The Irani Cafes of Mumbai were a big part of the city when it was growing up. I am not sure if the city has grown up but these quaint establishments are a dying breed today. Many have been sold off. Sacrificed to the city's hunger for land.
The masala chai, fresh bread, the typical Goldilocks wooden chairs and of course the cantankerous owner were all part of the folklore of Irani Cafes. Feeding the busy ants of Mumbai as they set off to work, as they took a break in the afternoon, as they set off home in the evening. Stories of hours spent there under creaking ceiling fans under the watchful eye of the owner still echo as these cafes shut down one after the other as Mumbai tries to shrug off its past like a child entering adolescence. Its vintage charm giving away to ungainly modern construction and growth.
The one common strain of all Irani Cafe tales is that of the moody, eccentric Iranis who owned these cafes. The one's who write 'no talking to the cashier, no sitting for long, no combing your hair, no touching the cat, no talking loudly' on sign boards. The antithesis of customer friendliness. I wrote about one such story earlier.
This is a myth which increasingly confuses me as I get to know the owners of some of the remaining Irani Cafes. They hardly seem to be the difficult men they were made out to be. At least not Boman Kohinoor Irani, the adorable octogenarian, who owns Britannia. You might have to struggle to convince him to part with his precious Raspberry drinks but that's about it. Not the genial smiling Parvez Patel who runs Ideal Corner at Fort. And certainly not the Iranis who run the sixty year old Yazdani Bakery and Restaurant at Cawasji Patel Street at Fort. You will usually find Mr Zend Irani and his brother, Parvez Irani there and often Parvez's son, Triandaz too.
Tirandaz Irani was most generous today when I went to their cafe and wanted to go in and photograph the bakery. An experience which made me jump with joy like a kid in a candy store, beaming all through as I kept photographing everything in sight even as sweat poured down my face. This was honest, happy sweat, a product of a roaring oven. A rare delight for a food lover. My colleagues and I skipped through the huge baking section as if were out on a Kindergarten school trip. When one felt like a child in the middle of a work day. An experience to be treasured, savoured and stretched as long as possible.
A few of us from work went down for a food sun downer before leaving for home. We landed at Yazdani Bakery after we crossed Mocambo and Mahesh. Stumbling upon Yazdani in the middle of a busy street itself was a magical moment. For in the midst of cramped streets and hurried office goers returning home was this rather majestic pagoda like building.
An amazing fragrance of fresh baking welcomed you the moment you entered the Cafe. There are few smells as heady as the aroma of baking in the world of food. Move over Dior and Chanel. This is what works for me.
High ceilings crowned by wooden planks, a few rather basic tables and chairs typical of Irani Cafes, old posters, tired paint and fresh bread all around, this was an enchanted world that we had entered. We had time travelled just by entering the cafe.
I was with a couple of enthusiastic colleagues. A young man who loved to eat as much as he loves the history all around us at Fort. A rather slim Parsi lady, a restrained eater, who went berserk at the Irani Cafe. A young Bengali girl who had just landed at Mumbai,dazed, indulging this mad gang and wondering why one of them was clicking photos of one slice of bread after another.
We sampled all the classics. I was rather bemused as I saw two portions of everything that we ordered stack up on the table. This made up one hearty picture.
Delectable 'khaari' biscuits with a twist. Twists of crisp flaky puff like bakes which were fresh and virginal. A delight to look at. A delight to bite into.
Then followed the classic Irani Cafe order. Bun maska. A sweetish bun, as soft as a baby's cheeks. Sweetened by the odd toffeed fruit in it, sliced from the middle with a thick layer of salty butter holding the two halves together. It tasted even more decadent and joyful than it sounds. Close your eyes and imagine sinking into eiderdown soft bread with the salt of the butter tingling into the mildly sweet taste of the bun. Broke into a happy smile? Yes, this was a bright and bubbly bun indeed.
'Maska', which means butter, is the Irani answer to all of life's problems A logic one couldn't fault as one bit into the brun maska. If the buns were soft like babies then the bruns were the adults of the bakery. Bruns are typical of Irani Bakeries. These are similar in concept to French breads. Round balls, crusty outside, soft inside, heaven all over when they are served fresh, warm, sliced with a generous dollop of butter slathered in. Butter which melted in the warm glow of the bread into little yellow streams of primal pleasure.
The correct form to have brun maska is to dip it in the excruciatingly sweet and milky tea served in tiny cups which bore the mark of honest, hard working labour. Many a Mumbai dream is built on the strength of this crusty bread as it mellowed in the milk. When the salty butter and sugary tea came together in holy matrimony.
The happy times didn't end there as our Parsi colleague, Meher, ordered apple pie. 'There are raisins' I was warned. "Yeah baby, bring it on', I said. What came looked like anything but the apple strudel inspired apple pies of more expensive cake shops. This looked more like a thin tart with a gooey layer in between. I took one bite of the warmed apple pie and rolled over and whimpered in joy. Oh my god this was the most primordial and carnal taste experience ever. Sweet, but not excessively so, the apple pulp robust and full of character. The raisins little bursts of joy which made you feel like doing the Tango. How erotic could food be? It doesn't get any steamier than the apple pie at Yazdani Cafe. It was the end of innocence, the return to arms, the summer of forty two and every classic Holywood romance rolled together as one under a rolling pin.
Now imagine having all of this fresh from the oven. Meher saw me looking greedily at the baking section and urged me to speak to the owners. I went gingerly towards the Iranis who very willingly asked me to go in and take photographs. When he heard that I blog, Tirandaz Irani jovially told me "write about us". Though later the elder Mr Irani got a bit bored of my questions and 'said my mind is not open, we will talk some other time.'
We ran into the bakery like children into a playground. Marvelled at the ancient baking equipment around us. The sacks after sacks of flour. The workers meticulously weighing out the flour. Others who rolled them into dough. The two men, glistening in sweat, who were shoving the dough into the wood fired oven. One of them called me over to see the oven. Man was it deep. And from the depths came the flame roaring out its promise of fresh bread. The two workers took the baked bread out of the oven with long iron ladles with just a piece of cloth to shield them from the searing heat. They plonked the newly born loaf of bread with others lying on a tray by the floor. You could touch the bread and feel the warmth of the oven which nurtured them. Other workers took them out into the shop. The bruns and buns were plonked into their respective trays. The white bread put into a machine where another worker sliced them. The workers imbibed the friendliness of their employers and waited patiently as I shot pictures and even suggested camera angles and scolded me when I aimed at a bun with a nice roasted look. It was burnt according to its proud guardian.
I felt really blessed to have been witness to the Holy act of baking bread. And my camera still smells of butter!