The Irani Restaurants of Mumbai
Contributed by Isabella Woods
Part of the joy of India’s rich cuisine is that is often highly localised, with different regions having their own specialities. With more specialist Indian restaurants opening up throughout the world (for example, there are now restaurants in London which specialise in South Indian vegetarian food), knowledge of India’s many different cuisines is growing internationally. Despite this, there are still many local cuisines which are little known outside India. One such cuisine is the Irani, cuisine of Mumbai. Sadly, rather than being likely to grow in popularity, Irani cuisine and the culture from which it comes is dying.
Mumbai’s Iranian cafe-culture’s roots come from the Iranian-Zoroastrian community which settled in Mumbai (and in Karachi) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As immigrants from all over the world have done, they opened cafes and restaurants, giving the locals a taste of their own food. And, just as Eastern European immigrants to New York did, or Indian immigrants to London, their food became a much-loved part of the local cuisine. Mumbai is home to the largest community of Zoroastrians still surviving in the world, of around 70,000 people, but declines by around 10% each year.
There are now only around 15 Irani cafes left in Mumbai, down from a total of over 500 in their heyday. They were popular not only with their own community, but with people from all walks of Mumbai society. They were places to go not only to eat and drink, but to chat, to meet and to watch the world go by. They were the social hubs of the city. In terms of food, they managed to mix the best of food from the Irani and Parsi traditions, and combine that with the new ingredients that the immigrants had found in their new Indian home. Fusion food is a modern term, but not a new concept: this is what immigrant cuisines have been doing for centuries: combining the best of their own with the best of the host culture.
While each cafe has its own specialities, there are some dishes that are ubiquitous. They include dhansak, a rich lentil-based dish flavoured with cumin and ginger, and traditionally served with mutton, although chicken and vegetable versions are also common. In Parsi homes, it is normally served on Sundays, as a special family meal. Then there is berry pulao, a tasty dish which combines Iranian and Indian flavours beautifully. The combination of meat, berries and spices makes it unforgettable. Then there is akuri, a simple dish of scrambled egg cooked with ginger, coriander and chilli, and normally eaten with roti, often for breakfast. For snacks, there are a range of biscuits and sweets available at most cafes. They include khari biscuits, which can be flavoured with spices or sugar; and semolina-based rawa biscuits. These are generally washed down with cups of very strong Irani tea.
Of course, anyone who has visited or seen the Irani cafes of Mumbai knows that they are not only worth visiting for their food. They offer a glimpse into another world, one which is sadly being eroded by the modern need for fast-food and fast-living. The students and workers who would once have been the lifeblood of the Irani cafes now often prefer pizza joints and burger bars. However, those places do not offer the same unique culture that the cafes do. They are known for their cosiness and their other-worldly feel. They are an escape from the world in a way that a fast-food place never will be.
It is hard to see how the few Irani cafes that still exist can survive much longer. They are family businesses, and the younger generation often simply do not want to carry on their parents’ work, preferring to spread their wings and use their educations to seek more lucrative careers. Some of the Irani cafes, such as the world-famous Leopolds, have kept going by transforming themselves into international cafes. Of those that do remain, the Britannia Cafe, (Sprott Road S S Ram Gulam Marg, Fort Mumbai), and the Yazdani Bakery (11/11-A, Cawasji Patel Street, Fort Mumbai) are among the best. Visit them while you can: they may not be there much longer, but are a wonderful way to step back in time to the Mumbai of old.
Izzy Woods is a well-travelled foodie with a passion for Persian cuisine. If she’s not cooking it herself for her spoilt partner, she occasionally saves up coupons in order to treat herself with a takeaway.
Ed: Front page image is from Wikipedia.