History of Irani Cafes in Bombay

The cafes that sprung up when Bombay was the administrative nucleus of the British Raj


India’s financial hub Mumbai is beyond its skyscrapers, boulevards, architectural marvels, trade centres and ritzy sea-facing views. A city that has thrived on the comingling of different cultures and diversity is fervently expressive of art and history. This is where century-old Irani cafes become an integral part of the city even though moments wheeze past within the blink of an eye.

The Cafes were Introduced by Immigrant Iranians 

The migration of Zoroastrian Iranians to the Indian subcontinent during the colonial era was prompted by economy, religious persecution, famine and politics. In the cosmopolitan, the Iranian community consisted of Zoroastrian, Parsi and Muslim Iranians who were primarily tea sellers.

Soon, the cafes were a darling part of the city for the delicious Irani chai made with Assam tea and condensed milk. At the zenith of success in the 1960s, Mumbai (then Bombay) hosted around 400 cafes, but the number has dwindled to a handful of 30 today.

Nostalgia Lingers on Inside the Cafes

Interior décor and layout is redolent with nostalgia as daily scenes from a colonial Bombay line-up the walls. Black and white images of the bygone years are no less precious than memorabilia. Today, the tell-tales of the entrepreneurial immigrants survive in fragments. The wooden, polished chairs solemnly creak a bit as guests catch up and settle down for a round of adda.

The Cafes were Frequented by Social Elites

Indian Jewish poet, editor and playwright Nissim Ezekiel has elucidated about the prevent café culture in Bombay. Independent artists, celebrities, cricketers, artists and actors were avid visitors which further elevated these cafes to a sacred pedestal. Besides Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad also witnessed a boom of these cafes in the 19th century.

Delish Items Overflowed the Menus 

The cafes served other mouth-watering delicacies apart from the staple chai. Sweet and salted biscuits like Til Rawa Coconut, Madeira Cake, Nan-Khatai and Cheese Khari; vegetable puff, berry pulao, akuri, apple pie, bus maska and different variations of Iranian tea were favourite snacks at the joints. Other Parsi rendition of Indian dishes are equally popular and available.

Quintessential Iranian Café Design Elements

If you are an ardent admirer of old-era architecture, these cafes are sure to enliven you. In almost all the surviving cafes chequered table cloth, chandeliers, marble top tables, wooden chairs and family rooms still adorn the quaint interiors.

The cafes, however, manage to retain their grandeur among Mumbaikars and tourists belonging to different walks of life.

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