How the Bombay cupcake survived

As yet another Irani café announces its closure, we revisit the history of the Irani’s popular staple, the humble ‘mawa’ cake
By Pooja Vir | Livemint

The year 1981 saw the release of Manmohan Desai’s blockbuster Naseeb. While it is Amitabh Bachchan’s famous image of cage-fighting, Kim’s lip-reading talent and Hema Malini’s pink boa that make the film unforgettable for most, I will always associate the film with the beginning of a love affair with the mawa cake. The cake that travelled from the streets of Bombay, through a cake fight in a five-star hotel kitchen, and was hand-delivered by an airline pilot to a casino in London, had to be a special one.
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Mawa cakes, soft, buttery, cardamom-infused cupcakes rolled in wax paper, have been a menu staple at Irani cafés and bakeries from the time they opened in Bombay and Pune in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A century later, Mumbai’s mawa cake still travels from the city’s Irani cafés to The Big Smoke (London) and is savoured by the likes of celebrated Parsi chef Cyrus Todiwala. “The B Merwan family bakes the best mawa cakes ever. In fact, we have three mini ones in our freezer right now,” says Todiwala.

B Merwan and Co. recently celebrated a century of serving patrons an affordable breakfast and delicious mawa cakes—and also announced that March 2014 would be the last time this would happen.

Just as the very first Irani café in India has never been identified with any certainty, the origins of the mawa cake too are shrouded in mystery. Dan Sheffield, a lecturer at the department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, US, researched three old texts for references to the cake: the 17th century Gujarati Zartoshtnamu (The Book of Zarathustra), Persian-language Khulāsat al-Maʼkūlāt va’l-Mashrubat (The Essence of Edibles And Potables), and Parsi cookbook Vividh Vani, published in 1903. He says of Vividh Vani, “By this time Bombay Parsi cuisine had already been very Anglicized. The book, which is around 1,500 pages, has recipes for 57 varieties of cake ranging from coffee cake and cherry cake to things with exotic names like Cake Napoleon, Chantilly Cake, Cake Bakar Khani, etc., but still no mawa cake.” Zartoshtnamu and The Essence of Edibles And Potables too mention typical Indian desserts, but there is nothing on mawa cakes.
Irani cafés opened during an interesting time. On the one hand, the city’s elite preferred to dine at private clubs or at home, and on the other, the large number of itinerant male workers flooding the city, living away from their families and home cooking, created a market for inexpensive dining. Irani cafés like Kyani and Co., Ideal and B Merwan sold them hundreds of cups of tea every day; and with that, mawa cakes and khari biscuits.

Almost every Irani bakery in the country claims to have invented it. However, the café most inextricably linked with mawa cakes is Grant Road’s B Merwan.

Todiwala is convinced that the cake was a B Merwan brainchild: “In the early 1900s, our milk was not pasteurized, neither was refrigeration available. Milk had to be boiled over and over again to stop it from going off in our heat and humidity. This boiling created an automatic mawa and by the end of the day they would have a lot of it. The Irani owner experimented with it by adding it to a cake and created one of the most significant teatime cakes Bombay has ever known.”

There are other stories too.

The second spate of Irani Zoroastrians that fled from the Islamic Qajar regime were mainly bakers, sweet makers and café owners. It is believed that this is when the mawa cake inspiration came to Bombay, along with a host of other Irani delicacies. Parsi food specialist Katy’s Kitchen’s Kurush Dalal believes the mawa cake is an adaptation of the traditional Zoroastrian tea-cake kumas. “The Irani refugees were not very educated but knew how to bake. They modified their traditional kumas with local ingredients—khoya and cardamom—to make the mawa cake,” he says.

According to other stories, the mawa cake is a clever twist on the homely sponge cake. When Sheriar Irani’s grandfather started Pune’s first Irani bakery, the legendary Royal Bakery, he experimented with new flavours for a sponge cake until he hit upon the perfect recipe and called it the mawa cake. “The British soldiers stationed in the cantonment came to buy my grandfather’s cakes after their daily exercise. Even today we sell almost 70 kilos of mawa cake every day. But the recipe is a secret,” whispers Irani.

Whatever its origins, by the early 1920s the mawa cake had become a popular treat in Bombay—no longer extravagant, but within easy reach. It has not lost its appeal since.

As Irani cafés and bakeries fight to survive in a culinary landscape in which brun maska and chai is food at the margins, the mawa cake holds its own. Kamal Messman, who owns the modern bakery Theobroma, says she spent her childhood eating B Merwan’s mawa cakes. “That is what inspired me to make my own,” says Messman. “I sell several mawa cakes every day even now.”

When B Merwan closes its doors on 31 March, an era will end. But the mawa cake will most likely survive, because it is not often that the whiff of cake has the power to evoke memories of a lost time, that a cake is so much a piece of history.