Updated: August 29, 2015 12:00:03 am
Scrawny kittens dart around your legs as you step into Cafe Irani Chaii, located in a 500-sq ft space in Mahim’s Rosary chawl. “They are the true patrons of an Irani cafe,” says Mansoor Showghi Yezdi. He is the founder of the first new Irani cafe that Mumbai will see in over five decades. “There used to be at least 500 cafes in the city, practically in every nook and corner. These have now given way to global food chains,” he says, referring to the rapid decline of the phenomenon that for long has been iconic to the charms of a Bombay of yore.
Steaming cups of sweet, milky tea, soft pavs slathered with butter and old-fashioned omelettes, accompanied by hours of unhindered conversation, were few of the things that symbolised the atmosphere of an Irani cafe. It was to revive the charm of this culture that Yezdi conceptualised Cafe Irani Chaii. Also a filmmaker, the 57-year-old made a documentary by the same name two years ago, tracing the history of the famous tea and the cafes’ fight for survival amidst sky-rocketing estate prices. With ancestors who owned Irani restaurants across the city, he has fond memories of the time he spent at his uncle’s erstwhile canteen, housed inside the famous Plaza cinema in Dadar. “I loved the hot cross buns served with layers of Polson’s butter. I would always ask for extra sprinklings of sugar,” he says.
Yezdi is also the Vice-President of the Indo-Iranian Friendship Society, a legacy that he devotes to his grandfather, who moved to India in the late 1800s, following a famine in the Yazd province in Iran. The extra ‘i’ in ‘Chaii’ is his tribute to India and Iran, the two countries that have shaped him. Keeping this in mind, the menu at Cafe Irani Chaii features a mix of Parsi and Irani specialities — mawa cakes, akuri, khari biscuits, omelettes along with berry pulao and seeni kebabs, the latter made with Irani haleem. To retain the authentic touch, the cafe’s teak furniture was painstakingly put together by Yezdi and his son, who scoured markets in Chor Bazaar and also refashioned some pieces from their personal collection of antiques. “I’ve grown up in my father’s and grandfather’s restaurants, so I am familiar with the ambience of an Irani cafe. We also have the ghoori, a special kettle that we got from Iran, as part of the decor. The chequered cloth that will top the tables is handwoven and was also brought from there,” he adds. The restaurant has other touches — mirrored walls, wooden panels and the galla, a counter behind which the owner sits.
Yezdi intends to dress the part too. Every Sunday, he will head to the cafe dressed like his late grandfather, in a long kurta-pyjama and Persian shoes. The restaurant, he adds, will dole out a 10 per cent discount to those in uniforms — police personnel, school children and environmentalists. “We’ve kept the pricing lenient, so everyone from a celebrity to a layman can enjoy a cup of Irani chai,” he says.
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