Mumbai’s Parsee cafés – bakeries run by the city’s Zoroastrian community – have long been an institution in the city. Most of them have been wiped out, replaced by identikit fast-food joints and coffee chains. But a few endure, run by eccentric owners. They are still frequented by those who yearn for a taste of old Bombay. Alpha paid a visit to what is arguably the most famous Parsee café in the city
Deep in the dusty alleys of old Mumbai in lanes packed with people and lined with buildings from the time of the British Raj, somewhere between the Asiatic Library, Flora Fountain and Strand bookstall, is a short surreal-looking building that has a red tiled roof, green paint, which is peeling, and a handful of signs on the front that say, ‘Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery’.
Its architecture and somewhat surreal appearance come from a strange and varied history. The building was originally a Japanese bank during the First World War, but bears the marks left by successive generations – of the British who ruled, the Irani bakers who bought it and the Indians who inherited it.
Meherwan Zend, an Indian Zoroastrian of Iranian descent, started the bakery decades ago, and it is now run by his aging sons: Zend Meherwan Zend, a baker who used to be a boxer a very long time ago, and Parvez Irani Zend who manages the mix of customers, telling stories of the old days.
The Zends are particularly proud of the German clientele they once had, and talk of making a special kind of bread only available in the former Czechoslovakia. They are also proud of sticking it out over the years even while the quality of yeast declined. “In the old days we could leave bread out for 15 days. It would harden, but not spoil. But the life of bread has shortened drastically to just a couple of days.”
As the years go by, the paint keeps peeling, the quality of the bread declines and what was once an iconic establishment stumbles into ruin. But Parvez is defiant. “It isn’t about good business or bad business. It is about what you like. And we love it.” While their father used to make seven-tier cakes, the bakery now serves simpler fare. In the city that never stops working, the café is most famous for its cutting chai and brun maska. For the cutting chai, tea is cooked and spiced until even the poorest tea leaves have been subdued.
It is so strong that usually only half a glass is served. Cutting chai is served with brun maska. Butter (maska) is generously slathered on freshly made bruns (buns) churned out of the oven in the next room. Parvez recalls a time when the city was on strike and shops were ordered to close or threatened with violence. Instead, he made bread during the night. “The next morning there was a pregnant lady walking by looking for something to eat. She was afraid of what she might encounter on the street.