Café Irani Chai:
To Stir With Love!
Buy Line/ Ravi V.Chhabra
Emigrations have been a part of human civilization since recorded history. The refugees, a term used ofttimes for emigrants, have always brought huge wealth with them in a myriad forms – be it art, exemplary hard work, culture, etiquette, cuisine or of simply spreading love and compassion in people’s lives.
The Iranians are a perfect embodiment of all these. Here’s a bit of that story of Dr. Mansoor Showgi Yezdi – his film “Café Irani Chai” is the story where his forefathers brought with them the unique combo of Irani chai and backed it up with the ‘bun maska’ or 'brun maska' - lovingly touching the lives/palates of millions of Indians, especially those in Bombay (read Mumbai), Pune and Hyderabad for decades.
“My Grandfather Late Haji Mohammed Showghi Yezdi came to Mumbai in 1890 on foot from the faraway Yazd - a province in Iran at the time when famine had gripped that beautiful province. He was not educated and he didn't excel in any art-form either. But he had the confidence to succeed with his resolve for hard work. He started his journey with a group of friends and family, all of them landing in Mumbai with little food and no money in their pockets.
They were sure even before they reached the Indian shores that they would be welcomed with open arms as guests of Hindustan or as they say ‘Attithi Devo Bhava’. Even though they came to Mumbai after walking for nearly seven to eight months in grueling circumstances but once they reached they were all too pleased with their decision. At first, there was a lot of struggle and mighty effort to do well financially as they were with empty pockets but their confidence in humanity and good intentions for the host city, they decided they would start a small enterprise that would bring a bonding of the two cultures.
The group would meet in the evenings and discuss about their country Iran and would serve tea to the gathering and elicit a tiny sum for it and that was the beginning of a small business idea to start selling tea, and in this way they became famous as Irani chaiwalas.
Before becoming the owners of many Irani Restaurants, they had to struggle to earn money for buying a hotel or a restaurant. Some Iranians starting working in the restaurants which were owned by the Iranis who had migrated earlier from Yazd and Kerman, but my grandfather was a bit unique; he started selling tea in a kettle with a ‘sigdi’ beneath it to keep tea warm on the pavements of Apollo Bunder, opposite the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel.
During the entire nights, he would beckon the tea lovers: ‘IRANI CHAI IRANI CHAI IRANI CHAI’ and after packing off with the sales, he had a munificent sleep on the footpath. He saved from his hard-earned money and bought himself a restaurant called: Prince of Wales and thus became to be known as the great Irani Chaiwala. Thereafter, most Yazdi or Kermani who came down became the true ambassadors of this beverage and were called Irani Chaiwalas.
They learned the art of baking bread from the Goans who full-heartedly helped the Iranians hone the skill. With their sincerity and friendly nature, the Iranians became as close as family members of Indians who lived near their restaurant. Many Indians developed complete trust and used to keep their money with the Iranis and would confide with their deepest secrets and family goings-on. The Iranian Chai Cafes are an embodiment and symbolic of meeting of Iranian culture and love with Indian hospitality and its inherent secularism and openness”.
Here’s an insight into the genius mind of documentary film-maker Mansoor Showghi Yezdi:
Fnbworld: When did your family migrate from Persia/Iran to India and what necessitated it?
Showghi: My grandfather migrated from Yazd a province in Iran because of the famine which had taken place much earlier. He migrated to Hindustan in the year 1890 with some of his fellow countrymen and friends walking all the way from Yazd to Mumbai which took them around 7 to 8 months. He was around 15 to 16 years of age. He settled down in Mumbai as it was a commercial center then and cotton mills were at their peak and the workers who worked in the mills would leave their families behind, so it was necessary for them to have their food and Irani chai in the restaurants.
Fnbworld: What is the origin of this bun or ‘brun maska’ and Irani chai? Is this not the Assam tea and is not the bun/brun a Goan adaptation? How many Irani Chai Cafés have been in business since and we do understand there’s a decline now…
Showghi: The Iranis who came down from the province of Yazd and Kerman were familiar with baking and they baked some of the best nans in the world, but brun and bun were new to them. At that time, the Goans were into bakery business and being a caring and loving people they taught these Iranis how to bake bun and brun. The Iranis soon learnt the trade with the help of their Goan friends and soon started experimenting with the combinations like adding maska to the bun and brun and sprinkling sugar on the top.
The hot buns and the melting Polson maska with sugar created magic in itself and this became a new creation which became a great hit overnight. The real Irani chai is without milk but when the Iranis came to India they saw the Britishers enjoying their cup of tea with milk and to make it popular they started experimenting and they came out with a hit, for example ten litres of milk were boiled till it became half as condensed, tea was separately boiled with sugar.
Noteably, the Darjeeling tea was never used, instead, they went in for the Assamese tea and that also the second flush leaves, though a little bit costly but it had a great flavour and good colour. The three main cities for the Iranis were Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad and a few here and there in Gujarat like Baroda and Ahmedabad. Irani restaurants at its peak were altogether around a thousand in the three cities but now the number is hardly around 200 to 250.
Fnbworld: When and how did you conceive the idea of a documentary on these cafes and what is your role in the film? Has it been screened in Iran and what plans to popularize it?
Showghi: Being an Iranian myself and coming from the same community I saw and heard from my father the story of the Yazdis and Kermanis how they came how they struggled how they made a name for themselves. How they won the hearts of their Indian brothers and sisters and how they became the part and parcel of this great society. I wanted to show the world what true love means and how the Indians proved that guest is godlike or atithi devo bhava. When our ancestors came over to India they were given respect and love. I wanted to highlight this true love between Indians and the Iranians. I have directed the documentary. It is going to be screened in Iran and worldwide wherever my Iranian and Indian brothers and sisters live.
Fnbworld: Many of our readers and non-Parsis are quizzed about Parsi surnames like: Jhunjhunwala, Shwowghi, Screwala, Batliwala, please throw some light on this?
Showghi: The Parsis were keen in putting up their profession as their surname for example those in nut and bolt business put their surname as Screwala or those having a rubber factory or something to do with rubber were known as Rubberwala or those into aerated water were known as soda Waterwala or those who were official dealers in guns or pistols were known as Bandookwala so on.
Fnbworld: How are Indian people perceived by the Iranians? How often do you visit there? Any relatives in Iran now?
Showghi: Indians treated Iranians as their own as they are branches of the same tree with the great belief in atithi devo bhava guest are god made them love and respected the Iranians. The Iranians love Indians. My cousins are in Iran and I have an uncle over there.
Fnbworld: Can you tell us something about Iranian cuisine, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian and what is the restaurant scenario in Iran and how they take to Indian spicy food? Do Iranians drink alcohol and what’s their favourite beverage?
Showghi: Iranian dishes are less spicy and they love their food like chelo kabab, chelo murg, joojeh kabab, haleem, osh, kookoo, zereshkh polou, aab ghoosht and kalleh paacheh etc. There are many Indian restaurants in the cities and Iranians love Indian spicy dishes. Iran being an Islamic country hard drinks are prohibited.
Fnbworld: What about your education?
Showghi: I had my schooling from St. Michael's High School, Mahim, Mumbai and did my Doctorate in Literature.