I'm not the easiest person to drag out of bed on a Saturday morning, but if there were one thing that might do it, it would be lump chicken patties at Sassanian, kheema pao at Kyani & Co., the five-egg omelette at Koolar & Co.—all breakfast offerings from Mumbai’s Irani cafes, the stuff my dawn dreams are made of.
The Irani cafe was gifted to Mumbai by Iranians who have called the city home since the 19th century. Many of the immigrants came from farming families in Yazd and Kerman districts in Iran; the 1890 famine made things difficult for them, especially coupled with the religious persecution they faced. Mumbai loomed large as a sort of financial mecca—it was thriving economically, and the Zoroastrians who had fled Iran centuries ago were flourishing there. The story goes that canny new immigrants opened up cafes in corner locations that Hindus felt were inauspicious; the cafés thrived, their food calibrated to tempt not just the local Parsis, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, but sometimes also the British stationed in the area. Kyani & Co, born in 1904, is the oldest surviving Irani cafe. Some cafés had rather sparse menus—the century-old Sassanian started out serving only biscuits, sponge cake, brun maska (buttered loaves of crusty bread), and chai. Many dished out Parsi and Irani food which was supplemented by in-house bakeries. And almost all of them doubled up as general stores, selling things like toothpaste, soaps, hair oil, canned items, and biscuits.
The cafés could be seen as harbingers of socio-economic social change in the city. Up until the late 18th century, strict religious and social codes put a stop to any sort of mixed dining. But as those rules slowly dissolved, the newly opened Irani restaurants became a sort of Starbucks of their time—a place where men of all castes and religions came together to read the local newspaper and discuss it over cups of steaming chai. (The tea was served in separate cups for different communities, pink cups for Muslims, green for Hindus.) Women, who were usually excluded from the public dining space, were also accommodated by the creation of “family rooms,” partitioned-off areas in which respectable families might dine without wilting under public gaze. Less respectable couples were also known to use these rooms for discreet liaisons.
Not much of all this remains: the colored tea cups have long been abandoned, provision stores eschewed, and family rooms discarded. (Except at B Merwan's, where you will still find “Special Room for Ladies and Family,” along with old cabinets displaying daily provisions.) What does remain is the distinct Irani cafe décor—weary old bentwood chairs, round marble-topped tables, mirrored panels on the walls, and antique wooden cupboards. An Irani cafe can usually be identified at a single glance.
At their peak, Mumbai boasted hundreds of Irani cafes; today, that has dwindled to around 25. Of the few that have lingered on, my favorite has long been Café Military in the Fort district of Mumbai. The Fort area was once thick with establishments that catered to the British army and navy, and Café Military was one such place. Opened in 1933 by the father of the current owner, Behram Khosravi, the cafe was known for its meat-heavy English dishes. A menu from 1935 sits under Khosravi's work-blunted desk, detailing the bestsellers of the time—“Delicious Tongue Dishes,” “Tasteful Liver Dishes,” “Light Meals Of Eggs,” and “Cakes, Ices and Puddings,” among others. Customers could choose from dishes such as Boiled Tongue, Mutton Roast, and Cold Liver and Salad (“Bread and Butter, extra charges”). “Breakfast Dishes” included such English delights as Fried Bread, Fried Tomatoes, Bread and Butter, Buttered Toast, and Mashed Potatoes.
Today, although most of its signature dishes are served at lunch, you are likely to find a throng of office-goers at breakfast, hunkering down for a quick plate of Egg Masala with soft pao (bread) or maska pao with chai, soft white bread thickly buttered and then dipped into the sweet, milky tea.
Café Military cooks up delicious and absurdly cheap grub, my favorite being the omelet that comes speckled with onions and chili. It also makes a pretty appetizing Parsi akoori (a creamy scrambled egg dish fortified with chopped onions, tomatoes and chilies) served with two slices of pillowy-soft white pao.
Parsis and Iranis are known for their meat-heavy cuisine, and accordingly a wealth of meaty dishes come tumbling out of Military's kitchen at all hours. Try the unctuous mutton kheema (mince), gently spiced yet deeply flavorful with a heap of crisp-fried salli (julienned potato). Or the kheema ghotala (“minced mess”), a ghastly looking but delicious dish of minced meat whipped with egg. Or you could order that inimitable classic, brain fried with egg—it’s the kind of dish that really sticks to your bones after a night of alcohol-soused revelry. All this should be eaten with white bread to soak up the oil and gravy. Everything here is made fresh every day, as it has always been, and nothing is refrigerated overnight. Loyalists like my aunt, who has been dining here for forty years, claim that the dishes all taste exactly as they always have.
For further midmorning nutrition, you can order tall bottles of the local Kingfisher or the unheard-of Kangaro (not a typo) beer to soothe your spice-slicked tongue. Of course, when I say “you,” I actually mean me. Almost every Saturday. My order remains more or less the same: a splatter of 50 rupee (less than a dollar) kheema served on a tacky yellow plastic plate together with a bottle of Kangaro for a comforting Rs 170 (about $2.50, and that's the most expensive thing on the menu). I find that there's nothing quite like time-defying prices to soothe the disturbing transition from night into day.