A Taste of Persia, and Old Bombay: Irani Chai Restaurants

By Kavitha Rao

MUMBAI | As Mumbai’s classical architecture gives way to skyscrapers, the curious traveler needs to be quick to see those parts of old Bombay that still remain. There were once Iranian cafes at nearly every corner in south Mumbai. Originated by Iranian immigrants in the 19th century, they provided cheap food and good company in a leisurely — though often rather grimy — setting. Now many have vanished, and others have been converted into bars.

Still, those cafes that have survived have kept prices low and their ambiance intact. You can eat a full meal for less than 40 rupees (about 80 cents), or nurse a single cup of tea for hours without being disturbed. (Be warned, though: there is no air-conditioning, so these cafes can be very hot in summer.) Most Iranian cafes follow a template that has remained essentially the same for over a century: red-checkered tablecloths, dusty marble-topped tables, bentwood chairs, dour waiters, old posters and a general air of quiet decay. Often a forbidding list of instructions is displayed on the wall.

Standard fare at the cafes is the brun-maska — a crusty bun with butter — to be dunked in paani kum chai (strong milky tea). For a full meal, try the akoori (a spicy version of scrambled eggs), chicken patties, dhansak (a mixture of rice, lentils, vegetables and kebabs), or the keema-pao (minced mutton with a bread roll). For dessert, order lagan-nu-custard (a version of caramel custard) or the divine falooda (chilled milk with rose syrup, vermicelli and basil seeds), which tastes much better than it sounds.

In addition, many cafes have their own specialties. Kyani and Co at Dhobi Talao (opposite Metro Cinema, J.S.S Road; 91-22-22…) and Yazdani at Fort (near Akbarallys, Cawasji Patel Street; 91-22-22…), both over a century old, are well known for baked goods, including savory khari wafers and buttery Shrewsbury biscuits. Brittania at the Ballard Estate (opposite the New Custom House; 91-22-22-61-52-64) — more a restaurant than a cafe, really — is famous for its berry pulao, garnished with berries imported from Iran, and sali boti (mutton on a bed of potato straws), though prices here are higher than most. Sassanian Boulangerie (98 Anandilal Podar Marg, Marine Lines; 91-22-22-00-61-98), named after the Sassanian dynasty of Iran, has flaky mutton and chicken puffs and delicious cakes.

The poet Nissim Ezekiel‘s 1972 poem “Irani Restaurant Instructions,” which recalls that harsh signage, is often quoted, but bears repeating; it sums up the brisk, yet welcoming essence of the Iranian cafe:

  • Please
  • Do not spit
  • Do not sit more
  • Pay promptly, time is invaluable
  • Do not write letter
  • Without order refreshment
  • Do not comb
  • Hair is spoiling floor
  • Do not make mischief’s in cabin
  • Our waiter is reporting
  • Come again
  • All are welcome whatever caste
  • If not satisfied tell us
  • Otherwise tell others
  • GOD IS GREAT.

(For more about the history of Irani cafes, and a full list of cafes in the south Mumbai area, see iranichaimumbai.com.)