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Mumbai's Irani hotspots

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With distinctive ambience and mouth-watering fare, Irani cafes enthrall Mumbaikars.

OLD FAVOURITE: Sassanian Bakery, since 1931. - Shashi Ashiwal
OLD FAVOURITE: Sassanian Bakery, since 1931. - Shashi Ashiwal

Sarika Mehta

Largely frequented by the working class, these cafes are a big draw because they are reasonably priced and hygienic.

Bollywood, BSE,

vada pav

,

dabbawallas

... these are some of the more talked about elements of Mumbai. However, this melting pot is also home to many sub-cultures such as the quaint and charming Irani cafes that dot the city. Churning out mouth-watering fare for almost a century now, die-hard customers continue to drop in for the crisp butter

kharis

, layered salted biscuits, and the Irani

cha

, a thick overly milky, sweetened tea delicately flavoured with cardamom.

The classic format of these cafes is basic with a subtle colonial touch; high ceilings with black, bent wooden chairs (now cane in some cafes), wooden tables with marble tops and glass jars that allow a peek into the goodies they hold. With huge glass mirrors on the walls to create a feeling of space, visitors are greeted with eagerness and a whiff of baking. The speed of operations is impressive and service quite hassle-free.

The Sassanian Bakery and Boulangerie at Dhobi Talao in Mumbai has been whisking delicious omelettes-

maska pav

(Rs 25) and

akuri

(a scrambled egg preparation perked up with spices) since 1913. Sharook K., one of the partners, explains that the bakery got its name from the Sassanian dynasty of Iran. At one time these Irani cafes were popular hangouts for the affluent set, upcoming writers and even film stars. Sassanian was a favourite with the derby participants, jockeys and racecourse dealers.

Many of the Irani cafes still offer a mind-boggling and innovative spread of sweet and salted biscuits like Rawa (semolina) Coconut, Til Rawa Coconut, the traditional

nan-khatai

(sweet, crisp and flaky Irani biscuits), Madeira-Cake (tutti-fruity biscuits), all priced modestly between Rs 18 and Rs 20 at Sassanian. Mihir Mehta, a student, swears by the vegetable puff at Sassanian. "I have it almost thrice a week," he says.

Kyani & Co is another popular Irani cafe in Mumbai. "The cherry cream custard here is to die for," says Shahnaaz, a regular. At Rs 18 it is indeed good for two thick, creamy, cold and just right with the cherry on the top! The cheese

khari

biscuits, Coconut Jam and Milk biscuits are the other favourites here.

Glass cabinets lined with colourful scones, mawa cakes and the all-time favourite plum cakes beckon you to step in for a bite. The kheema and mutton patties at these places are the best, as most non-vegetarians would vouch.

"The good part is that the prices have not changed drastically over the years," says Patel, a Kyani regular for 25 years. There is nothing fancy about the place but the ambience is infectious.

Olympia at Churchgate dishes out excellent mutton kheema and pav, which is popular among the college kids in this area. "It is one of the most delicious and affordable meals around," says Pooja, a student. Largely frequented by the working class, these cafes are a big draw because they are reasonably priced and hygienic.

Britannia at Ballard Estate largely serves authentic Parsi meals and is on the hot-list for corporate executives. The fragrant Berry Pulao, Veg/Chicken Dhansak and Biryani are staple fare here. The Dhansak, a spicy broth acclaimed for its nutritive values with lentils, pulses and veggies/ chicken, is served with fried potato crispies.

A Parsi meal is usually never complete without the legendary Dukes Raspberry drink. This is the community favourite and not easily available except near Parsi colonies and at the Parsi Gymkhana. The

Lagan nu custard

cool and pamper the taste buds at the end of a spicy meal. A lavish meal for two at Britannia would costs Rs 150-200. The Parsi Bhonu (meal) is now available at most Irani restaurants.

The people who started these joints are Zoroastrians who migrated to India from Iran at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Legend has it that in their early days in India, the Iranis (the second generation of migrants) worked in Parsi (the first generation of migrants) homes and later gathered in the evenings to reminisce about their homeland. At one such gathering, one of the men apparently served tea to the rest and charged a small amount for it. This sowed the idea for Irani cafes.

With the closing down of Bastani, a popular Irani joint opposite Kyani in Mumbai, the entry of fast foods such as pizzas at many Irani cafes, and the establishment of in-house permit rooms, it is evident that the younger generation of Iranis is not interested in preserving the legacy of the cafes in their traditional format. If that were to happen, Mumbai would lose a part of its heritage and cultural legacy.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 6, 2006)
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