Anyone who grew up in Bombay has a soft spot in his heart for Irani restaurants, those cheap, comfortable cafes where one could get a satisfying cup of tea and a snack anytime during the day and late into the night. For those of you who have lived in Bombay ( now Mumbai), this will be a trip down memory lane. For the others, I hope that it provides a fascinating glimpse into a fast disappearing facet of Bombay life and times.
Irani restaurants were set up by migrants from Iran who came to Bombay about a century ago. Like the earlier migrants from Iran ,who are known as Parsis, they too were Zorastrians ; unlike them, they were not fleeing religious persecution. Primarily, they were farmers who , after a succession of droughts, left Iran in search of better economic opportunities. Being uneducated, their options were limited ; so, with help from their Parsi brethren, they set up tea stalls which slowly morphed into cafes selling tea and snacks and also doubled as provision (convenience) stores, carrying items such as toothpaste, batteries,cigarettes, safety pins, playing cards, etc. Legend has it that some of the early migrants used to work as caretakers and in the evenings they used to gather to discuss the day’s happenings over cups of tea . One of them started making tea for the group and charging them a small sum and this gave rise to a tea stall. This in turn became the first Irani restaurant. Unlike Parsis , who were better educated, the Iranis were not suited for the white-collar professions. Thus they gravitated to opening and running restaurants and the rest is history. In 1950 , there were estimated to be no less than 350 Irani restaurants in Bombay and every other street corner seemed to boast one.
Almost all these restaurants were located on street corners because Hindu shopkeepers labored under the superstition that corner sites were unlucky. This was a boon to the Iranis since their establishments thus fronted two streets and benefitted from the increased traffic.The restaurants themselves were unprepossessing since they catered to the common man. “My ” Irani restaurant, Cafe Gulshan, was located at the end of Gymkhana Road in Matunga and it was typical of its kind. The furniture consisted of black bentwood chairs( supposedly imported from Poland, or was it Czechoslovakia ?) and sturdy wood tables with gray marble tops which were cracked more often than not. The chairs were not comfortable and it was speculated that they were deliberately designed to discourage patrons from staying too long. If that was the idea it didn’t work ; patrons would linger long over their cups of tea.
In the back was a small kitchen where omlettes were prepared ; immediately outside it was a large urn with a spigot that dispensed the famous Irani chai ( tea) . More about that later. The proprietor sat behind a chest high counter in the front of the restaurant near the entrance. Beneath the counter were glass fronted cabinets displaying the convenience items as well as some edibles like packets of Gluco biscuits, small cakes, bread etc. Overhead , a few ceiling fans desultorily pushed around the hot air without providing any appreciable relief from the heat. The room itself was dingy ; patrons entering from the bright outdoors had to blink their eyes to get used to the murk. It was like entering a cave but , for all that, it was a place to hang out . It was a home away from home.
The main reason to go to an Irani restaurant was the famous Irani tea ( chai). A thick orange- brown liquid , it was made by boiling tea, condensed milk and sugar; the urn in which it was made was kept on the boil throughout the day and replenished as often as necessary. Irani chai was cheap and it was addictive. Customers used to drop in multiple times throughout the day to treat themselves to a cup. The questions ” Why is Irani chai so different ? ” ” What makes it so good ?” ” Why is it so addictive ?” have been debated over and over . One persistent rumor was that the restauranteurs would place a small opium pill in the strainer through which the tea was poured into individual cups . This doesn’t make sense because opium is expensive, besides being illegal, and the chai was very, very cheap. No way they could afford to afford to do it. Besides , they would have been sure to have been found out , sooner or later. Another story is that they used to flavor the chai with poppy seeds. Who knows ?Myself, I think it was the constant boiling together of the tea and the condensed milk that made the chai so good. I think there also might have been a touch of powdered cardamom in the chai. I’ve tried making the chai at home ,boiling together the tea leaves, the condensed milk, sugar and cardamom and the taste was close. At Cafe Gulshan, the only tea I ever ordered was the regular chai. It appears there were other types such as Paani Kum Chai ( Tea with less water = strong tea) and Kadak chai ( very strong tea). There was also Khada Chamcha Chai ( Upright Spoon Tea 1.e tea with so much sugar in the bottom of the cup that a spoon would stand upright in it ) but I think that was a variety available in the Irani restaurants of Hyderabad, not the ones in Bombay. Another legendary variety was a 50-50 mix of tea and coffee but I’ve never encountered it.
Cheap as the chai was , it was too expensive for some of the working poor who used to frequent Irani restaurants . It was not unusual to see two friends sharing a single cup of tea. When the tea was brought to the table, the one who was going to pay for it would slowly pour half of it into the saucer and give it to his friend ; he gave himself the privilege of being the one to drink the rest from the cup.
Those who were better off would have a bite to eat with their chai. The usual choices were khari biscuits (savory puff pastry rectangles) or brun maska ( small hard crusted rolls with a smear of butter). The butter was a story in itself . It was known as Polson , the manufacturer’s name having become synonymous with the product. It was salty and slightly yellowish and it was delicious to our fledgling taste buds. Many’s the youngster who refused to eat the fresh home-made butter that his mother had churned, and demanded Polson. ( Nowadays we eat commercial butter and sigh for the fresh ,soft, white butter that our mothers are no longer there to make for us ). My friend Anand was so persistent in his demand for Polson that his grandma surreptitiously dyed her fresh butter with a little turmeric and packaged it to look like Polson. No dice. They had to bring him the Polson he craved.
Other snack choices were samosas (usually vegetarian), small mava cakes. macaroons, jam rolls, fruit cake, nankhattai and omlettes ( pronounced aamlate). They could be ordered in either the one-egg or two-egg versions. The amazing thing about them was their size. The Indian eggs of those days were strong tasting and very small, only slightly larger than pigeon’s eggs.They were what were called ” country eggs”. Nowadays , with the emergence of the poultry industry in India , the batteries of Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds yield larger eggs ( about the large size we get in the U.S ). Anyway, even the one-egg Irani aamlate was almost the size of a dinner plate ; a two-egg aamlate would overflow the sides of the plate. How did they do it ? I’ve no doubt that they used to add a liberal amount of maida ( refined flour) to the beaten egg ( along with some chopped onion and sliced green chilly) before frying the aamlate.The taste was very distinctive, slightly burnt and oily but somehow scrumptious when with a small paav (country loaf). A French chef might gag on an aamlate but to us it was simply delicious. I’ve tried it at home and been able to replicate the taste… almost. As soon as I finish this post, I’m going to make myself an aamlate.
Other attractions at the Cafe Gulshan were the soft drinks. The adults would drink chai all year round but when the weather got really, really hot and muggy we youngsters would order something cold. A narangi ( orange soda) , a gulabi ( rose soda) or perhaps a Dukes Mangola or Romango or Limca. Coca Cola was available too but it was more expensive. In the impecunious days of our youth, two or three of us used to share one of those little six-ounce bottles of Coke. The Indian manufactured sodas would come to the table in large thick glass tumblers and they would contain some crushed ice. What a pleasure to hold the cold glass to a fevered cheek!
There were larger Irani restaurants with a longer menu and I intend to get to them but before that I want to describe the history and the special ambience of the Irani restaurant. Watch for it in my next post.