It is a busy day at the café, bearers flit between tables balancing trays of tea cups and saucers of bun-maska. Waiters, meanwhile, scribble orders in a jiffy – Poro, Akuri, French toast, Keema Pav, Rasta Sandwhich, Mawa Cake. The place is abuzz with a steady drone of guests; the air is fragrant with aroma of fresh food. This scene might look like it is straight out of an Irani café in South Mumbai, except it is happening in the heart of Punjabi Delhi. The situation is similar at Irani café, Pune, Café Regal, Jamshedpur, The Bawa, Pune, and Kayani & Co., Mumbai.
On the verge of extinction until a few years ago, the Irani café culture is making a comeback and its affect can be seen everywhere. The only difference? In the new scheme of things, the Irani café culture comes together with Parsi food traditions to create an electric combination, which is winning over patrons across demographics. Looking at their popularity, it is hard to tell that these cafés and their recipes were dying until just a few years ago.
“The credit of revival of the Irani café culture and Parsi food goes entirely to Soda Bottle Opener Wala, they came at a time when the Irani Café’s were dying but the interest in regional cuisines was growing.” Vernika Awal, an award winning food blogger and journalist from Mumbai, tells us over the phone. “Thanks to them, the café’s have had a new lease of life.” She goes on to add.
Since opening its first outlet in Gurgaon, a few years ago, Soda Bottle Opener Wala indeed continues to lead the way for smaller Parsi and Irani establishments around the country. The place not only helped people open up to quirky décor, aluminum plates, and cutting chai glasses, but also to experimenting with new flavours, textures and combinations. “At Soda Bottle Opener Wala we pay a tribute to the dying legacy of a Bombay Irani café, bringing with it typical Parsi cuisine and some Irani specialties too.” Chef Manager Anahita Dhondy, who manages the Gurgaon, Delhi, and Bangalore outlets, tells us. “The food we serve is a mix of recipes from Iran, Persia, Goa and Bombay.” She adds.
“Parsis are known for eating meat for breakfast. The practice started with having the leftover meat dishes with pav in the morning and soon became a tradition. Then there are the eggs, which no Parsi can do without.” She goes on to explain as she introduces the newly launched Big Bawa Breakfast dominated by meat and eggs – Akuri, Keema, Poro, Chicken are some preparations that feature in the spread along with homemade pavs and buns. “We have our own bakery, so we can ensure the pav, cakes, kharis, and buns that accompany our food are completely authentic.” She quips.
Authenticity is at the heart of the new wave of Irani café’s across cities. Most of them are set up like a typical Irani café in Mumbai with checkered floors, large mirrors, fuss-free furniture, and high ceilings. “Functionality was the only thing on the cafe owner’s mind back then. The mirrors were put up to keep an eye on the staff and customers, the floor was made of sturdy kota and kadappa stone so that it did not get damaged easily, high ceilings ensured the place stayed cool. They were just being economical and practical.” Mokhtar Yaveri, who runs Irani Café in Pune, explains the logic behind the design. “Today, of course, it is more about décor.” He adds. Mokhtar comes from an Irani family and has brought back not only the authentic vibe to his café, but also the real Irani food. So you have Brun Maska, Keema Pav, Bun Maska, and the special Irani Chai, whose recipe remains a family secret. “There is a sense of nostalgia attached to Irani cafés, especially in Mumbai and Pune. A majority of my customers are senior citizens, who used to frequent Irani cafés as kids, and are elated to find a place like this in an upmaket neighbourhood; of course there are youngsters too, fascinated by the ambience and food,” adds Mokhtar.
Nostalgia is what brought Varun Gazder back to Jamshedpur to set up his café in a hundred year old building. The town, home to a sizable population of Parsis, never had the Irani café culture but there was always an intimate circle of Parsi food aficionados, which had started to die. “Whenever I ate Parsi food outside of my home, I felt something was amiss. It did not have that aroma or flavour. So I decided to bring out my family recipes to my café.” Varun, who quit his job at Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, to set up Café Regal in an abandoned cinema hall in the Parsi bastion, Tatanagar, tells us.
Not only did he clear up the second floor of a decrepit theatre to set up café Regal (named after the cinema), but also recreated the Parsi Bhonu from his family recipe. The special Sunday lunch takes between 4-5 hours to prepare and remains very popular with the patrons – both Parsi and non Parsis. Varun isn’t complaining though. “I’ve been lucky because the people have really taken to the food here. We get youngsters and seniors in equal numbers and my Sunday lunch is completely booked by Friday evening.” He adds cheerfully. His vision is to slowly and steadily introduce more Irani and Parsi specialties while maintaining the authenticy and quality of the place.
Not everyone seems to be happy with the trend though. There are some people who feel the new-age adaptation of Irani cafés is taking away the authenticity of the recipes. “They feel the Mawa Cake at the newer places is not as good as the ones at Kayani, or the Akuri is too dry.” Vernika, who also hosts many Irani food-walks reveals. “But for now it is just great that we have an entire breed of young people working to revive a dying tradition.” She adds. We cannot, but agree.
This story first appeared in The Hindu.