Irani Cafés (Cafes) & Bakeries - an Irani Zartoshti Tradition
Brabourne Restaurant & Bakery at Dhobi Talao, Mumbai.
Irani Cafés - the character-filled and historic cafésNote 1 and restaurants started by India's IraniNote 2 Zoroastrians - are a fast disappearing feature of Mumbai and Pune's (Bombay and Poona's)Note 3 landscape. According to a report by Naomi Lobo of the Indian Express, while there were 350 Irani cafés in the 1950s, by 2005 the number had dwindled to just 25. Most of the surviving Irani cafés are over a hundred years old, and the buildings that house them as well as the furniture within them are just as old. Irani cafés are an integral part of Zoroastrian heritage and history.
1. Regarding the title 'Irani Cafés', we use the word 'café' here to mean an informal restaurant and tea-house (chai-khana in Persian) rather than a coffee-house. Diileep Bhagwut wrote to remind us that the cafés were also known locally in Mumbai/Bombay as "Irani hotels."
2. For a definition of Parsees and Iranis, see our page on Demographics.)
3. The two largest cities in the west-central Indian state of Maharashtra were called Bombay and Poona by the British. The cities are known as Bumbai and Poonah in Hindi, the national language of India, and Mumbai and Pooneh (also written Puné or Pune) in Marathi, the language of Maharashtra State. Parsees played a pivotal role in making Bombay/Mumbai the economic capital of India and Poona/Pune became a retirement destination for Parsees and Iranis from all over India. Fifty years ago, Poona/Pune used to be (the emphasis is on 'used to be') more laid-back and less crowded than Bombay.
4. The phenomenon of Zoroastrians displaying icons and artefacts from other religions in their place of business and homes, causes those from other religious backgrounds to be puzzled and sometimes conclude that the owners of the businesses or homes are not Zoroastrian. However, this open approach to other religions by Zoroastrians goes back in history. The Persian Achaemenian kings such as Cyrus the Great, were firmly Zoroastrian but nevertheless ecumenical. Perhaps, openness in these matters comes from security, and closed-mindedness comes from insecurity or a lack of generosity in spirit. As with King Cyrus, this author has no problem praying in other places of worship, but his entire being is firmly rooted in Zoroastrianism.
The Irani cafés or restaurants were set up for the main part by Irani Zoroastrians from the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Kerman who fled the persecution of the murderous rule of the Islamic Qajar dynasty (1794 - 1925 CE) of Iran especially during its first hundred years in power.
The Iranis were aided in their flight to the west coast of India by the Parsees of Bombay (Also see Parsi Assistance). For many Irani Zoroastrians, the Parsi housing colonies in Bombay's Fort district were their first home in India. Once the initial Irani refugees had established themselves in Bombay - and later in Poona some two hundred kilometres to the southeast of Bombay, as well as Hyderabad in south central India - they in turn provided assistance to other Iranian Zoroastrians seeking refuge in India from religious persecution in their homeland. Irani Zarathusti migration from Iran to India continued into the 1900s.
The Irani Zartoshti immigrants to India were a hard-working, industrious and self-reliant lot. Lacking the capital to establish themselves in trading, banking and industry as had the Parsi Zoroastrians, the Irani Zoroastrians - determined to be self-reliant and productive - established modest cafés and bakeries.
The cafés and café-bakeries followed in many respects, the concept of the old Aryan chaikhanas (chai-khana meaning tea-house) - an adjunct to the Aryan and Zoroastrian trading tradition which was continued by the Parsees after they had settled in India. The chai-khanas or tea-houses could be found all along the Aryan trade routes and were used by travellers and locals alike. This ancient tradition was continued by the Irani-Zoroastrians in India.
Ethic & Ambiance
Irani cafés soon became iconic features in their localities. They were known for good, honest, reasonably priced food and beverages. Their clients were invariably individuals of modest means for whom the cafés provided a place to drop-in for an inexpensive cup of tea, wholesome snacks or a meal - or even to congregate and socialize, for the cafés served a social function as well. By welcoming everyone, the Irani cafés created a micro environment that was classless and casteless - free from societal and religious distinctions and divisions. Some café owners even posted signs saying 'everyone welcome' or 'all castes welcome'. Others displayed religious icons from different religions on their walls.Note 4
Irani cafés developed their own special style and ambiance - one that was very different of other Indian eateries or the more sophisticated European style restaurants. They had high ceilings (sometimes high enough in accommodate mezzanine seating) with languid ceiling fans, tiled floors, Italian marble-toped tables or tables with table-cloths under a pane of glass, bentwood or bent-cane chairs (see below), mirrored walls, pendulum wall clocks (with the Big Ben chime for the most part) and portraits of Zarathushtra hanging conspicuously on their walls.
Bentwood Chairs & Glass-Topped Tables
An example of glass-topped tables and bentwood chairs. Note the woven cane seats Photo credit: Wikipedia
Bentwood chairs are made from rods of hard wood bent using steam. Most are stained with a dark stain.
One of the noted manufactures was Gebrüder Thonet of Vienna, Austria established in 1849 by Michael Thonet at the age of 53.
In order to take advantage of cheaper labour and plentiful beech-woods, Thonet soon opened additional factories at Koritschan (in what is the modern day Czech Republic), Radomsko in Poland, and Brno in today's Czech Republic.
There are now only a very few cafés with all bentwood chairs as these have become precious antiques. For the main, the chairs are partly made from bentwood.
Shrewsbury biscuits of Pune's Kayani Bakery variety. Photo credit: Niya's World
Freshly baked buns from the Mumbai's Kyani café's bakery. Note confectioneries & nuts in the jars. Photo credit: Mumbai Mania
Slurping tea from the saucer at the Kyani café, Dhobi Talao, Mumbai. Photo credit: Mumbai Mania
The Irani Zoroastrians immigrants soon became famed for their bakeries as well; bakeries that provided fresh baked foods to the cafés; bakeries where clients lined up for freshly baked bread; bakeries that made cakes and pastries and of course Shrewsbury biscuits (cookies) - biscuits that made Pune's/Poona's Kayani Bakery on East Street a destination stop for visitors from Mumbai/Bombay. Other traditional delectables included the nan-khatai (sweet, crisp and flaky Irani biscuits), batasa (Click for a batasa biscuit recipe), plain or cheese, straight or twisted khari (salty) biscuits - which are more puff pastry than biscuit, macaroons, rum and raisin cakes, and Madeira cakes. Harsh Javeri wrote to inform us of Mumbai's Yazdani Bakery located at the Fountain area. Javeri goes on to say that the Yazdani Restaurant & Bakery received an award from the government (of India), and that in his opinion, the bakery's breads are one of the best. The bakery make 6,000 pav loaves a day. The bakeries, like the cafés, followed the Aryan and Zoroastrian trading tradition of bakeries making naan and other tasty baked items from travellers and traders plying the Aryan trade routes (also see the chaikhanas and bakeries of Uzbekistan). The bakeries and cafés were often found near one another, sometimes amalgamated, and sometimes working in close collaboration - with the bakery supplying the café with bread, pastries and other baked foods. In addition to their regular fare, the bakeries and cafés often sold other food stuffs such as confectionaries, dried fruits and nuts.
Bun Maska Chai
Bun maska is a bread bun (called ladi paun/pav) served with a liberal helping of butter (maska). Chai is tea - strong and brewed in boiling milk (or even sweet condensed milk). Both tea and bread are served fresh, the bread being freshly baked several times a day. Patrons sometimes dip a piece of buttered bun in their tea before placing the morsel in their mouth. With this practice, a thick oily layer of butter soon floats on top of the tea - something resembling an oil slick on the ocean. The more uppity Zoroastrians condemn the practice as being uncouth and that which tanga-wallas (horse-cart drivers) use. But this writer found great joy in the plebeian practice despite his mother's admonishments. In his household, the bun was often substituted with gutli / brun paun (paun, or pao / pav, meaning bread in Gujarati).
Brun paun has a much harder crust than bun paun - so dry that unless cut correctly, the crust shatters and scatters all over the table. A buttered slice of brun paun holds up better than bun-maska (maska=butter) when dipped into the cup of steaming tea. With brun, bun-maska-chai becomes brun-maska-chai - and for this writer, a more authentic version of the Irani tradition, but one that is (and please forgive this) not everyone's cup of tea.
A substitute for bread eaten with tea is the Britannia (Osmania in Hyderabad) Biscuit (cookie) - which can also also be dipped. The trick is to eat the dipped bread or biscuit immediately after dipping so that the whole mixture is still hot when placed in the mouth - and not a cold, soggy, disintegrating mess. There is a further technique to dipping and eating Britannia biscuits in chai. The extent to which the biscuit is dipped makes the difference between disaster and success. Dip the biscuit too far in and you might end up feeding your clothes. The technique is to initially dip the biscuit in the tea about a quarter of an inch beyond the border. In this fashion, the dipped biscuit normally - the operative word here is 'normally' - stays intact until eaten. In the mouth, the biscuit's dipped portion separates quite neatly from the dry part. There is no need to bite the piece off.
If the café offers different types of tea and if the patron wishes to have the super-sweet, condensed-milk-with-added-sugar variety then the order in Hindi to the server is for 'khade chammach ki chai' or 'tea with the standing spoon' - tea that has the requisite amount of sugar and condensed milk, a combination that makes the tea so thick that a spoon stands upright in the tea - a slight exaggeration perhaps, but the reader will get the point.
Another local tradition when drinking the tea is to pour the tea (in order to cool it) into the saucer and then drink it from the saucer with a loud slurp - a practice condemned by the uppity even more vigorously than bread-dipping.
Bun muska & chai at the Kyani café, Aflatoon Shokriye owner. Photo credit: Kokken 69
Shrewsbury biscuits at the Kyani café. Photo credit: Kokken 69
Another view of the Kyani café's interior. Photo credit: Kokken 69
If breakfast is served, the menu might include a pora (a flat pancake-like dark brown omelette), a regular omelette or an akuri (scrambled eggs with milk, onions, tomatoes, green chillies and even occasionally some spices such as ginger, garlic, turmeric and cumin - topped with fresh chopped cilantro/coriander).
Diileep Bhagwut wrote to tell us, "Omelette pav with tomato ketchup – was something you couldn’t dream of asking in any place other than an Irani restaurant!! But this was in the 1950s and ‘60s... and maybe all that disappeared long ago...!"
Parsees are famed egg eaters and have earned the nicknames 'bae-eeda-Parsi' mean 'two-egg-Parsi' - a term that defines Iranis as well. For Iranis and Parsees alike, a two-egg breakfast with bun-maska or toast-maska and strong tea, provides the necessary energy and attitude to take on the day.
Savoury dishes include: ● Mutton patties. ● Mutton kheema, ground meat, served with paun (pav - bread),
Give Iranis and Parsees an excuse and they'll add eggs to a dish. ● When topped with a crisply fried sunny side up egg, mutton kheema becomes kheema single fry, and, ● When scrambled with eggs, it becomes ghotala - meaning a confusing mixture of the 'Oh my God' variety. ● Sali par edu, fried eggs over straw potatoes / potato slivers, blurs the line between breakfast and other meals. A variation is wafer par eda, eggs of broken potato chips (wafers).
Mutton berry pulav with sali boti (plate top-right) at the Britannia, Ballard Pier, Fort. Photo credit: Anindo Ghosh at Flickr
Our list continues with: ● Berry pulao, a version of the Iranian zereshk polo, ● Fried fresh bumla / bombil, Bombay duck - a fish and not a duck - flattened, dipped in a spice-filled besan or gram flour batter and fried, ● Saas-ni machchi, pomfret, pronounced palm-freight, a flat Sole-like fish slices soaked in a subtle tangy, white sauce, ● Patra-ni machchi, pomfret marinated in and topped with a chutney that includes grated coconut, green chillies, fresh coriander and mint leaves, cumin, sugar, lime and salt wrapped in banana leaf and steamed for about ten to thirty minutes. Alternatively, the marinade can be made with lemon pieces, onion, ginger, garlic, chillies, fresh coriander, cumin and fenugreek, ● Masala prawn Bharuchi, spicy prawns Bahurchi style, ● Sali boti / Sali ma gosh, potato slivers and mutton in a curry sauce, and ● Sali ma chicken, potato slivers and chicken.
Dhansak - Soul Food
And if one is fortunate, there will be a dhansak on the menu as well. Dhansak provides nourishment for body and the soul.
The quintessential Indian Zoroastrian dish is mutton dhansak, a thick lentil based curry sauce with mutton pieces. Sanjiv Khamgaonkar (see below) describes dhansak as 'soul food' and there are vegetarian and chicken versions as well. In the 'old days' at this author's family home, dhansak washed down with beer was a special Sunday tradition. After the meal, family and guests would sprawl out on every available easy chair, sofa and bed and nap - for any attempt at activity or keeping one's eyes open after dhansak and a beer is mere folly. The nap was followed by afternoon tea of the brun paun and chai variety (see above). An afternoon spent in this fashion is as close to heaven as one can get on this earth.
A traditional cold beverage is a falooda (cold milk with vermicelli, translucent sabza or basil seeds, unmixed red rose syrup at the bottom, all topped with vanilla ice-cream and perhaps almonds and pistachios) and we feature a recipe in our Nowruz pages.
Some cafés serve kulfi, a rich, creamy ice-cream flavoured with pistachios. There is also a kulfi falooda.
The mawa (or mava) cake is another Irani café specialty. Mawa, also called khoya, is solidified milk similar in consistency to Ricotta cheese. A sponge cake made with mawa becomes heavier and richer. The cake's flavour comes from a small addition of cardamom.
Lagan nu custard meaning 'wedding custard' is a popular dessert. If the patron is fortunate, the café will serve rawa (sweet, browned semolina) - a ritual dish on special occasions.
The Jimmy Boy near Horniman Circle in the Fort area. Photo credit: rediff
Kyani café at Dhobi Talao, Mumbai. Note the pendulum wall clock. Photo credit: Mumbia Mania
Part 1. Capturing the soul, heritage and romance of the Irani café. Look for a rare glimpse of a complete bentwood chair - where the entire chair is made from bentwood held together with screws, nails or staples
Part2. Capturing the soul, heritage and romance of the Irani café.
How to drink Irani chai with a slurp from a saucer
An ode to Irani chai in Hyderabad
Islamic Terrorist Target
Interior of the Leopold café. Note the tablecloths under a pane of glass and the dark stained furniture
The Leopold café is located close to the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway of India monument in an upscale part of South Mumbai. It was the first target of the Islamic terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008. The current managing partners of the Leopold café are Farzadh Sheriar Jahani and his brother Farhang, second generation Irani Zoroastrian immigrants to India. We understand that Gustad Dehmiri (from Yazd, Iran), his wife Thrity and brother are also partners.
The Leopold is an Irani café that has evolved into a genre quite different from other Irani restaurants. While most Irani cafés and restaurants have traditionally catered to a lower middle class clientele, the Leopold caters to affluent tourists visiting South Mumbai.
The Leopold gained worldwide fame first in Gregory David Roberts' 2003 novel Shantaram, and then on November 26, 2008 as the first target of the Islamic terrorists who attacked well-known Mumbai landmarks, some of them Zoroastrian owned. (The second target was the international renounced Taj Hotel, another Zoroastrian owned public place.) "Leopold's was a place for people to see, to be seen and to see themselves in the act of being seen," wrote Roberts in his novel.
Gregory David Roberts at the Leopold café November 26, 2008. Photo credit: rediff
Coincidentally, Roberts was at the Leopold just shortly before the terrorist attack. He told a reporter for Rediff News, "Had the terrorists come five hours earlier, I wouldn't be here talking to you. We were here in the evening, then left for the airport, as we had to fly to Australia that night for business." The Rediff articles notes, "While sitting at his designated table -- 'This is my spot. I always sit here,' he says -- in Leopold's café, the Colaba area haunt that provides much of the backdrop to Shantaram, he continues to reflect on how closely he came to meeting disaster on November 26, the day terrorists shot up and tossed grenades into his favourite restaurant and watering hole, murdering customers and serving staff indiscriminately. 'A grenade blew up right next to where I always sit,' he explains, pointing to a very large, very visible indent in the tile floor. 'All the people sitting here at that time died'."
In a March 2009 interview with Irani Chai, Mumbai, Farzadh Jahani recounts, "...two guys were standing by our door between 9:40 and 9:45pm talking on their cell phones. After that communication they were standing and talking to each other, maybe doing their prayers or what not and then one person, from his haversack, removes a hand grenade and hurls it into the restaurant. Soon after there was gun fire from an AK47. We lost several loyal staff and guests and others were injured. There was blood all over the place. It knocked all of us over." It is not without significance that the Islamic terrorists prayed and called out the name of their God before launching their bloody rampage murdering innocent people.
In the Irani Chai article, Farzadh outlines his family's history and that of the Leopold café:
Farzadh grew up in Bombay's (now Mumbai's) Flora Fountain area in the Fort District in an apartment flat a little over a kilometre from the Leopold. The Fort district was settled by Parsees from Surat and elsewhere in Gujarat in the late 1600s and the early 1700s.
Farzadh's mother and father, Gulche and Sheriar Framroze Jahani (now deceased), were born in Taft, a Zoroastrian town just south of the city of Yazd in Iran (see photo to the right). Sheriar was the eldest child of three children. When he was 15 to 16 years of age, he was sent to India charged with the responsibility of earning money to support his family back home. He arrived in Bombay virtually penniless and was given employment in an existing Irani restaurant. Eventually, Sheriar's brother and sister joined him in India. Through dint of hard work, he saved and became a part owner of five Bombay restaurants: the New York Restaurant on Hughes Road, Pyrkes Restaurant and Café Paris both at Flora Fountain, Moranaz and Company in the Fountain area, and the Leopold on the Colaba Causeway. Of the five, Sheriar managed the Leopold while the others were run by his family members including his brother and brother-in-law.
Restored Leopold café, Rustam Manzil Bldg., in 2009. Photo credit: Jason Motlagh at iranichai
The Leopold is located in a building called Rustam Manzil (Rustam's House) after its original owner (see photo to the left). Rustam was Sheriar's partner together with Aspandiar (Aspi) Ferhandaz Irani (Azarmi?) and Aspi's brother Framroze Irani. As the working partner, Sheriar managed Leopold aided by his young son Farzadh. The other partners were employed elsewhere. For instance, together with the Zartoshty brothers Shah Feridoon and Meheraban, Aspi Irani was a partner and manager of the Asiatic Travel Service located near Bombay's Victoria Terminus (VT) station (and opposite the landmark New Empire Cinema). Framroze Irani (Dehmiri?), now deceased, resided in Iran.
The Leopold started in 1871 as an Irani owned wholesale oil store, a date that predates Sheriar's arrival in India. As a business, it evolved into a dealer in wine, provisions and cold storage foods. An eatery was established in the premises at some point in the Leopold's history and Sheriar might have had something to do with the start of this development, and one that was completed by his son Farzadh.
In the early 1980s, Farzadh, who was then a 8th grade student, informed his father that he wished to learn the business. At that time, Leopold was a combination of an old fashioned Irani café, bakery and drug store that sold over-the-counter drugs. The restaurant sold an eclectic blend of foods that included samosas, meat patties, Parsi dhansak (thick lamb curry sauce spread over rice - see above), English chicken roast, cutlets with soup, sandwiches, puddings and custards. The bakery sold items that included khari (salty) biscuits and potato chips. The drug store sold items such as toothpaste, soaps, cigarettes, cigars and Aspirin.
As part of the learning process, Farzadh used to accompany his father at 5:30 am to Bombay's Crawford market to handpick and purchase the day's provisions of mutton, chicken, vegetables. They employed a handcart puller to deliver the provisions to the restaurant.
Not long after Farzadh expressed his interest in learning his father's business, the restaurant started serving Chinese food. Today, there is a bar on the second floor and a restaurant which boasts an international 140 item menu on the first (ground) floor. Farzadh credits adaptability to changing times and client needs with Leopold's survival and growth into a thriving, world-renowned business. He notes, "I have seen so many an Irani joints* either shut down, or sell out because they didn’t move with the times, they didn't change." (*'joint' meaning an establishment or business in the Parsi-Irani vernacular - nothing to do with the smoking variety.)
Leopold Café Videos
However, the survival of the transformed Leopold - and perhaps other transformed Irani cafés - comes at the cost of a disappearing heritage. One way or another, the old style Irani restaurants are dying out. Other than its ownership, past history and a portrait of Zarathushtra hanging on a wall, the Leopold's claim to being an 'Irani café' is now somewhat tenuous.
How to drink Irani chai with a slurp from a saucer
An ode to Irani chai in Hyderabadd
Parsi & Irani Cyclists at the Leopold & Olympia
In the 1970s, the Leopold's clientele included Parsi and Irani cyclists who would congregate there on Sunday mornings. According to Shirinmai Mistry (nee Malcolm), before making the Leopold their gathering place, the cyclists had traditionally congregated almost every morning - after a cycling workout and before work - at the (old) Olympia Coffee House across the road from the Leopold. That was up to the 1950s before they decided to take their patronage to a new Olympia cafe (that is now Metro Shoes). The (old) Olympia's kheema (ground / minced meat) is legendary and was a favourite amongst the Olympia's Parsi cyclist clientele.
According to Shirinmai, "In the heyday of Parsi cycling, we went to the new Olympia almost every single morning (and this would be in the 50s and 60s), after practising, for a hot cup of percolated coffee before rushing back home to dress for college or work - unless flooded in, when we could not escape the weather! It must seem a tad crazy to ride some eight miles there and back for a cup of coffee each day! Sometimes when my Uncle Jal, brought me brun pav (or paun - see above), from the Railway Bakery miles away, the waiters at Olympia smothered it in butter for me and I loved the fresh crispness and happily polished it all off! But nobody dared dip their pav or biscuit into their tea or coffee cup in front of my Dad! He was a stickler for table manners. And Sundays during the cycling season, the pavement (sidewalk) outside was specially crowded with all our bikes stacked up against each other."
Shirinmai, her family and father, Malcolm Bapooji Malcolm (who started the Malcolm Cycling Club in 1930) were avid cyclists. And they were accorded special status at the Olympia: "The Malcolm Cycling Club (MCC) members had their own unofficially reserved places to sit at, though the other clubs made do with whatever else was available." Shirinmai goes on to say, "...nobody dared sit at my Dad's table without being expressly invited to do so and nobody ever dreamt of placing their bikes before ours!" "It was after the new Olympia closed down in the early 70s that the Parsees moved to Cafe Leopold."
Other Parsees and Iranis patronized the Leopold on Sundays as a gathering place.
Pune's Coffee House
In Poona/Pune, Parsees and Iranis similarly gathered on Sundays at Poona's upscale Parsi equivalent of the Leopold - the Poona Coffee House on Moledina Road, located near the Zoroastrian owned Dorabjee general stores and West End Cinema. And like the Leopold, the Coffee House served a variety of foods that were not traditional to an Irani café. The old Poona Coffee House, owned by the Balsara family, now exists only in memories - and this writer's memories include congregating there on Sundays with family at a table dominated by his aunt Dosa Chinoy (her husband, Soli, as with many hen-pecked Parsi / Irani husbands, was quite and subdued). Their ivory 1950s Studebaker (that had a seat in the trunk) parked outside announced their presence inside the Coffee House.