Press "Enter" to skip to content

From Iran to India: How immigrants created Mumbai’s iconic Irani cafe

Antique bentwood chairs, chequerboard floors, high ceilings, wooden counters, a grandfather’s clock, humongous glass jars holding biscuits and cookies, vintage posters from colonial times on the walls with peeling paint, and wooden tables with marble tops and huge wall-mounted mirrors which are not only decorative but a way to keep an eye on the staff and customers—this is a walk into the sepia past. 

Waiters balancing trays laden with famed Irani chai and bun maska (bread and butter) as well as kheema pao (eggs and minced meat with bread) walk briskly through the aisles, serving the patrons.

Mumbai’s Irani cafes are time capsules of nostalgia. These Iranian-style cafes were started by Zoroastrian immigrants and Shia Muslim, who came to Mumbai from Iran to escape famine and persecution by Arab invaders, and also seeking better economic prospects in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Mumbai was a bustling trading centre in those days, as it is today, and already had a community of Parsis, who had come much earlier from Persia 1200 years ago.

Though there are no records of how the Irani cafes started, it is said that some  Iranians who worked in Parsi homes used to meet in the evenings and reminisce about their homeland.  And when someone served them tea and charged them a small amount, the business idea of starting a café was born. Most of them were good bakers and they started off selling very sweet Irani chai made with condensed milk and delicately flavoured with cardamom and bun maska. 

Slowly they started selling more baked goods, then added Parsi food like dhansak, a dish comprising a lentil, vegetable and meat rice.

“These pocket-friendly cafes, many of them situated in South Mumbai, became popular haunts for the hundreds of mill workers in the city who worked at its textile mills, as well as white-collared workers,” says Kurush Dalal, a food anthropologist based in Mumbai. 

They were also successful in breaking down social barriers, caste systems and traditional taboos, where people from all walks of life and religions mingled freely and could have a meal or a coffee together. Many working people made a customary visit here every day and read the free newspapers, and had breakfast or coffee before leaving for work.

These no-frills cafes with efficient service and reasonable prices introduced Indians to some of the most famous items on their menus—mutton puffs, akuri (scrambled egg) or berry pulao, baked goods like nan khatai (flaky biscuits) and Salli Boti, a lamb curry stewed with tomatoes and onions.

No two Irani cafes are identical. They do have similar features, but each owner introduced some quirks to the decor. And special menus helped people choose their ‘favourite’ Irani café. Many had screened off family rooms so that women and children could dine in privacy. 

“Many of these cafés were actually modelled on European cafes of that era and were frequented by intellectuals, from journalists and lawyers, pouring over their briefs, to film-makers, and were part and parcel of the nostalgia of those times,”  says Dalal.

The nostalgia of those times

Mumbai-based conservation-architect Rahul Chemburkar points out that though Mumbaikars—local residents of the city—considered corner plots inauspicious, Irani cafes were primarily housed in such locations.

“These cafes were usually on the ground floor so that the customers could get a view of the street as they had a cup of coffee. It is ironic that nowadays people consult Vastu (ancient Indian science of architecture) and say that corner buildings are not lucky. The Irani cafes certainly thrived and flourished from these corners,” Chemburkar says. 

Mumbai-based Shabaaz Zaman, who runs a food blog FoodZpah, also speaks fondly of the Irani cafes.

“Bun maska and mawa cakes (made with condensed milk and flour) are my favourites at Irani cafes. I love the old-world charm of these cafes, which are not only frequented by Indians but also people from abroad. They are slightly faded and not up to modern standards, but that’s part of their charm,” Zaman says.

In the early 60s, there were as many as 400 Irani cafes. only a handful remain today.  Thanks to competition, ownership hassles and general disinterest of the next generation in carrying on the family business, or emigrating abroad, many of these cafes have shut shop. Others have had a makeover, turning to restaurants serving multi-cuisine food. Some cafes reinvented themselves to be a cool backpacker and drinking place, like Café Leopold.

‘Wrestler’s omelette’

A famous Irani café that still survives is Sassanian Bakery and Restaurant in Dhobi Talao, which has been in business since 1913. The café, which got its name from the Sassanid dynasty that ruled present-day Iran for more than  400 years, was frequented in the past by writers, film stars and affluent Mumbaikars. They have a variety of sweet and salted biscuits and scones, as well as plum, mawa cakes and keema patties. From 2000, they started serving Parsi food too and are now famous for dhansak and salli chicken.  

Most of these cafes serve the signature Duke’s raspberry drink and  Lagan nu Custard, a  classic  Parsi dessert. Koolar café is another old-timer dating back to 1932—earlier called King George’s Café and owned by a British owner. With its chandeliers, checked tablecloths, mirrored walls, vintage rotary dial phone, vintage posters of Grease, and antique silver samovars, it is an anomaly in its location—it is located at Matunga Circle, instead of South Mumbai. “It’s particularly famous for its breakfast of special ‘Wrestler’s omelette’ made of  12 eggs,” says Dalal.

Yazdani,  in the Fort area, with its signature pointed, red roof and cornflower blue exteriors, is another quaint institution dating back to 1953,  opened by an Iranian baker. With its high vaulted ceilings, yellow walls with peeling paint, wooden benches and walls lined with old-style posters and advertisements and menus written on a blackboard with chalk, it is famous for its bread pudding, Khari and Shrewsbury cookies,  fiery ginger biscuits,  apple cinnamon pie, bun maska and mawa cakes. “They still bake manually without much use of machines, kneading kilos of dough the old-fashioned way and use a wood fired oven,” says Satish Rao, a software engineer, who has been going there for decades.

Though romanticised by patrons for their old-world charm, Dr Simin Patel, historian and founder of walking tours company Bombaywallah, is exploring the link between these eateries and Mumbai’s notorious underworld. Between the 60s and 90s, small-time gangsters used to extort business owners in the name of “protection”. Moreoever, these cafes also offered the perfect place where everyone, from prostitutes and taxi drivers to artists and writers, could mingle. 

“What is also astounding is that most of the first generation of Iranis came as refugees, many of them illiterate, and in one generation graduated to become successful businessmen and owners of restaurants and cafes. Their enterprise is something extraordinary,” she says.

Slowly, as they started facing competition from newer bakeries, cafes and fast-food restaurants, these cafes started adding more items to their menu. In the 70s they got beer licenses so that they could attract customers. The advent of Udupi restaurants serving south Indian food and fast-food chains were other nails in their coffin. 

Though many Irani cafes are fading away, a new breed of entrepreneurs has reinvented some of them for the modern times. SodaBottleopenerwalah is an Irani-themed restaurant chain with branches across India that serves Parsi fare similar to an Irani café. Pune has its Irani Café and Jamshedpur has its Café Regal in a hundred-year-old building recreating the ambience and food of yesteryear. Dishoom, a famous restaurant founded in 2010 with branches across  London, is also modelled on the  Irani cafés of yore.  

Maybe not all is lost. Some of these new restaurants will perhaps carry forth the legacy of the old Irani cafes which these immigrants created in a new country.

More from MagazineMore posts in Magazine »

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *