The high ceiling, wooden-panelled showcases, large mirrors, chequered table cloths and black Bentwood chairs, may sum up the physical appearance of the quintessential Irani café, Kyani & Co, one of the few remaining in Mumbai. But the soul of the café is the warm vibe, the cheerful smile of the owner as you enter, and the simple, freshly-baked bun with maska and sweet Irani chai , served lovingly by the affable staff. A 113 years later, nothing much has changed here, except the people at the helm, and perhaps, some dishes on the menu.
Way back in 1904, when Khodamrad Merzeban, an Irani gentleman, decided to start Kyani & Co in the Dhobi Talao area of South Mumbai (then Bombay), little did he realise that one day this simple Irani bakery and restaurant would go down in the annals as a ‘heritage restaurant’ in Mumbai, and be a must-visit place as part of the BMC Heritage Walk.
Come mornings, and people thronged the place for their bun maska and sweet Irani chai for breakfast, on their way to work. They shared different sections of the newspaper in rotation and listened to the radio playing popular Hindi film songs, while tucking into the spongy bun generously layered with butter.
Evenings again, were a time when the joint was abuzz with regulars catching up on the day’s happenings over a cup of tea and flaky chicken patties.
Essentially a bakery, the menu was limited to barely 25 items, yet, it was hugely popular for its khari biscuit, omelette or bhurji and pav , mutton sandwiches and, of course, the tea.
It was in 1959 that Aflatoon Shokri, along with his family, took over the popular bakery from the original owner’s family. Thankfully, the legacy continued and so did the regular customers.
Celebrated artist MF Hussain would often visit the Irani café and quietly sip his Irani chai and relish the bun maska before he headed for a walk or a meeting. Actor Shashi Kapoor found the chicken patties “irresistible” and was a frequent visitor too.
With nothing much in Dhobi Talao at that time, it soon became a hotspot for regulars in the area. Students and tourists too found solace in sitting here with a cup of tea and snacks, as they read their maps planning their next place of visit.
Farokh Shokri, Aflatoon’s only son, who is now in his fifties, has been running Kyani for almost 20 years.
“The well-guarded home recipes are what are strictly followed in the kitchen, albeit with minor changes to suit the palate of our customers, as Parsi food can seem a bit bland to many,” Farokh informs.
Broadening the spectrum
From the once measly menu, Farokh and his cousin Farhan, decided to expand their offerings in 2002. “We realised that if we have to survive, we must grow,” he avers. That is when, apart from the bakery items, a full-fledged food menu with Parsi dishes and desserts was introduced. Mutton cutlets, chicken dhansak , pulao and kheemapav became a part of the menu, apart from the regular dishes.
Over the years, Farokh has deliberately ensured he has not changed much at Kyani. “The furniture and décor are the same. I have never altered that. It is only the kitchen capacity that has been increased and some elements of modernisation incorporated to serve our customers better,” he confesses and adds: “I still take pride in saying that I have a century-old wood-fired oven.”
- Bun maska
- Irani chai
- Chicken patties
- Mawa cake
- Keema pav
Product glamour and fancy presentation are not things he believes in. “My customer is the common man and middle class employee, who is price and quality-conscious. To him/her, the taste of my food is of utmost importance, so I do not believe in frills and will never compromise on taste and quality,” he states matter-of-factly.
Not perturbed by competition, he believes that one must “be in touch with one’s customers and keep reinventing one’s products”. However, he is clear that “we will always keep the basics same and will never change our core products, as that is our identity. We still represent the old-world charm and warmth that is synonymous with Irani cafés and our customers value that,” Farokh says emotionally. He adds, “Generations have been coming here and that is how we want it to be.”
In this weekly column, we peek into the histories of some of the most iconic restaurants