Before We Begin: The story of Bombay’s Irani bakeries and cafes must not be perceived as a story about a business. It is a story of the men and women who migrated to the city and started off with these ventures. It is the story of those who continue to run the business against all odds. It is the story of passionate, kind men who continue to take their tradition forward despite age and ailments. It is a story of how changing thoughts with changing generations. The story is an ongoing saga of a hundred-year-old Indo-Iranian heritage.
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The Irani Bakeries and Cafes of South Bombay
Bombay’s Irani Cafes have a big part to play when it comes to establishing the city’s cosmopolitan ethos. A part of Bombay’s multicultural heritage, some of these cafes have been around for over a hundred years. The owners and managers of these cafes have become as iconic as these establishments. Over the years, these men have become a link between the city’s past and the present. A conversation with them reveals a wealth of knowledge about the Indo-Iranian heritage.
As a part of a college documentary project, I got to meet a number of these people and visit some of the most iconic bakeries of Bombay. Here’s a recollection of some of what we gathered from these people and places.
Today, migrants from all across India come to Bombay to seek a better life and a better future. However, the Iranians were among the first group of people to do so. In the early 1900s, following years of famine and religious and political persecution, there was an en masse migration of Iranians to Bombay. Seated on a Polish bentwood chair at the Sassanian Bakery (an Irani Cafe established in 1913), city historian Deepak Rao explains that the Iranians who came to India in the early 1900s started off these cafes, mostly in the corner-shops. This was because back in the early 20th century, there was quite a superstition among the locals around shops/houses located on corners and bends. Making the best of this opportunity, the Iranians rented these places at an inexpensive price.
Meherban Kola, the owner of the Sassanian Boulangerie explains how these cafes started off as general stores offering everything from soaps to calendars. He explained how newspapers and magazines of various languages once used to be stocked up at his cafe. However, over the years, as specialized department stores opened up, the trends changed and they evolved into pure bakeries and cafes.
Today, these Irani Cafes are going through a major crisis. About 50 years ago, Bombay had over 300 such cafes and bakeries all across the town. Today, not even 50 of these cafes are left. Here’s a look at the Irani Cafes of Bombay – and what is causing their disappearance!
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The Irani Cafe Experience
Inside Bombay’s Iconic Bakeries and Cafes
You’ve seen these places in movies, in talk shows and in food-and-travel shows. These high-ceilinged buildings with their antique wooden construction. The marble-topped tables and walls ornated with huge mirrors. Glass jars full of candies and cookies. A vintage clock ticking so loudly you can hear it amid all the chatter. A separate, family-only section, usually on a floor above the main cafe, away from the chitter-chatter, the gossip and the scandal of the usually-collegian crowds that occupy the lower sections.
A colourful chalkboard menu highlighting various delicacies, the usual suspects being Brun Pav, Muska Bun, Dhansak, Lagan nu Custard, Keema Bread and Mawa Cake among others. Red and yellow bottles of freshly prepared and brightly-coloured raspberry and pineapple sodas! Most importantly, the smell of freshly baked bread and the strong and sweet Irani Chai! In the months when the Bombay-breeze is at its finest, the smell will lead you to these cafes.
Symbols and pictures depicting their Iranian heritage are present throughout these cafes. First off, the names. Most of the cafes are named after traditional Iranian names or surnames. The Yazdani Bakery, the Sassanian Boulangerie, Merwan and Co. and Kyani and Co. all named after traditional Iranian names, surnames and places. Through most of these cafes, you would see depictions of various fire temples, old photographs of how the Iranian cities looked like, and religious symbols such as the Farr-e Kiyani and images of Zoroaster.
The Yazdani Bakery has a wall dedicated to these images and items from the bakery’s past. Among many other things on the wall, you’d find some interesting family memorabilia as well. Various degrees of the family members ornate the wall. Among these degrees is one that proves that those who run the place are qualified in the art of Bakery and Confectionary skills! Sitting in front of a 60-year old bread-cutting machine, Mr Tirandaz, who manages the Yazdani bakery loves to bake! While most of the baking at his bakery is done by the staff, he ensures that at every opportunity possible, he walks into the kitchen to bake some bread himself!
Some modern-day elements have also found a place among with these images over the years. In some of these cafes and bakeries, you’d find certificates of praise from various rating website. There are framed newspaper cuttings, as well as advertisements from the early days of the cafe (The ad-man in me was thrilled by the ad copy). At Britannia and Co. you can also find a letter expressing gratitude and praise from Queen Elizabeth II, addressed to one Mr Kohinoor. Flags of Iran, India and Britain hang next to each other at the cafe. A life-size cutout of Prince William and Dutchess Kate is also present, commemorating their visit from a few years ago.
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Food at the Irani Bakeries and Cafes of Bombay
Bombay is a city obsessed with buns, popularly known as pav in the local languages. The city loves to gorge on pavs of various shapes and size and having different stuffings! You put a vada inside the pav and it becomes a vadapav. There’s also the samosa-pav, the keema-pav, the cutlet-pav, the misal-pav and the usal-pav. Then there’s pav-bhaji and the dabeli. There’s an infinite number of these combinations depending upon how adventurous you are with your food.
However, for those wondering how Bombay got so obsessed with buns, the Irani Cafes might just have a role to play in that! The trend of pav-eating was started in the city by these Iranian bakeries and cafes. In the early 1900s, buns and bread were some of the easiest things to bake, which also offered a high margin of profit. Hence, the Iranian bakeries and cafes began offering various bun-based items. The concept was simple – these are inexpensive items which can be made with ease.
Eventually, more variety was added to the menu. In came Parsi delicacies such as Dhansak, Lagan nu Custard, Sali Boti. Over the years, a number of additions were made to these food items. The berry pulav at Britannia and Co. continues to be one of the most demanded items on the menu. Today, most of these bakeries serve everything from french fries and burgers to sizzlers and noodles. These changes were necessary to keep up with the changing tastes of the consumers, as per Meherban Kola of the Sassanian Boulangerie.
While the initial idea behind the Irani bakeries and cafes was to offer inexpensive products and food items which have a mass appeal, not all bakeries today stick to that pricing strategy. The most notable exception is Britannia and Co. Located in the Ballard Estate, one of the poshest localities in SoBo (South Bombay), where a Berry Pulav may set you back by anything between Rs. 350-950. One of the most upscale and expensive Iranian cafes, Britannia and Co. offers a premium experience when it comes to Irani bakeries, unlike most other similar establishments.
However, while some bakeries have evolved and introduced a number of new food items, others like the Yazdani Bakery decided to phase out the Parsi food from the menu and stick to their classic offerings: the bakery products – a strategy that has worked out well for them! The sixty-year-old bread-cutting machine at Yazdani continues to chug away as it cuts through hundreds of loaves of bread every day. Their apple-pies continue to sell-out on a daily basis. My personal favourite at Yazdani is their Mawa Cakes, which stand out compared to other Iranian bakeries and cafes of Bombay.
One cannot talk about Irani Bakeries and Cafes of Bombay without mentioning the all-time favourite! The Irani Chai. A constant presence across almost every Irani Cafe, what sets this tea apart from other varieties of tea that you may drink in the city is the sweet taste that it leaves in your mouth! Mr Tirandaz, who manages the Yazdani Bakery sums it up by saying: “Offering a sweet drink can solve many problems and conflicts. Afterall, who likes bitter things!”
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Meet The Showrunners
Men Who Manage Mumbai’s Iranian Bakeries and Cafes
The men who manage the Irani Bakeries and Cafes of Bombay have become a part of the city’s heritage! Usually, a grey-haired man with a booming voice, with a nose whose curve would put Mughal emperors to shame, wearing a traditional Iranian cap would sit behind the counters. Most of these men (affectionately called uncle by most of their young customers) walk around the tables and greet the customers from time to time – ensuring that everything is going alright.
It is 9 AM in the morning. The buns and puddings have been baked and the puffs are being prepared at the Byculla Bakery and Restaurant. Two men walk into the restaurant and greet the Darius, the owner. The three are longtime friends. Silver-haired and smiling, the three men exchange hellos and then begin with the daily gupshup. It is the 27th of February, just one day after the surgical strike that India conducted on Pakistan’s Balakot. These members of The Sunrise Club enter into an intense discussion about what India did and what Pakistan did. Suddenly, this intense discussion gets interrupted as a customer walks up to pay the bill. By the time the conversation resumes, we move to a lighter topic and jokes on each other follow. It is a morning as sweet as the cherry-filled maska-buns of Byculla Bakery!
At around 11 AM, Meheraban Kola of the Sassanian Boulangerie walks into his restaurant. After a prayer, he begins with the chit-chat. A smiling gentleman with quite a flair for storytelling, he points towards the various vintage ads, news-cuttings and awards that his cafe has received over the years. Meheraban talks about how his cafe started off in 1913, by two partners. He eventually married the daughter of the other partner making it a single family that runs the business. Graciously giving all the credit for his success to his wife, Mr Kola says whatever I am today, I am because of my wife.
Meheraban then talks about how a rise in competition from fast-food chains has caused a number of Iranian cafes to shut down over the years. He points out various nearby buildings which were once Iranian cafes, but are now fast-food chains or new-age restaurants. Reminiscing over the good old days, Meheraban talks about how the who’s who of the city used to come over for a bite at his cafe! He concludes by talking about his shop during Easter-time as people still queue up for their legendary plum cakes and other Easter delicacies!
The Yazdani bakery is managed by Tirandaz, a bright-eyed and comparatively younger presence behind the desk than compared to most of his other Iranian bakery and cafe counterparts. Tirandaz pointed out that the bakery started off in 1953. While it is a younger establishment compared to other Iranian cafes in the vicinity, it continues to enjoy a stream of customers who regularly keep coming in for their bread and buns. Simplicity, according to Tirandaz, is the key aspect of an Iranian bakery. He points out how his walls, furniture, and even food is humble. There’s not an element of show-off or luxury, and the simplicity speaks for itself. He credits the success of the bakery to the authentic Iranian taste that his recipes have.
Britannia and Co., managed by the Kohinoor family, graciously allowed us to take pictures of their eatery but politely refused our request for a conversation.
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The Disappearing Irani Bakeries and Cafes of Bombay
Apart from how they all look and feel, and the kind of food that they serve – there’s another common factor that connects the surviving Irani bakeries and cafes of Bombay. Their future remains uncertain.
Facing stiff competition from Quick Service Restaurants and fast-food joints, along with infrastructure and policy-related changes, as well as a changing preference among the consumers, the number of Irani bakeries and cafes in Bombay has dropped down from over 300 to less than 50. However, this is not where the actual problem lies. Currently, most of these cafes and bakeries are being managed by the second or third generation of Iranians who started them. However, the gen-next doesn’t seem to be keen on managing this business anymore.
A common theme that most of the cafe-owners talked about was how their children were not interested in managing the cafes. Darius, who runs the Byculla Restaurant and Bakery commented that his father started this bakery – and it is because of this attachment that he continues to run it.
Upon being asked what will happen to the bakery in the future, one of his friends from the aforementioned Sunrise Club pointed out that Ladka Canada me hai[…]hotel business toh gaya. (His son is in Canada, the hotel business is dead.)
A similar, sombre tone entered the conversation when the otherwise-cheerful owner of the Sassanian Boulangerie, Meheraban Kola, was asked this question, he pointed out that a number of bakeries have already shut shop or have become something completely different from what they once were. He added: No one knows what the future is, my son[…]I am doing this for my heart’s fulfilment[…]As long as I can run it, I will run it[…]Man proposes, God disposes. Tirandaz of Yazdani Bakery, however, was the lone exception. He was quite optimistic about the future, pointing out that the bakery will pass on from generation to generation, confident that there will be someone from the family who will manage the bakery.
With less than 50 Iranian bakeries and cafes left in Bombay, would these century-old establishments, which have become a core part of the heritage and cultural ethos of the city be able to continue for long? Or are these the last years of these bakeries? It is tragic that at a time when premium Irani/Parsi-cafe themed restaurants are opening up across the country, the original Iranian cafes are winding up.
We’ll know the day has come when the Bombay breeze shall no longer carry the smell of freshly-baked buns and the sugary-sweet Iranian tea.