A Tea-time tale: Mumbai’s Irani cafes

Leitmotif of the Persian influence, the sweet, milky Irani chai resets the emotional thermostat with its nostalgia and whimsy.

Farzana Irani has a treasured childhood memory of her father sipping Irani chai at the restaurant they owned at Churchgate in Mumbai. “My earliest memory goes back to 1980, of sipping the hot, sweet, creamy brew in the small, special Irani cups with tiny floral designs. Dunking my bun maska in the chai before eating made it special. Or it would be the turn of hot mawa cake or the crunchy rusk and khari biscuit sometimes. My Parsi friends and colleagues would go to relive the experience many times; of sitting in a café with high ceiling, slowly turning fans, round marble tables with wooden legs, chequered table cloth and black chairs,” she says.

From urban, spiffy spaces and boutique villas parading as tea houses, to quick-fix chai powders jockeying in online marts to cool and friendly baristas weaseling in the tea varieties on their menus promising the Irani chai experience; it’s a crowded space out there with tonnes of choices, but nothing to match the classic version. There are vegan notes with oat, almond, soy and cashew milk variations
to pander to your travel-savvy palate. Then there are the baffling infusions in Himalayan brews; tapioca pearls, fermented, or dried leaves, those with blooming hibiscus flowers, yoga tea, detox sips, and even period tea that promises to alleviate those devastating cramps. “But what’s so great about sipping tea in a franchised format? You get it anywhere,” says Irani.

Leitmotif of the Persian influence, the sweet, milky Irani chai resets the emotional thermostat with its nostalgia and whimsy.
Shapur and Farokh of Roshan Cafe in Dongri

Irani cafés of Mumbai, once iconic landmarks in the cityscape, are now on the wane. The legendary Irani chai could soon be lost in sepia. In the 1950s, there were about 350 cafés across Mumbai. Now, there are barely three dozen of them.

Shilpi Madan for Sunday Standard

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