How Irani is Mumbai's Irani chai? Tales from the Irani cafes of Bandra, Lucky Restaurant

Meat and eggs made for the perfect fuel for a Bengali breakfast adda
at Mumbai's Lucky restaurant

When two Bengalis met for a breakfast on a rainy morning in Bandra

It was a rainy day in Mumbai when I met Indrajit Lahiri for breakfast at Bandra’s Lucky Restaurant.

Indrajit is a Kolkata based IT professional who writes a food blog called Moha Mushkil and is a the administrator of a Kolkata- centric Facebook food group. We were unable to meet during my recent visit to Kolkata though he had most kindly offered to take me to the pice hotels of Kolkata then. From what I understood from him, the pice hotels are places which offer very basic home-styled Bengali meals, read thin dals and watery fish curries,  for those who had left their homes to work or study in Kolkata. A concept that reminded me of the Malvani khanavars and maushi run messes of Mumbai. My Kolkata visits are centred around my family which makes meeting people there a bit difficult, but I love to do so when back home in Mumbai. 

Indrajit was in town on work. He later told me that that he tries to explore the food of the places work takes him to. Just like I once did when I was in market research. Trips which formed the basis for my book, The Travelling Belly. I must admit that I miss those explorations.

Indrajit made some time to catch up with me and was kind enough to come up to Bandra where I live. I was looking forward to a good adda with Indrajit so I am glad that things worked out. When I asked him about where he would like to go, he said that an Irani café would be nice as he had never been to one.

I took a 'candid' picture of Indrajit (above) and then
he took one of mine. I forgot to suck in my tummy
as you will see in his blog post! 

Irani Cafes and Bandra? Isn't South Mumbai what you mean?

Till a few months back I would have told Indrajit that going to an Irani restaurant or cafe in Bandra is not possible. One thinks of south Mumbai after all when one thinks of Irani cafes and that too of Parsi or Zoroastrian run places. I am talking of the Yazdanis and Kyanis and Britannias and the Ideal Corners and the Jimmy Boys and the like. 

There is more to Irani cafes though as I realized sometime back when I met the owners of the Lucky Restaurant in Bandra, a place I'd been eating at even since I moved to Mumbai and Bandra close to two decades back

The current owners of Lucky, Mohsen Hussaini and his father Safar Ali, were born right here in Bandra. However the late Sayed Aliakbar Hussaini, the founder of Lucky and Mohsin’s grandfather, had actually come to Mumbai from Iran. That too from Yezd from where the families of restaurants such as Kyani and Yazdani (hence the name) originated too. 

The 'other' Iranis

That’s when it struck me that there are two ‘types’ of Iranis that run the Irani cafes of Mumbai. Some are Zoroastrian Iranis who share the same religion as the Parsis. Then there are the Muslim Shia families from Iran who had come here and set up restaurants too in the 1800s. Lucky Restaurant is an example of that though its founder had come to India a bit later in the mid 1900s.

Incidentally, 'Irani' and 'Parsi' Zoroastrians are not technically the same either. While both came to India from Iran, the Parsis refer to descendants of folks who came to India around a thousand years back (there's a bit of debate on the actual date). The Zoroastrian Iranis, who run the 'Parsi restaurants' of Mumbai, are descendants of people who came to Iran 200 odd years back. It's complicated and I would advise you not to lose sleep over it unless you are a member of the Elphinstone Clube.

The history of Lucky Restaurant

Lucky today is most famous for its biryani and the restaurant is often even referred to as Lucky Biryani by locals! The late grandpa Hussaini entered the restaurant business around seventy five years back in the bylanes of Bandra close to where Lucky is located today. His eatery would open early in the morning (around 5 or 6 am), serving food for the migrant mill workers of Mumbai according to his son.

What was on offer? Kheema, or spicy goat meat mince, of course with pav, the Portuguese influenced local soft bread. This is the breakfast that the Irani cafes of Mumbai are synonymous with. You could say that the kheema pav and chai breakfast is to Mumbai what a croissant and coffee start to the day is to Paris. Or could have been, if there were more Irani cafes still functioning today.

Over the years, the menu at Lucky expanded and the its owner took up new premises which replaced an old British car showroom and which is its location today. His descendants have opened a hotel beside the restaurant now. Lucky lies almost literally at the entrance to Bandra and welcomes you to the suburbs. It is a popular landmark too and the traffic signal is referred to as 'Lucky signal'.

The Irani cafes of Bandra

Lucky is not the lone ‘Irani’ restaurant in Bandra. Some of the others which still exist are Café, Good Luck, Café Sunrise and Café Delight and you will find some others too in the Chapel Road by-lanes. None of these seem to have grown with the times the way Lucky has and are not as ‘grand’ as Lucky is. I use the term ‘grand’ judiciously of course as Bandra today is the home to some pretty posh modern cafes. 

Bandra had a sizeable Parsi settlement too and you will find Parsi quarters at Linking Road and near Gaiety Galaxy as you will find Parsi bungalows spread across Bandra. Many of these have been sold off, demolished and rebuilt. The Linking Road Parsi colony has a RTI shop. Bandra's Pali Naka has a small Parsi eatery called Snack Shack and is run by Minoo Pavri. It is a relatively 'new' place. Just thirty years or so old!

I asked Bandra boy, affable raconteur and  internationally accredited professional photographer, Adil Guzdar, about the lineage of the Irani cafes of Bandra. Adil himself is Parsi and tells me that he is a big fan of the bun maska cheese omelette at Café Delight. He lovingly describes the dish so:

‘The bun is sliced into two part, butter applied to both halves, one slice of cheese placed on one half, and a single masala omelette on the other half and (is meant to be) eaten like a sandwich. I go there sometimes just to have this.

Adil tells me that Café Delight used to once belonged to Khodu Irani, the owner of Casbah Restaurant (not sure if it exists still) opposite Globus at Bandra's Hill Road. The Cafe at Hill Road (opposite Hearsch and Holy Family Hospital) is now owned by a Konkani Muslim. The Konkani connection possibly explains the delightful coastal fish curry which you get there according to another Bandra boy, chef Aloo (Aloysius Dsilva) who  said that he often packs the curry home and adds more fish to the curry and relishes it with his family.

My friend and everyone's favourite source for Mumbai food stories, Dr Kurush Dalal, weighs and adds:

"The owner of Cafe Delight and Casbah was Khodu Irani and his dad was a friend of my maternal grandfather and Khodu was a friend to both my maternal uncles. There used to be a small library attached to Khodu's cafe opp New Talkies (now Globus) run by a Bohri gentleman, it stocked literally hundreds of Commando comics and I was allowed to take 10 at a time (on account) during the May vacations which I spent in Bandra. Thank you for bringing back those memories Kalyan."

Café Sunrise belonged to Ahmed Gafuri according to Adil. It is located on the way to The Bagel Shop and is at the turning of the road which heads to St Annes Church and Dr Miranda's chamber. Like the Irani cafes of yore, it is a provision shop cum eatery, and looks rather ramshackle from outside. I have got the smell of what seems like some high octane, possibly MSG heavy, Chinese food being cooked on the open kadais, whenever I have passed it by in the evenings. The diners there seem to be young men, living away from home and looking for a budget meal.

The most famous of the Irani cafes of Mumbai is the Good Luck Café at Mehboob Studio. Its kheema pav has many fans. I went there a few years back and I didn’t really enjoy it to be honest but you should try it for yourself. If you find it to be good and think that I should go back, then I will happily do so. Adil tells me that Good Luck earlier belonged to a Zoroastrian Irani, Farang Jehani, who is apparently one of the partners who own Café Leopold on Colaba. Good Luck too is Muslim owned today. 

While not a café, further north near the Khar Station, is a century old Irani Bakery called Prince of Wales Bakery which is Zoroastrian Irani run. We used to buy soft buns and bread rolls there a decade and a half back just after we'd got married and lived nearby then.

An Irani cafe Breakfast at Bandra's Lucky Restaurant

Kheema Ghotala and pav at Lucky Restaurant

Coming back to our breakfast at Lucky, I ordered a kheema ghotala to start with. In this dish, an egg is scrambled into the basic kheema adding more body to it. The meat (goat) is red, not white. The egg added in is with yolks and are not white either. The plate talked of Bandra of a time far removed from the organic salad bars and gluten free temples of today. Or does it? Come to think of it, kheema ghotala and pav were international food innovations of their time and Bandraites did welcome them then just as they welcome today's international trends.

I’ve always found the kheema in Irani cafes to be heavy on garam masala. The one at Lucky had a sharp hit of clove and a residual kick of chillies. Indrajit loved it. He likes spicy food he told me and wiped the plate clean. 

I’ve come across kheemas which smell a bit unpleasant in some of the popular kheema places of Mumbai. No such problem at Lucky where the quality is always good. The prices possibly a bit higher than at places such as Good Luck in Bandra and Olympia in Colaba which are known for their kheemas. The kheema dish at Lucky is of the drier variety. Some places make it a bit more soupy with gravy. That saves at costs. At Lucky, the dish was all meat. And a bit of egg. No corners are cut here.

Kheema ghotala pav at Luc

I ordered the anda bhurjee too. This is what I prefer to the kheema at most Irani joins, including at Lucky. I am not someone who likes a heavy burst of garam masala in the morning you see which is why kheemas are something I prefer to eat later in the day. 

Anda bhurjee is a spicy scrambled egg where eggs are beaten with finely chopped chillies, onion and occasionally tomatoes (at Lucky and in my kitchen), and with a bit of turmeric and chilli powders and salt. It is usually a lip-smacking and greasy dish, as it is at Lucky, and you can even find street carts across Mumbai selling it. I used to go to one outside Dadar station when I was dating and after I'd drop K home years back.

The anda bhurjee is slightly different from the Parsi akooriAkooris, in my experience, tend to be a bit creamy but then the Parsis are influenced by the west and possibly have scrambled egg in their mind when they make it. I like the anda bhurji at Lucky which as it is well seasoned and well favoured. I mopped every last bit of it with the pav, just as Indrajit did the with the kheema

Connecting the dots in Bandra

Talking of pav, here’s an interesting story that I heard about Lucky from the Mr Safar Ali when I asked him about his childhood memories from the time his father set up the restaurant. He told me that the pav served with kheema in the early days of Lucky came from a bakery called Sanatan Bakery. The bakery, which is now shut, was run by a Goan Catholic gentleman whose descendants today run Candies and Mc Craig In Bandra. 

That's when it struck me that two of my favourite hangouts in my adopted home of Bandra, Candies and Lucky, share a common DNA. That the plate of kheema pav at Lucky is seasoned with a generous flavour of Bandra's history.

The iconic Irani Chai in the Irani cafes of Mumbai might not be that 'Irani' after all

Spot the Irani chai

There was another history lessons that I had earlier got from Mr Safar Ali which I shared with Indrajit when he ordered an ‘Irani chai’ and when the waiter replied saying that it would be a ‘black tea’ or what’s referred to as likaar (liquor) cha in Kolkata. 

Indrajit looked a bit confused and asked, ‘isn’t Irani chai a milk tea?’

I explained that he was not wrong. The 'Irani chais' made famous by the Irani cafes of Mumbai,  Hyderabad and Pune are indeed milky and sugary. Similar to the masala cutting chai that you get in tea stalls in the street corners of Mumbai. Often flavoured with ginger, cardamom or mint leaves added in, and  then boiled to oblivion.

‘This should be called English tea, said Mr Safar Ali with a twinkle in his eyes to me when I met him at his office a year back. He further explained, ‘in Iran they drink tea without milk and with lot of sugar added in. It is the British who taught us to add milk when they introduced tea in India.”

This brought back memories of the time when I lived in Iran. I was just five then but I remember our Iranian guests knocking of glasses of black tea. And vodka. That was before the Islamic revolution and at Rasht which was on the Caspian Sea with the then Soviet Republic on the other side. Caviar and pista and grape juice was abundantly available too.

At Kyani & Co, in South Mumbai, they brew the tea in a tea pot, add in mint leaves and then serve you the tea. At Lucky it’s a cup with a teabag in it with sugar cubes and mint leaves given on the side. Indrajit missed his milk though and later had what is called a ‘doodh cha’ in Bengali before we parted ways.

Our food travels with us across the world

Migrant stories interest me a lot and our breakfast at Lucky was a great example of one. 

There I was, feeling at home in Bandra and Mumbai that morning. Someone who was born in the UK. lived in Iran and then in Kolkata, going where his parents took him. Then I moved to Mumbai myself and became a migrant again. 

I was at a restaurant whose owners traced their origins to Iran but call Bandra and Mumbai home today just as I do. Except that they were born here unlike me.

For company I had someone who was born in, and lives at, what in some way could be called my hometown, Kolkata.

The result of our transitory identities, when stirred together, made for a happy meal if there ever was one that morning.

Three teas, three plates of pav, one kheema ghotala and an anda bhurjee cost us about Rs 630. No service tax was added.

Please do read my book, The Travelling Belly, for more stories on Lucky and the Irani restaurants of Mumbai. Please do share your Irani Cafe stories with me in the comment section and do mail me (or comment) if you spot errors/ typos.

Heres the link from where you can buy my book, The Travelling Belly, online

Also of interest:

  1. My mother's blog post on her food memories from Iran in the late 1970s. A must read
  2. This is not my first post here on Lucky Restaurant. This is my post on the biryani of Lucky
  3. Here's my post on Kyani & Company
  4. My post on the Yazdani Bakery and Irani cafe owners
  5. My post on the Prince of Wales bakery
  6. Indrajit's post on our breakfast at Lucky and his stay in Mumbai
  7. A WSJ article on the Irani migration to India