An ode to one of Mumbai’s iconic and most loved dining institutions: Irani Cafés


Irani cafés have been a beloved part of Mumbai’s history and culinary landscape for the past 116 years. They were introduced to me by the Netflix film Maska (2020), which encouraged me to delve deeper into the history and family legacies of the cafés. Having lived outside India for many years, I stayed connected to my roots through stories like this one and cultures and cuisines in Indian communities.

History 

Iranians migrated to India over multiple centuries and during one of the later waves of the 18th century, Irani Zoroastrians left their homes in the provinces of Yazd and Kerman to escape religious persecution. They sought out political asylum in British India, where they were welcomed due to good past relations between Britain and Persia. Many migrated to Mumbai and Pune with the help of the Parsis who were already living in the area after having fled from Iran post the Arab conquest of the country 1,300 to 1,000 years ago.

The Irani refugees in Mumbai found a new livelihood through the cafés they set up, which evolved from Qahva-Kanas, or coffee houses, and chaikhanas, teahouses. The community comprised of Zoroastrians (who owned 85% of the cafes) and Muslim Shias (the other 15%).

The first one to open its doors to the city was Kyani & Co. in 1904. Over the years, about 350 popped up thanks to their popularity among migrant labour and the working class. They bridged social gaps by welcoming everyone regardless of caste, class, and religion. To quote the Heritage Institute: “Some café owners even posted signs saying ‘everyone welcome’ or ‘all castes welcome’. Others displayed religious icons from different religions on their walls.” These cafés built a culture of their own, providing inexpensive food in informal settings conducive to lively conversations. Today there are only about 30 left in Mumbai.

Quintessential Iranian cafés carry about them an old-world charm and a relatable simplicity, evident in their modest atmospheres and dishes. They are known for their marble tabletops, bentwood chairs, mirror panelled walls, and nostalgia aplenty. One of the most popular dishes is chai and bun maska, buns with dollops of butter. Consider starting your Irani food adventures with this classic staple! Interestingly, the dish was adapted from traditional naan and reddish-black tea – native foods of Iran. If you’re not a chai person and are looking for a cold beverage, the iconic Parsi raspberry soda is a must-try!

The film Maska also urged me to think more about how historic institutions, such as Irani cafés, are impacted by changing café culture and socioeconomic growth in India. Here is a quick recap: as the economy opened in 1991, so did a lot of doors for middle-class Indians, along with the popularity of coffee chains. The introduction of Café Coffee Day (CCD) chains in 1996 marked the beginning of a shift in tea and coffee drinking in social settings. The brand’s former chairman V.G. Siddhartha introduced the idea of Westernized branded coffee shops to the large tea-drinking populations. CCD was the pioneer, paving the way for companies including Barista, Costa Coffee, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and Starbucks.

Over the years, the emergence of both coffee shops and fast-food chains have drawn many people, particularly younger crowds, to newer and trendier joints. While this fits into the bigger picture of urbanization, it means that older and smaller businesses, including Irani cafés, are becoming more obscure. Thankfully the inimitable spirit of the remaining Irani cafés persists, and both owners and loyal patrons continue to uphold their traditions and culture. As for me, I’m always on the lookout for more local restaurants that I can support in exchange for a scrumptious meal.I hope you will join me in doing the same once it is safe for us to venture out! Meanwhile here is a list of nine Irani cafés you must visit in Mumbai:-

 

9 Essential Iranian Cafés in Mumbai 

Kyani Bakery & Co.

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Kyani opened its doors in 1904 and is considered to be the oldest remaining Irani café in Mumbai. Its founder Mr Khodram Marezaban hoped to introduce people to Irani culture through food.

Fun fact: Freedom fighters held meetings here during the Indian independence struggle.

Location: JSS Road, Marine Lines

Must have: Kheema Pav and Cheese Omelette, Custards, Cream Puffs, and Royal Falooda

Cafe Excelsior 

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Cafe Excelsior served its first meal in 1919. Founded by Ardeshir Mazkoori, it is known for some of the best burgers in town, and also boasts of a selection of desserts and a taste of Lebanese cuisine.

Location: Azad Maidan, Fort

Fun fact: It was named after one of the oldest cinemas in Mumbai, “Excelsior” (formerly known as “Novelty,” now “Mukta A2 New Excelsior.”) The café was originally one-third of its current size and would earlier serve meals in the cinema.

Must have: Mutton or ‘Lacey’ Cutlets and Gravy with Bread, Chicken Rolls, Bread Pudding

Sassanian Boulangerie

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Sassanian was established by Rustom Yazdabadi in 1913 and taken over by the Kola family in 1947. Like many Irani cafés, it once was also a provision store (up till the 1960s). In addition to classic dishes, they also serve Chinese cuisine.

Fun fact: Pre-Indian independence, the cafe was frequented by Irani jockeys who wanted cups of chai before their polo matches at the Mahalaxmi racecourse.

Location: Marine View, Dhobi Talao

Must have: Fried Egg and Pav, Dhansak, Bread Pudding

Britannia & Co. Restaurant

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Britannia & Co. was founded in 1923 by Mr. Rashid Kohinoor, whose son Boman took over in 1943. The menu features a mix of dishes, from Irani and Indian to Western.

Fun fact: Up until his death in 2019, Mr. Boman Kohinoor made it a point to share stories with his patrons. He was well known for his congeniality,  hospitality, and his fondness for the British monarchy.

Location: Wakefield House, Fort

Must have: Chicken Berry Pulav, Sali Boti, Dhansak, Caramel Custard, Sosyo

B. Merwan & Co. 

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Merwans is a bakery that was established in 1930. They go beyond the physical borders of a bakery, and rightfully deem themselves a tradition, one that has been carried forth by four generations of the Irani family.

Fun fact: The mawa cakes are so popular that thousands get sold every day, often just within the morning hours.

Location: Bharat Nagar, Grant Road

Must have: Mawa Cake, Paprika Cheese Khari

Cafe Military 

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Khodaram B. Khosravi (formerly Golabi), an Iranian immigrant from Zainabad, founded Cafe Military in 1933. The café got its name from its location in Fort, where naval officers, army and military men used to hang out in the 1800s.

Location: Nagindas Master Rd, Fort

Fun fact: The café was frequented by Bollywood celebrities like Sharmila Tagore, Madhubala, and Nutan.

Must have: Kheema Sali, Pulav Dal, Caramel Custard

Yazdani Bakery 

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Yazdani was founded in 1953 by Mr. Meherwan Zand, who was from the Yazd province of Iran. Till date, it features handmade confections baked in wood-fired ovens.

Fun fact: The building was originally a Japanese bank.

Location: Kala Ghoda, Fort

Must have: Bread Pudding, Ginger Biscuits, Apple Pie, Bread

Jimmy Boy

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Jimmy Boy is a Parsi restaurant founded in1999. Its namesake is Jamshed ‘Jimmy’ Irani, the great-grandfather of current owner Sherzad Irani. Originally called Café India back in 1925, it was converted into a restaurant by the owners in the ‘90s.

Fun fact: It was the first eatery in Mumbai to give those who had never attended a Parsi wedding a chance to try a traditional wedding meal.

Location: Horniman Circle, Fort

Must have: Salli Par Eedu, Lagan Nu Bhonu (wedding thali), Lagan Nu Custard

Cafe Irani Chaii 

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Cafe Irani Chaii was inaugurated in 2015 by award-winning filmmaker Dr. Mansoor Showghi Yezdi to preserve the Irani café culture. The two ‘I’s in chaii stand for India and Iran – an effort by Dr. Yezdi to do his part in maintaining friendly ties between the two countries.

Fun fact: It was Mumbai’s first Irani cafe in 50 years!

Location: Rosary Building, Mahim

Must have: Chicken Biryani, Mutton Kheema Ghotala, Akuri