As well as being India’s financial capital, Mumbai is also known as a cultural melting pot of a city, where people of all ethnicities, origins and religious persuasions work and eat and live side by side. As such, Irani cafes in Mumbai are something of a microcosm for the city as a whole, hosting the animated conversation and feeding the hungry appetites of clientele from every social stratum.
Once a mainstay of this vibrant metropolis, recent times have not been kind to the Parsi café in Mumbai. The city has moved on, with customers looking for more modern and dynamic surroundings as a backdrop to their daily dealings, while proprietors are increasingly preoccupied with the financial rewards of selling their premises than the cultural ones of keeping the tradition going. Fortunately, though, this charming relic of a bygone era can still be found in select corners of the city. For tourists interested in experiencing an authentic piece of a culture on its last legs, the opportunity to visit one during a visit to Mumbai is one that should not be passed up.
Many Irani cafes in Mumbai can trace their origins to over two centuries ago, when religious persecution by invading Islamic armies forced Zoroastrians to leave their native Persia for pastures new. The displaced diaspora flocked to India in their thousands, with many calling Bombay their home and setting up small businesses to sustain themselves. Given that India was at that time part of the British Empire, these cafes, restaurants and bakeries became crossover points for the various cultures of India, the UK and Iran, creating a truly unique atmosphere of inclusivity.
That eclectic mix of heritages and habits manifested itself not only in the clientele which frequented the cafes, but also in the décor of the places themselves. Characterised by high ceilinged-roofs with dusty chandeliers or rickety fans, ramshackle wooden chairs and tables with marble-topped surfaces, glass jars stuffed full of sweet and savoury treats and portraits of famous figures from all three countries, the locales formed an idiosyncratic and inimitable part of the city’s fabric.
However, times change; India gained independence, Bombay became Mumbai and the fortunes fell for the Irani bakery. Mumbai remained as dynamic and multicultural a city as ever, but the inexorable creep of capitalism took its toll on these small, eccentric outfits, as fast food chains and global conglomerates moved in to eat up their share of the market. From the 1950s heyday of the Parsi café in Mumbai, when the city hosted approximately 550 of them, now just a mere handful (perhaps less than 20) remain.
Those that are still in operation might be few and far between, but they comprise an unforgettable experience for visitors to the city. Of course, the owners of these cultural hubs form a large part of their appeal. Given the desperate nature of their ancestors’ arrival in India, these Persian immigrants have never forgotten the warm welcome that the city offered to their families and pay homage to it by displaying the same bonhomie to all who enter through their doors, regardless of their colour, creed or social status.
What’s more, many have brought with them family recipes passed down through the generations and guarded with fierce pride, making for a truly authentic culinary encounter. A typical Irani bakery in Mumbai is renowned for its bread, rolls and pastries, while the sweet treats are another unique selling point of these locales, not least for the nostalgic glass jars in which they are displayed. Favourites include nan-khatai (brittle biscuits with a sweet taste and a flaky texture), jeera khari (puff pastry biscuits spiced with cumin) and all other imaginable variations on the biscuit theme.
Meanwhile, sit-down cafes offer a fuller menu replete with tasty home-cooked dishes from Iran. Some of the more popular choices include kheema pav (minced meat served in a bread roll), dhansak (a spiced lentil dish with meat and/or vegetables), akuri (a meal consisting of scrambled eggs and vegetables) and mutton samosas. All of which is, of course, washed down with lashings of paani kam chai, a strong Iranian tea whose name literally means “tea with less water”.
These time capsules to an era that has surely elapsed might be difficult to track down, but they’re not quite extinct altogether. Those who know where to look can still find themselves delighted by the incredible hospitality of their proprietors, the archaic charm of their décor and the satisfying sustenance offered on their menus. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the best Irani cafes still open for business today:
Having opened its doors for the first time in 1914, B Merwan & Co is a veritable institution in Mumbai, with a loyal customer base that has accrued over 100 years. The place did seem to be facing permanent closure in 2014, but after just a few weeks of downtime, it reopened to great fanfare and has never looked back. Be sure to try their mawa cakes and puffs, created without eggs and stuffed with mawa (also known as khoya), a dairy product made from heating milk.
Lagging slightly behind B Merwan, Brittania and Co started out in 1923 and has barely changed in the intervening century. Its garrulous owner Boman Kohinoor, 96 years young, is part of the place’s unique charm and has welcomed all manner of guests through its doors, including stars of both Bollywood and Hollywood, global politicians and even the Pope. As for the fare, the Irani dhansak and the berry pulao both come highly recommended.
Ask any local where to find the city’s best brun maska (hot toasted buns with crunchy crusts) and they’ll surely mention Yazdani bakery. Mumbai was first blessed by this incredible eatery in the 1950s and the owners can’t be faulted for their industry in the interim – the wood-fired ovens which bake its goods are in operation 24 hours a day. 12 or more bakers work on shifts, sleeping above the ovens in makeshift beds among the rafters when off-duty, churning out more delicious baked treats when on.
One rival to Yazdani’s crown is Kyani & Co, the oldest establishment on this list and surely one of the oldest in Mumbai. Founded in 1904, this bakery retains all the same décor from the day it first opened and is said to have hosted freedom fighters who plotted their struggle for independence from its wooden boards. Aside from the incredible baked goods on offer, Kyani & Co is also known for its filling breakfasts at highly affordable prices.
Located right next to the Marine Lines train station, Sassanian has been in operation since 1913 and used to entertain pre-5am queues right around the block for its brun pav (crusty bread rolls) and Irani chai. However, when the entrance of the station was reconfigured, its owners found business suddenly dropping off – and so expanded their menu to include masoor dal (red lentil dahl), kheema (spicy minced meat), dhansak and other non-bakery items, making it a satisfying locale to fill your stomach at any time of the day.
The parents of current owner Behram Kosravi arrived in Mumbai in 1925, at which time they were forced to return to the immigration offices every 11 months until the law was relaxed and they were eventually welcomed as part of the city. Café Military opened its doors in 1933 and today is one of the few Irani cafes where patrons can buy beer – but that’s not what it’s famous for. Instead, try the pulav dal (rice and dahl) or kheema sali (minced meat with deep-fried and grated potatoes).