Like every major cultural capital of the world, Bombay too had its own Café culture. The Irani Cafe. They ruled the Café scene in Bombay from the early 1900s to about the 1980s. These were places one would go for Irani Chai, Bun Maska (Butter), Pattice, Akuri (Parsi way of making Scrambled Eggs), other Egg dishes, Keema, some classic Parsi dishes like Salli Boti, Dhansak and Berry Pulao. One would gossip with friends over Chai, go out for an inexpensive date over Akuri but rarely for a full meal.
The Iranis Behind The Irani Cafe
Parsis came to India around 900-1000 years ago. They were the rulers of Persia and fled to India when they lost the war to Arabs. There’s no clear date on when they came to India, but the landing in Sanjan, Gujarat and the story of the three wise Parsi men, the glass of Milk and Sugar’s well documented. The Parsis are Zoroastrians which’s one of the world’s oldest surviving religions. They follow the Shahenshahi calendar which celebrates the New Year in August. On the day they landed in Sanjan.
Iranis in India also follow Zoroastrianism and go to the same Fire Temples as the Parsis. But follow the Kadimi calendar which celebrates the New Year in March. The day of the Spring Equinox. To differentiate themselves from the Parsis. They call themselves Iranis.
The Iranis came to India over a period of the last 300 years. But the main exodus happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s because of a combination of the persecution of minorities by the rulers of the Qajar dynasty and the Great Famine of 1870. Many Iranis came to India and settled in Bombay, Gujarat and other parts of Western India.
Cult of the Irani Café
Many of the Iranis who came to India set up small Tea Cafés. Corner properties were considered inauspicious by both Hindus and Muslims. The Iranis took up these corner properties for their Cafés as rents were much cheaper. The advantage of corner properties alongwith their wonderful food, Irani Chai made many of these Irani Cafés landmarks. Before these Cafés, there wasn’t any place in Bombay where one could catch up with friends over Chai and an inexpensive meal.
Irani Cafés had their typical quirks. Each of them had their own set of rules for Customers – No Gambling. No Sitting For Too Long. No Office Work. No Drinking and other such rules that were imposed on each customer. The counter was the central feature of the Irani Cafe, where the owner would sit and control each order and collect cash. The design of the Chair also defined a Cafe as an Irani Café.
The Irani Cafe is a dying tradition today. Facing competition from new-age Cafés, unsustainable rents, a shrinking loyal clientele, not being able to connect with youngsters and not being able to upgrade their product. These Cafés are stuck in a time warp and dying out one-by-one.
These are the Irani Cafes of Bombay still around
Happy hunting and Chowder-on!