hubs to vintage eateries has been relatively quick.

The story of how these café s began makes for a fascinating story. Around late 19th century, many Iranians left Iran to escape a famine and arrived in Mumbai in search of a better future. They were counting on help from the flourishing Parsi community in the city who had moved to India from Persia over 1000 years ago. Missing home, they would gather every evening and talk about the situation back home, exchange news and updates received from their families back in Iran. Given their love for tea, it was a staple at these conversations. That’s when, while mulling over ways to earn a livelihood, selling tea seemed like a lucrative idea. And thus the era of the Irani café s was born; an era of affordable food, cosmopolitan hang-out spaces and community centres.

“Irani café s were the ‘Baristas’ of our time. We could sit for hours and nobody would ask you questions,” recalls hobby historian Rafique Baghdadi. “People would read the newspaper there; if you were reading the first page, the last page would be with someone else. It would take hours to finish reading one newspaper.” He also notes the café s’ contribution to music. With radios on throughout the day, it was only place where many Bombayiites listened to songs or even cricket commentary. “Today it’s only the food served there that keeps the people coming,” he feels. “There’s a connect you feel with the restaurant that you don’t feel anywhere else.”

Renowned architect Reza Kabul was literally born in a café. His family lived above an Irani café owned by his father. His brothers and he would eat there, help after school and even manage it in their father’s absence. Kabul recalls how, in the early days, their café was like a home for people who did not have an address, especially those who had come to the city in search of work. “Our telephone was like a public phone; it was the contact number for all the surrounding shops in the neighbourhood too.” His father had to eventually shut shop because the income was not enough to sustain his family. The soaring property rate was an additional pressure and also seemed like an easy way out. Yet the impact it had is unmistakable. “These cafés were like a melting pot of people from cultures. They had their own character that places today don’t.”

Simin Patel, who is working on a book on the Irani Cafés of Bombay, agrees. “Well into the late 1800s, strict caste and purity codes prevented the experience of inter-dining among the native populations of Bombay. Meher Cold Drink House, although a sprightly 74, is an example of the early establishments that facilitated the experience of cosmopolitan drinking and eventually dining,” she notes in her popular blog Café Military (1933), Koolar & Co. (1932), Yazdani Bakery (1953), Kyani & Co (1904), Sassanian Boulangerie (1913) and other surviving Irani cafés in the city take credit for similar contributions. But it didn’t last long.

The entry of the Udipi restaurants in the 1960s changed the game completely and was a major blow to the Irani restaurants. Eventually more restaurants offering different cuisine and dining experiences cropped up for which the Irani cafés were no match. Then came international coffee chains and cafés, which ate into the young customer base. But the owners’ children themselves are choosing to venture into other professions citing lack of interest and sustainability. That has left the current crop of café owners pondering over their future. “Education changes everything. Even the local Koli fishermen face similar problems. Their kids don’t want to sell fish,” Baghdadi offers as a consolation.

Some like Café Universal choose to change with the times for a chance at survival. An Irani café that opened in 1921, Café Universal has now been transformed into a multi-cuisine restaurant and bar, just like the popular Irani-owned Café Mondegar and Leopold Café at Colaba that are popular with tourists and expats.

However, Simin Patel is optimistic about their future: “I think the cafés in their present form will continue to thrive as well as those in new avatars like Dishoom, a Bombay Café in London. Dishoom recreates the Irani café setting in bustling London and will open its third and largest café in November.”

But Afshin Kohinoor doesn’t share that optimism. “The next generation is pursuing different things and we have no one to take over. We are going towards a dead end. It’s like in cricket; you need to have strong bench strength. We have none.”

In pictures: >Mumbai’s famous Irani Cafes

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 3:49:35 PM |

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