And that’s pretty much all you need for your own Irani café. Chai is everywhere in India, but Mumbai, with its vibrant Parsi community, has a collection of cute little places that both individually and as a group, are and iconic part of the city’s cultural fabric.
A few years ago, the DiploFam and I took a Chai walk organized by the Mumbai Foodie Tours. It was pretty amazing, and if I can ever find the photos I took, I’ll link to them here. Unfortunately, a computer crash and the millennials who design shit at apple (I hate them all, every single one of them) have made it difficult to find them, and it’s entirely possible that the day will exist only in my memory. Anyway. . . .
The Parsi cafes are from a time when everyone called Mumbai “Bombay”, and most of the regulars who frequent them still do. They all serve the same items, although a few of them stake a claim to having a specialty, such as Yazdani Bakery and its apple pie, and Brittania for its berry pulao. The pace can be fast or slow, depending on your need. A quick breakfast served to a businessman or endless cups of Irani chai over an hour as you read your Times of India (or you pretend to while you’re really focusing on the page 3 of the Mumbai Mirror).
The architecture is classic Mumbai, with a tiled floor that would make Molly Maid break out in hives, a back cooking and baking area that you can see through a glass door in the far back where the staff appear with plates of egg burji, butter bun, and mutton pulao, a few counters with an array of baked goods (including ginger biscuits, butterscotch biscuits, and mawa cake),
and finally, a desk at the front where the owner/manager sits and lords over the entire scene. He’s not much to be photographed, so you’ll have to make do with a photo of the ever-present Faravahar over the doorway.
If it’s one of the bigger ones, there’s an upstairs balcony area with wrought-iron railings that were last painted in about 1992, and an assortment of old posters and signs advertising the bakery’s wares or with prints of Old Bombay.
Many of them are on corners, because at the time the Parsi community arrived in Bombay, they were all available on the cheap as for some bizarre (and counter to today’s real estate philosophy) reason, no one wanted those locations. That means that the cafes have an almost open-air feeling, taking advantage of the two sides and entryways.
My favorite place is Kayani Bakery in Fort near the Metro Theatre. After my chai walk experience visiting all the old Irani cafes, I decided that I had to pick a favorite to make mine. I ruled one out because even though it was my favorite blue color and the host was the friendliest person on the planet (and the ginger biscuits the BEST in the city), it was way too hot because of the proximity to the ovens. I ruled another out because although I love cute grumpy old men, sometimes you have to draw a line. Eventually, I asked my Parsi friend, A, and while Kayani is definitely well-known, I hadn’t been there yet.
Over the last few years, I’ve consumed my share of yumminess there. My absolute favorite thing to eat is a butter bun, a traditional pav, fresh-baked that morning and smeared heavily with Amul butter, dipped into a cup of milky, minty, Irani chai.
It’s one of the best ways to get your caffeine and empty carbs together that I’ve ever discovered. DiploDad goes for something a bit more substantial and loads up on chicken samosas – an unusual thing in a city hell-bent on making everyone eat vegetarian ones in public. I’ve found that the cafes will absolutely indulge vegetarians, but at the same time are unapologetically meat-heavy, which in the minefield of Indian food politics is interesting if nothing else.
I love to sit in the café and watch all the different people of Bombay filter in: the students with backpacks who just purchased books and pencils from the nearby shops; the local small-medium businessman who runs in for Second Breakfast like a rumpled Hobbit, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose and his shirt collar unbuttoned; a housewife taking a break from shopping with her toddler to dive into a cupper and a cream-laced pastry that will eventually be all over said toddler’s face. And the families. The families come too, and take up one of the square tables and order food and chat and get in and out and fed for under $10 for everyone. Irani cafes are simple food, good food, but also cheap food. My bill today for two cups of chai, a plate of ginger biscuits (6, I ate 2) and egg burji that came with 2 pav was a whopping INR148. That’s $2.25, people.
By this time, I’ve been enough times that I consider Kayani “mine”, but I’m pretty sure that no one really notices me, which is yet another reason to love it. There are no “giraffe moments” at Kayani – I’m a customer, end of story, I get water, food on a tan plastic plate, and my napkins arrive after the meal. There is no “firenge tax” or special attention. I sit there and soak it in and look around while everyone else gets on with his or her business (wait, why am I saying “her”? I’ve never seen a female working in an Irani café in my entire life.)
If you’re ever in Mumbai, stop by one of the many Irani cafes. If you’re going to live there for a while, pick one to make your own. Sit, drink your chai, read your book, and soak in the culture of a community that is dwindling and commit it to memory.
Just don’t bring a computer, ever. I wanted to type this among the old railings, the noise of the customers, and the shouts of the counter boys, but the cranky old man overload doesn’t allow computers.
Soooooo . . . I’m typing this at Starbucks. They have Internet, but the chai is awful and there’s not a butter pav in sight.