The Irani Restaurants of Bombay


The Irani Restaurants of Bombay 1According to some sources, Irani restuarants in pre-Independence India  discriminated  among their customers  by using different colored cups for different communities. It is said that Christians  and Zorashtrians were served in pink cups , Hindus in ‘phancy‘ cups with floral patterns while white cups were  used for Muslim customers. The practice supposedly ended when Mahatma Gandhi spoke out against it. It seems difficult to believe the  story since it is unclear why they would do so or how they would be able to unerringly  tell a customer’s religion without asking him directly. Whatever the truth of the story, the Irani restaurants I knew were absolutely cosmopolitan and democratic.

The Irani restaurant was , I suppose, Bombay’s version of the coffeehouses of Vienna.It was a place where you went to hang out with friends , a place where the chai and khari biscuits merely fueled the conversation. The clientele included people from all walks of life , office goers, college students , casual passers-by , medical reps , writers, actors, laborers etc.  Most of them however were of modest circumstances and there were few , if any , women. Particularly in the lazy afternoons , corner tables would be occupied by groups of youths , perhaps college students ‘bunking’ their classes, who treated it as a clubhouse. The mirrored walls made the restaurant look larger than it was ; most Irani  restaurants were actually quite small.

On the wall behind the front counter there were signs advising “IN GOD WE TRUST” and ” CASH ONLY”. Perhaps this gave rise to the later quip ” IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL THE REST PAY CASH “.

There are old-time  photographs showing restaurant blackboards with a long list of prohibited behavior. Patrons were warned : NO TALKING TO CASHIER / NO SMOKING / NO FIGHTING/ NO CREDIT / NO OUTSIDE FOOD/ NO SITTING LONG/ NO TALKING LOUD/ NO BARGAINING / NO WATER TO OUTSIDERS/ NO SPITTING/ NO CHANGE/ NO DISCUSSING GAMBLING/NO TELEPHONE/ NO NEWSPAPER/ NO COMBING HAIR / NO BEEF/ NO LEG ON CHAIR/ NO HARD LIQUOR ALLOWED/ NO ADDRESS ENQUIRY .. . BY ORDER . Despite this impressive list of prohibitions which makes the Irani restaurateurs sound like  ogres, they were actually quite easy going. Regular patrons were accustomed to sitting  down and ordering  the waiter (or ‘boy’) to bring a cup of tea, a glass of water and the newspaper. For the price of a cup of tea the customer  could spend an hour or more reading the newspaper while sipping his  tea.

The ’boys’  who served in these restaurants were anything but young. We never knew their names because they were all addressed as ‘ dhikra’ (Parsi for ’boy’) by the propreitor.  They were usuallyof an indeterminate age,scrawny and  poorly dressed in faded clothes ,(shirts worn outside their pants, slippers). They cannot have been paid more than a pittance but they were amazingly efficient at what they did. They were in constant motion – taking the orders and  bringing the cups of tea and eatables to the table in scant  seconds . They never wrote down anything but committed the orders to memory . When the customers rose from the table, even after a lapse of an hour or two, the ‘boy’ would sing out the entire order so that the propreitor could calculate the amount of the bill  in his head and be ready by the time the customer reached the front desk. Years later, I remembered these waiters when I went to McSorley’s Ale House in New York City. The waiters at McSorley’s were similarly efficient and looked like they had been there since the place opened ages ago.

In my earlier post I mentioned that my neighborhood Irani restaurant, Cafe Gulshan,  was one of the smaller ones with a basic menu . Others were larger and had a longer list of comestibles. Khodadad Circle ( which later became known as Dadar T.T or Dadar Tram Terminus ) had two such restaurants , both now defunct. One was the Yazdan and the other the New Yazdan. There one could also get mutton samosas, bread pudding and falooda. The samosas were unremarkable but the bread pudding and falooda are worth a mention. The bread pudding was dense, nicely browned on top , contained a few raisins and was topped with charoli (toasted  chicory seeds ) which I’ve never had elsewhere.  The falooda was served in a tall glass , narrow at the bottom and wider at the top and it came with a long-handled spoon .  In the glass  were layers of  transparent ”glass’ noodles, cold milk,  rose syrup, a scoop of ice cream  and sabza (basil seeds). The sabza had been soaked in water so that they swelled up into  slippery little globules with a  hard center. When eating the falooda, it was a game to try to bite into the sabza ; it was a game we rarely won since they would just squirt away from between our teeth.With the spoon , the patron could mix all the ingredients in the falooda into one delicious mess . Pure Heaven in those days when we didn’t have to worry about calories.

The two Yazdans were only slightly larger than Gulshan and served only snacks and drinks. There were other larger restaurants ,particularly in South Bombay, which had a lunch menu. Some of them are still around and one, the Brittania ( est. 1924), was written up in a December ‘09 article about Mumbai restaurants that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. In such places , the offerings would include kheema paav, mutton patticeakoori ( Parsi -style scrambled eggs), Saali boti ( mutton in a tomatoey gravy served with potato straws) ,patra ni machhi ( ( pomfret smeared with  green chutney and steamed in a banana leaf), chicken / mutton dhansaak ( a  Parsi stew with meat and vegetables) and lagan nu custard ( caramel custard ). Brittania was (and is) known for its Berry Pulao , a pilaf flavored with barberries imported from Iran.

There were also some Irani bakeries well known for the excellence of their baked goods. Some of the best known are Kyani’s, B.Merwan and Crown Bakery.

Some Irani establishments such as Cafe Sassanian  were named for an ancient Persian dynasty and others were named for the propreitor’s home town e.g Cafe Yazdan was started by an emigrant from Yazd.  Some were named for local landmarks such as Stadium, Oval and Regal. Many reflected the British influence, as for instance Lord Irwin, Cafe Johnson, Brabourne, Edward  and the  King George Bakery. One, the Cafe de La Paix,  was named for a famous French  establishment and one was mysteriously called Cafe Mondegar. Sadly many of these are now defunct .

In the next and final post on this subject I will deal with the sad decline of  the Irani restaurants of Bombay and their surprising renaissance in other Indian cities.

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