Of Irani chai, bun muska and living history

A walk down Mumbai’s Irani Cafe heritage trail

Steaming hot chai, bun muska,  shrewsberry biscuits and baked goodies perfected through generations  have always formed a vital part of this city’s food landscape and quaint heritage. Taking Mumbai’s Irani Cafe trail.

As the story goes, when Iranian Zoroastrians fled from Iran following the unrest after being attacked by the Russians, the Parsi community promised help, and they came to India. One day, as a man served tea and charged a small amount, the idea of the Irani café was born. The café used to be places where the dock immigrant workers, students, revolutionists and even sex workers would turn up for a cup of tea, accompanied by salty Khari biscuits and Muska buns.

Once a thriving community, the number of Irani cafes has now reduced to only a handful of about 25 in the city. Yet, some more than a hundred years old, they are a must visit in the city of dreams for a glimpse into the Mumbai that was.

Brittania & Company (Est. 1923)

The first thing you notice about this place is the friendliness of the owner, Afshin Kohinoor. He calls and greets all his guests in a loud and friendly manner, as if he has known them for years, whether one turns up for lunch or calls to make reservations.
Situated in the English-built Fort area, the restaurant is open only for lunch and keeping with old school commerce, does not accept cards. The paint and the plaster have come off at a few places and the ambience is simple. The place was last renovated after it was damaged in the Second World War. Yet, food is why you should go. The restaurant serves delicious Parsi food like berry pulav,  pulav spiced up with tangy fried berries, salli boti, dhansaak and all.

It was my second attempt at trying out the place; the first one failed being a Sunday. After enjoying our meal, we called the waiter to clear the plates, a few mutton pieces still on it. The waiter looked quite as old as the place itself, more in mannerisms than age. He simply refused to take away the plate, remarking that what we were paying for, we should finish. We gave in in-spite of being full to the hilt!

Leopold Café (Est. 1871)

If there is any restaurant that is as famous as the city itself, it has to be Leopold Café. Established in 1871, it is situated on the busy Colaba Causeway where the world comes to shop on the streets. Foreigners like the Israelis, Africans, Britishers, Middle Easterners are seen picking up trinkets and mementos from their visit to India. Also seen shopping are Mumbaikars hunting for good bargains. The city and the Café is described in great lengths in Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram; a reason why some foreigners come to see Mumbai and the Café in the first place.

Leopold’s has been a warehouse, pharmacy and general store, opening as a travellers’ cafe in 1987. The café is best known for its beer towers priced at Rs 300. It serves excellent continental fare and good steak, tending to the foreign tourists who visit. For vegetarians, there are similar servings with paneer. The tables are at close quarters to each other and it is not surprising to see people writing books or having discussions.

The place was attacked during Mumbai terror attack and many visitors as well as waiters were killed. Yet the place opened on the fourth day, reflecting Mumbai’s ‘never say die’ attitude, though it was soon closed by the police for security reasons.

Yazdani Restaurant & Bakery (Est. 1951)

Situated in a bylane at the Fort area in Mumbai, this restaurant is easy to miss. Its architecture and somewhat surreal appearance, a green painted building with peeling paint and red tiles, comes from a strange and varied history. The building was originally a Japanese bank during the First World War, but bears the marks left by successive generations – of the British who ruled, the Irani bakers who bought it and the Indians who inherited it.

Meherwan Zend, an Indian Zoroastrian of Iranian descent, started the bakery decades ago, and it is now run by Parvez Irani Zend who manages the mix of customers, telling stories of the old days, and Meherwan Zend, a baker who used to be a boxer a very long time ago. Vintage posters  of burly men still adorn the walls, and like all the Iranian cafes, have a touch of colonialism.
The bakery bakes almost 6000 pieces of pav daily. The regulars swear by their multi-grain bread of 12 different grains; the first bakery in the town to do so. Be sure to try out their specialty Khari biscuit, Brun butter, apple pies and mawa cakes.

Café Universal (Est. 1921)

It might not be so famous as its cousins Café Mondegar and Leopold Café. This makes it the perfect place to enjoy far away from the maddening rush of Colaba Causeway. The large, arched wrought-iron windows, the high ceiling, the UFO-recalling saucer-shaped chandeliers and of course, the ubiquitous bentwood chairs and butterscotch coloured walls speak of a heavy French influence.
The restaurant serves burgers, sandwiches and sizzlers along with authentic Parsi fare, Dhansaak and all, but it is more known for its beer. It is just the place to  relax in after work.

Kayani Café (Est. 1904)

The restaurant has survived for a 102 years and has become quite a landmark. The ambience reeks of nostalgia and vintage: red chequered table cloths, waiters with parsi skull caps, menu cards displayed through the glass top, a blue rope hanging from the ceiling acting as a support for the missing railing for the stair case. Number of newspaper clippings and accolades adorn the wall.I have never been to Kayani myself, but a friend recalls an experience where he stepped into the café with a strange feeling of having seen it somewhere. Yet when he stepped in, he felt certain it was his first visit, later realizing that the café has made an appearance in a number of movies.

The café serves freshly baked bun maska (bun applied with a generous amount of butter), kheema pav, heavily spiced irani special chai, chicken cutlets, muffins and the likes. Though the food may not be what it used to be, this is one place that should be definitely tried out for its vintage value.

B Merwan (Est. 1914)

Situated right opposite the Grant Road station, the menu at the cafe has been the same for 91 years. The prices are unbelievable at Rs 8-10 for puddings and mawa cakes and mawa samosas, and, they get over by 8 a.m. in the morning.
The chairs in this cafe are from Czechoslovakia and the marble top tables are from Italy, though the rest of the ambience remains true Iranian café style: the slow and bulky fan, the chequered table cloth, the framed photographs and cut-outs on the wall.
The café serves Bun Maska, lightly spiced yet very fresh omelets, samosas, Irani chai and the favorites Mawa cakes and puddings.

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