Are you even a Hyderabadi if you do not like Irani chai and Biryani? A steaming cup of Irani chai with bun maska or kheema pao for breakfast and biryani for lunch and dinner, the perfect day! Despite the coffee culture overpowering the chai culture, especially among the gen z, a cup of cutting creamy, thick Irani chai never loses its charm.
History of Irani Chai
The Irani chai and Irani cafe culture was introduced by the Zoroastrian Iranians who came to India to expand their business. They came to India during the colonial period, hence the cafes have a British touch. The people of Persia migrated to India in two waves (unlike covid), one in the 18th century and one in the 19th. The ones who migrated in the 18th century are called Parsis and majorly settled in Gujarat and Bombay. The Persians who migrated in the 19th century spread their wings and settled in different areas. They mainly spoke in Farsi and were referred to as Iranians themselves, unlike the Parsis who spoke in Gujarati. The Iranians were very homesick and bonded over cups of Irani chai. It was then they realised that they could open up Irani cafes and bring in an element of their home.
They first stepped foot in the Bombay port and started opening up cafes there. The famous Leopold cafe in Mumbai is also an Irani cafe. These cafes mainly in south Bombay have historical importance as well. People used to gather in small numbers in these cafes to strategise the fight for independence as it didn’t catch anyone’s attention. From Mumbai, they went to Pune and started expanding there. Pune has lesser cafes when compared to Mumbai, as Pune was considered a holiday town where there were only students and retired officers. From Pune, they came to the city of Nizams, Hyderabad. There was widespread expansion in Hyderabad. Every corner of every street in the old city has an Irani cafe. The chai brought by them eventually was referred to as Hyderabadi chai or Irani dum chai.
Originally, the tea made in Persia or Iran was a very strong tea made without milk. They just added locally grown tea powder to boiling water along with some spices like Kesar and elaichi. Instead of adding sugar to the tea, they would stick a big granular of it inside the cheek so with each sip you get a sweet taste. A stark difference between the chai made every day in homes and Irani chai is the method of preparation and addition of khoya.
The process of making Irani chai is very long and time-taking. First, the special Irani chai powder is boiled in water with some spices like cardamom and saffron. Milk is boiled separately on low flame for long hours to make it thick and creamy. After both broths have boiled for enough time, first the milk along with some khoya is added in white ceramic cups followed by the flavoured water. Usually, Irani chai is a sweet concoction, sweeter than regular chai. Traditionally it is served with soft bun maska with a cloudy texture or mouthwatering mutton samosa.
Architecture of Irani cafes
The architecture of Irani cafes is very peculiar. To feel less homesick, they included a lot of elements from Persia. The immigrants came to India with low funding, hence had to start businesses with low investment. They bought corner plots to build their cafes as the Indians found corner plots inauspicious. What came to being as something cheap and easily available eventually became a trademark feature of Irani cafes. The architecture is distinguished by intricate patterns made by stained glasses, geometric patterned tiles, wooden chairs and tables with marble tops. You will also find numerous evidence of Iran, the flag, some old newspaper cuttings, vintage family photos and pictures of the landscape. All of these took the Iranians back to their home.
During the 18th and 19th centuries when Irani cafes were being set up, the Industrial Revolution was ongoing. Many industries were being set up which as a result attracted a lot of employment and labour. These pocket-friendly cafes became famous among the working class. When the caste system was prevalent and public places were not very inclusive, Irani cafes were one place with welcomed people of all castes and religions, and Irani cafes were the only place you could see people of different castes and beliefs sitting together and discussing business plans.
The decline of Irani cafes is one of the side effects of globalisation. With the introduction of bistros and coffee culture in India, especially among the gen z youth, Irani cafe culture and chai culture has declined. Increasing prices of raw materials have led to an increase in the price of tea, resulting in a decline of customers. Ironically, the people are ready to pay ₹200-300 for a cup of coffee but are hesitant to pay a ₹5 increase in the cost of Irani chais. Cafes like Kadak house are reintroducing the Irani chai culture in the more urbanised parts of Hyderabad.