The Great Irani Cafés

Mumbai has a special breed of teahouse that's fast disappearing. Called "Irani joints" in local parlance, these corner shops were begun by the first waves of Zoroastrians, called the Iranis, who migrated to India in the 10th century from Persia to escape religious persecution. (Those who were part of later waves are referred to as Parsis.) In following centuries thousands and thousands more Zoroastrians arrived in India. A community of about 50,000 remains in the country today, the majority in Mumbai.

Irani cafés probably arose out of the Iranis' need for a place to gather and exchange news. Simply furnished with solid wood chairs and cloaked in the appearance of yesteryear, they remain places where customers can tarry over endless cups of sweet tea for just a couple of rupees. Visiting these seedy, century-old cafés is a chance to glimpse a culture that has all but vanished. The clientele is usually very ordinary Mumbai wallahs (dwellers), more often than not old-timers who have been having chai and buns for the last 40 years in the same spot. Equally eccentric is the menu, an odd selection of chai, "cutting chai" (a half-cup of tea), bun-maska (a bun with butter), and typical Parsi cutlets, patties, rolls, fruitcakes, and confectionery. Amid the ancient mirrors, upright chairs, marble tables, elaborate balconies, and portraits of the Prophet Zarathustra is sometimes a sign acquainting you with the dos and don'ts of the particular establishment. Beer is sometimes served. But credit cards? Goodness, no. Early or mid-morning is a good time to visit.

Traditional Irani cafés are dying out, almost overnight being converted to fast-food joints or else turning upscale and adding Chinese food or spaghetti to their menus. The few that are still left can be found in the Fort area.

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