Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Irani Cafés - Disappearing Heritage

Brabourne Restaurant & Bakery at Dhobi Talao, Mumbai.
[This is a companion page to our main page Irani Cafés (Cafes) & Bakeries - an Irani Zartoshti Tradition at Zoroastrian Heritage]

Perhaps dining at an Irani café should become a Zarathushti pilgrimage tradition. For eating each morsel of a well-prepared and authentic Irani-Parsi dish in an Irani café is for some akin to a spiritual experience filled with history and tradition. Somehow food tastes different when imbibed at an Irani café.

Irani cafés serve another purpose as well. As an integral part of Zarathushti heritage and history, they present a facet of Zarathushti identity to others. The moment a patron walks through the door of an Irani café, they begin to experience elements of that identity and its values. It is not just the food but the egalitarian environment as well that makes for a complete experience. Most surviving Irani cafés are over 100 years old, time capsules of a bygone era: the bentwood chairs, the marble or glass topped tables, the portraits on the walls.

Disappearing Heritage and History
There is some urgency to the opening suggestion. Authentic Irani cafés are fast disappearing. According to a report by Naomi Lobo of the Indian Express, while there were 350 Irani cafés in the 1950s, by 2005 the number had dwindled to just 25. For the main part, the cafés are to be found in Mumbai, India. To understand the heritage that each Irani café carries, let us briefly examine the history behind the cafés.

The Irani cafés or restaurants were set up for the main part by Irani Zarathushtis from the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Kerman fleeing the murderous persecution of the Islamic Qajar dynasty (1794-1925 CE) of Iran.
The Iranis were aided in their flight to the west coast of India by the Parsees of Bombay. For many Irani Zarathushti refugees the Parsee housing colonies in Bombay's Fort district were their first home in India. From there, they spread out to settle in Poona and Hyderabad. Once settled, they in turn provided assistance to other Iranian Zarathushtis seeking refuge in India from religious persecution in their homeland. Irani Zarathusti migration from Iran to India continued into the 1900s.

The Irani Zarathushti immigrants to India were a hard-working, industrious and self-reliant lot. They lacked the capital to establish themselves in trade, banking and industry as had the Parsees, but since they were determined to be self-reliant and productive, they established modest cafés and bakeries.

Ethic and Ambience
Irani cafés soon became iconic features in their localities. They became known for good, honest, reasonably priced food and beverages. Their clients were invariably individuals of modest means for whom the cafés provided a place to drop-in for an inexpensive cup of tea, wholesome snacks, or a meal – or to just congregate and socialize, for the cafés served a social function as well. By welcoming everyone, the Irani cafés created a micro environment that was classless and casteless – free from societal and religious distinctions and divisions. Some café owners even posted signs such as 'everyone welcome' or 'all castes welcome'. Others displayed religious icons from different religions on their walls.

Roots of the Irani Café and its Cuisine
Tracing the roots of the culinary traditions of the Irani cafés of India and the very development of the concept, is a fascinating and illuminating exercise.

The culinary traditions of the Irani cafés are embedded in the tradition of the old Aryan chaikhanas (tea houses) - an adjunct of the Aryan and Zarathushti trading tradition. The chai khanas or tea houses could be found all along the Aryan trade routes1, otherwise called the Silk Roads, and were used by travellers and locals alike. They even shared the same Persian name ‘chai khana’, regardless of the language spoken in that country.

Irani cafés are more chai khanas than cafés for the principle hot beverage they serve is tea and not coffee. The Silk Roads’ chai khanas served the local and travelling public. That very feature required them to be welcoming to people from different cultures. But it also meant that their food had to have broad appeal. The food needed to be simple, nutritious and comforting. Individuals came to the chai khana to sip a cup of tea and meet friends, to eat a simple meal, or even conduct some business.

Chai Khanas of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
Somsa freshly baked at a bazaar in Khiva,
Compare some of the fare available in an Uzbekistan chai khana2 to what can be found in Iran and India: shashlik (kebab cooked and served on long flat metal skewers), pilau (rice with meat and vegetables), kazan kabob (fried meat with potatoes), somsa (pastry stuffed with meat and onions), as well as naan made in a tandir (tandur in India).

In Tajikistan, the oven is variously called a chagdon, degdon or tanur, while the somsa is called a sambusa.

The baked items served at the chai khana bring us to another associated tradition, that of an attached bakery. India’s Irani bakeries are also an integral part of Irani Zarathushti heritage.
Chai-Khana or Tea-House, Bolo Hauz in Bokhara, Uzbekistan

Irani Café food as Part of the Zarathushti Identity
Jimmy Boy Irani café near Horniman Circle in the Fort area.
Photo credit: rediff
It is this author’s contention that culinary and other traditions are a more significant indicator of a region and people’s cultural heritage than is language. For instance, the Parsees Iranis of India speak Gujarati and English. Yet, their historic roots will not be found in Gujarat or England. Their Iranian, Persian, or Central Asian roots are found more in the concepts behind their traditions –religion, root culture and values. In developing the Irani cafés of India, Irani Zarathushtis might have adapted the décor and the menu of the chai khana to local tastes, but they maintained the underlying Zarathushti and Iranian-Aryan concepts and values – concepts and values developed over 4000 years along the Silk Roads.

This flexibility in adapting outward customs including food, language and dress, while firmly maintaining traditional values and way of life, is itself a defining trait of the Zarathushti identity. Over 2000 years ago Herodotus noted: “There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians.” However, in quickly adopting local customs, the Persian Zarathushtis added a flair of their own making the adopted custom uniquely Zarathushti.

When the Irani Zarathushtis of Yazd and Kerman migrated to India, they quickly adopted the more established Parsi cuisine, which itself was an adaptation of Gujarati cuisine.

In her article, For the love of Parsee Food, Monica Bhide journals her impression of Parsi food. “Their cuisine is a tantalizing marriage of Persian and Gujarati styles. Flavouring their curries with nuts and apricots, they brought the richness of Persia to the simple Gujarati food. Parsi food is not hot with chillies but has complex flavours and textures. They are primarily non-vegetarians and enjoy eating chicken, mutton and eggs.”

One significant change between Iranian and Central Asian cuisine and Indian influenced Irani/Parsee cuisine is the shift from herbs and fruits to spices as the main flavouring ingredients. To this writer’s untrained palate, the use of spice in Iranian food is far more subtle. Iranian food is seldom, if ever, chilli hot.

However, at least one Irani café has not entirely forgotten its Iranian cuisine roots – the Britannia at Ballard Pier in Mumbai’s Fort district. Britannia is famed for its berry pulao, an adaptation of the Iranian zereshk (barberries or Berberis vulgaris) polo (cooked rice). Zereshk is widely grown in Iran’s Khorasan province making Iran the largest producer of zereshk in the world. Zereshk has famed health giving properties and may be a candidate for inclusion in the haoma family of health-giving and healing plant foods. The berry itself has a slightly tart flavour. If meat is left out, the zereshk or berry pulao remains a vegetarian dish.
Mutton berry (zereshk) pulav with sali boti (plate top-right) at the Britannia, Ballard Pier, Fort.
Photo credit: Anindo Ghosh at Flickr
While vegetarian food may not be what Iran cafés are known for, patrons can help develop this part of the menu by specifically ordering vegetarian dishes. The literature tells us that at its very basic, Parsi foods consist of rice and dal (lentil) stews of various kinds (dhansak is a glorified lentil and pumpkin curry-like stew). Leaving the meat out of the cooking of these dishes keeps them vegetarian. For some reason, a few Iranians don’t particularly care for dal. They use the term dal khor meaning dal eater as a put-down for Indians and Pakistanis (the term even has its own Wikipedia page!). This is one part of the Iranian connection we can safely ignore.

In Closing
Leopold Cafe, Colaba Causeway, Mumbai
Photo credit: ashokmandy at Flickr
We cannot conclude an article on Irani cafés without remembering that the first target of the Islamic terrorists who attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008, was the Zarathushti Irani owned Leopold café of Mumbai. The Leopold café is located close to the terrorists’ second target, the Zarathushti owned Taj Mahal Hotel in South Mumbai. The Leopold is an example of an Irani café that transformed its menu in order to prosper in a changing environment. Hopefully, with the notoriety that articles such as this may bring to Irani Cafés, some of their owners might be encouraged to reinstate authentic Irani/Parsee dishes to their menus.

The great tragedy of the slow demise of the Irani cafés is not just the loss of an affordable and honest source of a unique cuisine. That food can in theory be prepared anywhere. The greater loss is that of the attendant culture and traditions – for each Irani café is a microcosm of a cultural heritage and a unique ethic, a heritage and ethic that has taken shape over thousands of years through a blending of cultures from along the Silk Roads. The experience in eating the cuisine of an authentic Zarathushti Irani café owned and run by Iranis with roots in Yazd and Kerman, will never be the same in any other environment.

Irani cafés were dying out because of a lack of patronage. Some cafés have changed their menus in order to survive. Increasing our patronage – making Irani cafés a pilgrimage stop if you will – will help keep alive these iconic cafés and what they are renowned for: good wholesome Irani-Parsi food at reasonable prices.

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