Of Mawa Cakes & Legacies: Mumbai's Most Iconic Irani Cafes

Of Mawa Cakes & Legacies: Mumbai's Most Iconic Irani Cafes
Karen Dias / Al Jazeera

“The morning army of survivors fervently make their way to begin their garb of monotony of what will be, just another day in the city. Scrambling across crowds of people, they realise just how expeditious this day might become until the sweet aroma of mawa clips their attention. Suddenly, they are ushered into the world of lax and unhurried diversion and even before you can say the word, Mumbai’s grand eatery B. Merwan & Co. has run out of its puddings and mawa cakes for the day. The hopefuls make sure to return another day for another go at it, while so many others throng to the famed iranian eatery much before their day begins to be one among many to have relished them.”

For Mumbai, The Irani Cafes that litter quaint corners of its streets present a slice of history whose sustenance only serves to remind citizens of the city’s lore; a time when it represented an ease of life, a mélange of communities, and cultures, existing in a bubble of social gratification. If we were to put their history into context, it all began perhaps with the Great Iranian escape as they fled from Persia during the great famine only to make Mumbai, then Bombay, their new chosen home.

The Iranians made India their home after escaping Persia during the great famine. The emigrants would then collect together every evening to speak of the land they left behind, and to share stories they alone were privy to. These congregations were held with the accompaniment of irani chai (tea)  and brun maska pao, thus attracting many a curious bystanders to join the conversation tempted by the serving of free chai. Seeing an opportunity in the popularity these accompaniments enjoyed, not to mention the potential for lucrative business, the idea of an Irani café took birth.

High ceilings, archaic structures, wooden floorings, low glass-topped tables huddled together closely, covered with tablecloths, old and rewashed a hundred times, and a patron screaming at the top of his voice--Irani Cafés tend to  gleam with an old-world charm like none other.

With menus comprising of the choicest cakes, breakfast menus of egg and bacon, biryani, and famous irani chai, these cafés are known for quick service, low prices that have remained stagnant even with growing rates, and a familiar taste that simply can’t be found anywhere else.

But with growing pubs and restaurants, as well as tired patrons, many of these cafés seem to dwindle, and stories run rife of how each one of them will succumb to growing modernity. In the hopes of preserving the legacy, and encouraging all our readers to become a part of it by paying them a visit, we compiled for you a list of the most favourite cafés of the city, that you simply must visit.

Added bonus? Cute little artworks that suggest exactly what you must try at each one!

I. B. Merwan & Co

[Note to readers--Since the time of this article’s original publishing, B. Merwan & Co sadly pulled down its shutters. In case you missed its charm/ mawa cakes however, two photographers, Raj Lalwani and Kashish Parpiani took it upon themselves to visually document this 100-year-old institution. You can read our conversation with them here.]  

One of the latest Irani Cafés to fall prey to rumours of shutting shop, the time to visit this famous eatery is better now than ever. Situated right opposite Grant Road station, B. Merwan watches a flurry of visitors right from early morning when it opens its shutters to late evenings, as commuters, and aficionados, alike, throng the place for its lovely desserts and for a quick bite of the famous mawa cake that it runs out of before breakfast time. It is also one of the very few Irani cafés that still house a general provision store which once used to be the norm.

II. Kyani & Co

Perhaps the oldest Irani café of them all, it’s located in the most central area of Dhobi Talao, with Metro cinema, and St. Xaviers college serving as its important landmarks. As such, one can safely say that the ever constant popularity of Kyani makes sure it doesn’t need any.

Standing out as a proud structure of heritage amidst the bustle of South Mumbai, a peek into the café will always be greeted with crowded tables, and friendly staff. Frequented by old benefactors, students and office-goers alike, Kyani is perhaps, in the area it is situated the cheapest eatery one will find, with spectacularly superior taste.

III. Sassanian Boulangerie

Located at a stone’s throw away from Kyani, the century-old Sassanian is the one-stop place for anyone craving a serving of great bun maska, puddings, cakes and khari, a flour biscuit one eats with tea.

While Sassanian has started to serve everything from Dhansak, traditional Parsi cuisine, to Chinese, the place is best known for its plum cakes, chicken patties and mawa cakes. While other irani cafés have moved on to a more mechanical food preparing process, using machines and electric stoves, Sassanian still employs the use of firewood, with its items prepared by hand.

IV. Koolar & Co

Amidst the myriad vegetarian restaurants like Café Madras, Café Mysore and Anand Bhavan stands Koolar & Co, a proud spectre of Irani cuisine right in the centre of Kings circle.

Known for its spectacular omelettes, cooked in ghee and available in various types like chicken, egg with honey and cheese etc. which are relished by people throughout the day, the place is also most frequented for its kheema pao and its biryani. The patron stands tall for the quality of his food, which he swears is prepared in the most authentic Irani style.

V. Café Military

A walk from Fort to Kala Ghoda leads one to Café Military. Unlike most Irani joints, the presence of beer in the menu might be considered the reason Café Military is most frequented by people, but its benefactors swear by the taste it provides.

A lot less pretty than its counterparts, Café Military may look dim, and unattractive on the outside, but more than makes up for it with the fare it provides. While the patron swears by his kheema pao and salli boti, the caramel custard in the dessert menu (a standard item at all these cafes) is also a customer favourite with many claiming it is heaven to taste.

VI. Leopold Café

One of the few restaurants to have upped its quotient and that which has found mention in literature and the tests of time, is the famous Leopold Café. Contrary to other Iranian Cafés, Leopold not only has a wider cuisine, including continental and steak, but also has a range of choices with their alcohol.

Even though its prices are much higher that the other cafés mentioned in the list, Leopold attracts many foreign visitors, and the truly elite, who spend hours sipping on their selective beer, not to mention the great food the place has to offer.

Situated in centre of the popular shopping street, Colaba Causeway, Leopold is indeed an aspirational lunch spot for many, who rush to it to soak in the wonderful music and the ambience along with the tasty food. While it may not be renowned for its authenticity to its cultural identity, we can still vouch for the unique experience it provides upon every visit.

VII. Britania & Co. 

Of all the restaurants to have been chronicled on this list, Britania perches itself firmly on a plush throne, refusing to be seated anywhere else even amidst decade-long rumours of the iconic café impending doom.

Tucked away in one of the city’s most romantic hubs between old-world charm and startling modernity, the dilapidated restaurant remains tightly packed till this day even as it stays open only for the few hours of lunch.

As hoards of hungry dhansak lovers shovel their mouths full with the best beri pulav the country has to offer or soaks up the end of a sali boti with soft, round chapatis, the octogeneraian owner of Britania makes his rounds, idly chatting up every single customer in the place threatening them with deadly doses of what he proudly calls ‘the best dam fresh lime soda sweet in the world!’

He’s not kidding either. As his unforgettable tales of British royalty and other short stories form the sweet soundtrack to the meal, suffice to say few irani café experiences will ever match that of Britania & co.

Featured image credit Karen Dias / Al Jazeera