Wah, Irani chai!

ARUNA CHANDARAJU | Updated on July 12, 2012 Published on July 12, 2012

Not just tea, but a time-honoured tradition — an Irani café in Hyderabad. Aruna Chandaraju

Irani café in Hyderabad. - Aruna Chandaraju

Despite stiff competition, Irani cafes rule in Hyderabad and Secunderabad, as its fan base holds strong.

At one time, Irani chai defined the café culture in Hyderabad, especially the Old City. Introduced by settlers from Persia (Iran), the drink and the places serving it evolved into an institution over time. In recent years, the onslaught from Baristas, Cafe Coffee Days, and hotels where filter coffee, cappuccinos, English and Indian teas (including that eternal favourite — masala chai) rule, has meant that Irani chai’s' territory has shrunk.

Nevertheless, this teahouse tradition retains its strongholds - around Charminar, in scattered bakeries, and in better-known restaurants like Garden Café and the legendary Paradise in Secunderabad - where it has a large, fiercely loyal fan following. Like Mohammad Ghouse, 73, with whom we are meeting over a cup of - what else? - Irani chai in one of the many restaurants around Mecca Masjid, where morning prayers have just ended.

Ghouse tells us that he began life as a mechanic in a workshop in Charminar 55 years ago, and his maalik and team would - separately - descend on these cafés several times a day for Irani chai. Today, Ghouse has his own large showroom, and his sons run lucrative businesses in Sharjah and Bahrain. “When they come home, my betas lovingly take me to five-star hotels for lunch and dinner. But tea - I never drink it elsewhere. Nothing like Irani chai,” he reiterates, draining the last of his nectar in a noisy slurp and smiling with satisfaction as he sets the saucer back on the table.

There are around 30 Irani cafes in the stretch from Secunderabad’s Sarojini Devi Road to Shah Ali Banda in Old City. The best-known are Paradise and Garden Café, Red Rose (Panjagutta); Farasha Café, Shah Ghouse Cafe, New Grand Hotel and a couple of others around Charminar; Sarvi Café at Banjara Hills, and Chai Shop in Taj Banjara. Besides, this tea is also available at many nondescript cafes and bakeries in Yakutpura, Malakpet, Khairatabad and Abids. Irani chai here is flavourful and refreshing, but don’t expect too much hygiene in these small places.

Typically served in a white ceramic cup and saucer and often called 90 ml chai after its standard volume, the sweet, milky Irani chai is manna to many who swear by its unique taste and rejuvenating properties. It is traditionally served with staples such as osmania biscuits, lukhmi, tie biscuit, fine biscuit, sweet cream bun, dilkush, jam roll, bun- maska. Nowadays, these dip-in-tea delicacies are also served with samosas and mirchi bhajjis. The price for a cup ranges from Rs 6 to Rs 8 at small cafés, while bigger restaurants might charge between Rs 15 and Rs 25.

Most places also serve Sulemani chai or Ghava (black tea). Also Khade chamach ki chai, which is tea so laden with sugar that the spoon stands in a vertical position! Then there are Pauna (a milkier version), Cutting chai (smaller portion), and other versions.

When Irani chai came to India from Persia - first to Mumbai and then Hyderabad, it was originally black tea without sugar, explains Mirza Ali Sarvi, Managing Partner, Sarvi Group. Later, it was modified with the addition of milk and sugar to suit Indian tastes. “Irani chai has some characteristics - it is never boiled or overcooked (like the standard tea) but made on dum (light steam), and it uses samovars and handis made of copper,” he explains. It has been a tradition in Hyderabad since the 1940s, he reveals.

At the upper end of the scale is the newly opened Chai Shop at Taj Banjara. But not that far up. As a deliberate pricing policy, considering its target customers of artists, students, and young professionals, it offers the ‘chai-with-snacks’ experience for around Rs 300-400 a person. The menu is concise, the interiors are vibrant and sleek without being too luxe, and the furniture is comfortable not opulent. The five-star trappings have been toned down to keep the place as affordable as possible.

Ranju Singh, General Manager, proudly tells us it is not only one of the first-of-its-kind in a five-star hotel, but also entirely an in-house job — from concept to design and execution. The walls are covered with pictures of yesteryear Bollywood stars, and there is a jukebox. The menu revolves around Irani chai and typical accompaniments from Hyderabad and Mumbai.

The list of teas has Salahuddin ki chai, Cutting chai, Chocolati chai and Sulemani chai. Whatever we sampled was flavourful and authentic. Complementing this is a list of Thandas.

Kheema-stuffed patti samosa with soya-leaf for local flavour, garlay and lukhmis are among the starters. Mirchi bhajji, vada pav, Khazane chowk ke bheegey chole kulche, Bawaarchi special biriyani and Kheema kaleji paratha feature on the menu, besides a set meal called Pesh Karte Hain. Executive Chef Sumeet Sood proudly told us Tootak was available only here - it has otherwise become extinct from restaurant menus in the city. Desserts and beer are also on offer.

So, you can savour the tea where you will. And whether it is the swish Chai Shop, the much-vaunted Paradise restaurant or a humble roadside eatery, they are not just brewing up and serving a beverage called Irani chai, but keeping alive a slice of the city’s history.

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Published on July 12, 2012
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