Chai by the sea…The story of the Irani tea houses in Bombay

Irani_chai

It was a trip to Bombay I made after twenty years though I am a Bombayite by birth.It was many many autumns before I was born in Bombay in a nursing home beside the Chowpatty Beach.My parents relocated and I left the Arabian shores without much of a memory. Many years later in high school Bombay became my summer vacation escapade as my Baba had again relocated to Bombay.Bombay now seemed lovable and beautiful.Memories were built around Wilson College,Campion School,Napean Sea Road, Haji Ali.Began loving the Footlongs,the custard by the sea at Haji Ali,the seascapes of the city of Bombay. The last trip I made there was also my Baba’s last trip to his favourite city,the city which gave him professional excellence as well as the city which told him in an autumn in 2000 that maybe his days were numbered.I did not feel like going back to the city all these years. A sudden professional engagement and a need to re see the city where my parents began their life and career got me back to the city and a new affair has definitely began with the city of contrasts.The city is not a city of high-rises or high lives alone, it is also sometimes a city emanating the fragrance of old times,the stone buildings whispering stories,the shaded lanes of Colaba standing mute spectators of rolling times.The city clings on to its rich culture-its multiculturalism, respect for communities and belonging for their city continues unabated.Bombay has blended in beautifully the archaic,the old an the priceless with the new and with a price tag.Bombay is not always hurried ,it is also laid back ,enjoying its cup of chai and bun maskas with little worries about the world.

Bombay does not have winters,but a coolness overpowers the city in January and there I was in the city after a long hiatus,the breeze from the sea seemed comforting as I strolled around the lanes and bylanes of Colaba soaking in the pulse of the financial capital of the country.However businesslike it may seem,the city is also emotional,clinging on to it’s very own old run down but precious Irani restaurants in the Colaba and the Fort area which began its journey serving chai to the myriad people of colonial Bombay.

Established by the Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran in the 19th century, they served as some of the earliest public places for people to gather and eat outside home in a growing metropolis. It is said that the Irani cafés were also places where freedom fighters met to discuss plans of activism and movements.

The Zoroastrian community left Iran in two waves. The first group left in the early 8th century to escape religious persecution and are called Parsis. The second wave of migration occurred in the 19th century over fear of persecution during the Islamic revolution of Iran. These immigrants are called Iranis. Though both the Parsi and Irani communities share the same faith, they diverge culturally. The Irani community speaks Farsi , while the Parsis mostly speak Gujarati. It was this second set of immigrants, the Iranis, who met over hot cups of chai to fondly remember their family and friends. Haji Mohammed Showghi Yezdi travelled following the route from Kerman province down to Nav kondi then Quetta and Karachi, to reach the shores of a city then known as Bombay after a eight-month journey. Stories say that he carried a large sigdi– a tumbler with flaming coals at the bottom to maintain heat as he sat at Apollo Bunder, by the Gateway of India and sold Irani chai (tea) to the busy port. The popularity of chai among Bombay’s migrant labour and the working classes led to the mushrooming of tea stalls around every street corner of the Appollo Bunder area. Hindu merchants considered corner premises inauspicious and hence let them out to the enterprising Iranis at a cheap rate and thus the Irani shops began their journey.

The later immigrants, both Zoroastrian and Shia,from the drought-hit provinces of Yazd were part of the caravan network of the southern Silk Route. Its residents were mostly horticulturists but were also known for their coffee houses which however sold black tea.It is said that the Irani cafes in Bombay built on the coffee houses of their homeland.The large influx of Iranians into Bombay and the opening of Irani tea shops and restaurants in the late 19th  and early 20th centuries changed the way citizens ate, socialised and shopped. Items such as toiletries, over-the-counter medicines, detergent and other knick-knacks, were available at the Irani shops initially.

With a very minimalist decor of marble topped tables and comfortable chairs these shops began selling– crusty brun, sweet buns or soft pao, served  buttered, with milky, sweet tea.Thus the iconic Bun Maska was born.The salty taste of the butter and the sweetness of the tea gave the metropolis a new taste.However buns and milky tea were not specialities in Iran, where it was customary to drink reddish-black tea without milk. Traditional Iranian bread too is actually a flatbread, the oblong-shaped naan, made from barley flour, which hardly resembles the city’s Irani bakery breads.The adaptations, such as brun and pao, evolved from the locality where the first Irani restaurants opened. This was Dhobi Talao, where Kayani & Co, possibly the oldest existing Irani café in the city was located. Dhobi Talao was home also to a large number of Goan Christians, the bakery experts.The pao or pav of the Goans who were hired at the Irani shops evolved into the buns or bruns.

The oldest cafe Kyani & Co founded by Khodram Marezaban in 1904 shifted to it’s current premises at Jer Mahal building near Metro cinema.The cafe retains its old world no frills charm with red chequered table cloths, large wood and glass cabinets,glass covered tables,a large central mahogany counter and a grandfather’s clock. At one corner there is a portrait of Aflatoon Shokri who took over the eatery in 1957. The portrait was done by the legendary M F Husain, who was a regular visitor at the cafe. Kyani Cafe still has a wholesome breakfast within Rs100/- of their delicious Akuri  – a traditional Parsi dish of scrambled eggs on toast — with a cup of cardamom flavoured Irani Chai.

Once I got an invitation to attend a seminar at the city which breathed life at every go,I was sure to explore its heritage eateries.I decided to stay very near to Gateway of India .In my free time I walked about,sometimes getting lost in the maze of lanes of Colaba.Getting lost amidst such iconic buildings and paved roads was an experience in itself.To loose yourself in the unknown is like the moon suddenly losing it’s way behind an assemblage of clouds in a dark night.Google map became my constant reference point as I typed in Kyani&Co one morning after my daily walks around the Gateway and Radio Club. Took an Uber which went past the Mumbai University,the iconic Bombay High Court building ,past the Fashion Street and Bombay Gymkhana to the Free Reading room of Cowasjee Jehangir Building.Kyani is just opposite to the statue of Cowasjee Jehangir,the philanthropist who built Bombay in its splendor.

The hall at first sight was busy and had a din of people.I saw waiters moving about the tables briskly and taking orders for breakfast.Being a Sunday it had a family crowd chatting over wooden tables with glass top and Bentwood Chairs.The walls had pictures of famous people as well as iconic landmarks.The counter was made of mahogany wood and had a board saying ” Cash Only”.The old grandfather clock ticking away was evocative of the days of past colonial Bombay.The writing on the pillar that “Singles and Doubles be considerate and learn to share to share a table” was quite innovative.

The menu was on the table itself with a glass covering. I knew what I wanted to have,the aroma of the mutton left me salivating.My order was of a Kheema Ghotala ,a Bun Maska and an Irani Chai.While I could imagine the look of a Kheema Ghotola but could never in my wildest dream knew about the bun maska. The buns were cut into halves across the middle,smeared with butter and looked dainty on my table.The soft buns with the salty taste of the butter were dipped inside the plate of Kheema Ghotala and my senses were transformed in a flicker. The mutton minced into fine cuts was melt in mouth,the egg were soft and blended effortlessly.As I went about finishing the kheema,kept a portion of the bun for the chai. Looked around the place and from the take away counter I ordered a packet of Shrewsbury,the famous Mawa cake, the Glass Mawa cake,my favourite Date and Walnut loaf too.The counter had an assortment of cakes ,pies and savourites including brain cutlets, patties and biscuits like Shrewsbury, Coconut,Almond,Butterscotch,Mango and a host of jam biscuits.The jam biscuits with a dollop of mixed fruit jam in the middle got back childhood memories.

The popular items of Kyani include Mutton Salli Boti,Chicken Leg Farcha,Masoor Ghost apart from Dhansak and Pulao Dal. Do end your meal with the biggest portion of Caramel Pudding that I was ever served in any restaurant and offcourse their chocolate mousse.

The Irani chai intrigued me.It was rich,creamy and the generous sprinkling of cardamom was perfect for the mild winter of Bombay. It left me energized and fresh.The salty butter of the Bun Maska acted as a perfect accompaniment to the sweetness of the chai. Managed to learn a recipe of Irani chai from one of the Parsi women I met at the seminar.

For the chai you will need- 4 cups water,2 Tbsp of Black tea, 4 cups of whole milk,3 Tbsp of mawa,sugar to taste and sone Cinnamon powder.Prepare the chai in the manner mentioned below-

  1. Bring the water to a boil . Add the tea leaves and reduce heat, then continue to boil for about 20 minutes until the volume reduces by half. Remove from heat and strain.
  2. In a separate large saucepan, heat the milk on medium heat and bring to a boil. Stir constantly until the milk is reduced to 1½ cups. Whisk in the mawa, khoya, or dry milk powder until smooth and continue to cook until it thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. Mix the filtered tea and the reduced milk mixture. Sweeten if desired, divide between two cups, and serve hot.
  4. Add ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon to the tea when brewing,or before serving.

Once you are in Bombay do visit B Merwan at Grant Road for its freshly baked Mawa cakes,Yazdani Bakery for its Apple pies in the afternoon, Jimmy Boy near Kala Ghoda for a complete Parsi feast (Lagan nu Bhonu),Brittania at Ballard Estate for its famed Berry Pulao,Fresh lime soda and the Raspberry Soda.

Fell in love with the Irani eateries as I thought that at the end of it all quality,taste and service matters not the decor.The run down eateries with peeled off plaster is overlooked as people across strata and age makes a beeline for either the Chai with a glass Mawa Cake or the Berry Pulao or the Dhansak or the Salli Boti anytime of the day.

With people, food too travels across rugged terrains,food migrates too but retains most of their tastes and adapts to some extent to the new homeland.An interesting story of amalgamation and synthesis…..food continues to bind people,nations and makes space for love amidst diversities.

Author: ranjinipinky

Always happy when it comes to food and travel.Love looking beyond the cuisine and beyond the known landscape.Food describes a person,a culture ,a nation and a psyche.Both foodscape and landscape of a place joins together to weave the history of the place.My endeavor is to travel through that history,enrich myself and evolve continuously.Be my co- traveler through this enriching experience.