Persian Migration of the late 18th and 19th centuries brought with itself a little more than just Iranians who would come to be a part of the Indian West Coast. It brought with itself a legacy, an inheritance of Iran’s food and flavour, celebrated each day by modest cafes tucked in the crevices of South Bombay.
Legend has it that the Iranians in the Yazd and Kerman districts of Iran migrated to India owing to the religious persecution of Zoroastrians under the Qajar rule. The Great Famine of Persia caused large caravans of people to flee Iran, cover vast distances on foot, across the Hindukush mountains, to reach Quetta, Karachi, and Mumbai. One fine day, a young Irani ‘Chaiwalla’, served to his friends, who sat together reminiscing old times, a cup of tea. The result was the birth of an Idea. Irani cafes would soon come to populate the city of Mumbai. Britannia and Co., Kyani and Co., The Yazdani Bakery, and the Leopold Cafe (Yes, the same one of 26/11 fame) are a few vestiges of a bygone era.
Red chequered tablecloths, menu cards stuck below the glass table top, Parsi skull caps, a general din, and surprisingly low prices are characteristic of Bombay’s Irani Cafes. What do these Irani cafes serve? Well, bun maska, keema pao, berry pulao, chai, and Khari biscuits are quintessential here. Today, there seems to be a decline in the number of Irani Cafes in Mumbai. Of 350 cafes, only 25 remain. Whether these 25 are here to stay, is a question of uncertainty still.
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Why you ask? Farokh Shokriye, the force behind the 113-year-old Kyani and Co. in Fort, explains that for one, the trend has changed. The coming in of the mighty Mac did make him think whether his simple food would live to see another day. Thankfully it did. It required adapting the menu to the evolving customers’ needs. Shokriye also explains that with the third generation of Iranians wishing to settle elsewhere, the cafes are left uncatered for, and consequently shut down. A part of the decline of Irani legacy owes itself to a rising ‘drinking culture’ in the Metropolis.
SodaBottleOpenerWala, which houses on its menu mug fulls of nostalgia for the regulars at Mumbai’s Irani Cafes, is the city’s answer to the needs of its elite, who proposed an air-conditioned, picture-book-like version of the original cafe. While some have pointed out how unauthentic a version of the old cafe this new chain is, others have embraced the hybridity of such a space and lauded it. What is authenticity? Food and flavors have constantly been a result of experiments and borrowing from one’s neighbors. The original Irani Cafe bears no exception to this rule. History has it that Irani food is in itself a blend of its Mughal counterparts, sprinkled with the results of travel of ideas. SodaBottleOpenerWala does not promise to its patron a Kyani or a Bastani experience. It repackages the original to serve a revised version of itself, staking an altogether different claim to originality.
Dwindling or not, the Iranians left behind a legacy. A legacy both culinary and cultural.