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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 April, 2005, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
India's Iranian cafes fading out

By Jayshree Bajoria
BBC News, Mumbai

Iranian cafe
Many of the cafes have shut up shop due to competition

The Iranian cafes in the western Indian city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) have long stood out from other city eateries - but their days could be numbered.

With their red and white checked tablecloths, straight backed wooden chairs and the aroma of freshly baked bread and sweet cake, the cafes are an indelible part of Mumbai's cosmopolitan heritage.

But all this may well become a thing of the past.

Having withstood a century of change, the cafes are feeling the heat in Mumbai's fiercely competitive food market.

Many of the so-called Irani cafes are getting a complete makeover and becoming pubs or restaurants. Others are simply shutting up shop.

Exotic confectionery

Regular customers swear by brun maska (bread and butter) and paani kam chai (a special Iranian tea) - regulation Irani cafe fare.

Jayant Kamat is one of them.

Most of our children are well educated and are not interested in carrying on the business
Aflatoon Shokriye, cafe owner
He has been visiting the 101-year-old Kyani cafe in south Mumbai since he was in school.

"Even though it's hot and sweaty here and there's a lot of din, this is my favourite place. It is homely, you can sit here for hours. The ambience and prices have remained the same over years,'' says Mr Kamat.

Vanita Rodrigues, another regular patron, echoes the sentiment.

"The food is fresh, delicious and unique," she says.

But nice prices and exotic confectionery don't seem to be saving the day for these cafes.

Community legend

Competition, ownership problems, and the reluctance of present generation Iranians to carry on the family business are contributing to the slow fadeout of these proud cafes.

"Most of our children are well educated and are not interested in carrying on the business. There is a also a lot of trouble between partners. So they choose to get out of the business," says Aflatoon Shokriye, second generation owner of the Kyani cafe.

Glancing across a busy Mumbai road at the downed shutters of another Iranian cafe, he becomes nostalgic.

"Together we used to be a huge market for cakes. If people were not satisfied by them [the cafe opposite], they came to us and vice versa. But now they have shut down and we are also losing business," says Mr Shokriye.

Iranian cafe
The ambience is old world and the food different
Most of these Zoroastrian Iranians - named after the Iranian prophet and reformer - came to India in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The search for a better livelihood brought them to Bombay, then a global trading centre and home to another Zoroastrian community, the Parsis.

The Parsis had been economically well settled in the city for thousands of years.

Mr Shokriye recounts a community legend which local Iranians believe led to the birth to these cafes.

"When the Iranians came here they had no money. They worked in Parsi homes and later met in the evenings to discuss the country they had left behind," he says.

"One evening, one of the men served tea to everyone and charged them a little amount. And so, the idea of making a business out of serving tea was born."

Breaking barriers

Historian Sharada Dwivedi says at that time Mumbai was flooded with migrants working in the textile mill and the city's flourishing port.

Iranian cafe
The exotic confectionery could soon go

"They usually came alone and needed places to eat. This is how Irani cafes became very popular."

Social anthropologist Rahul Srivastava says the food industry also provided an important source of livelihood to migrants.

"Irani cafes became sites for cosmopolitan experience. They were pioneering eating houses," he says.

The cafes broke down social barriers and religious taboos to become an important part of the city's public life.

''Even today, in some Irani cafes you can see a corporate executive, a sex worker and probably even a beggar at the same time," says Mr Srivastava.

Sharda Dwivedi says that the cafes did initially cater to the sensibilities of various communities - they had separate cutlery and crockery to serve customers belonging to different religions.

But as time passed and their popularity grew, these differences were also laid aside.

New customers

The cafes have tried to move ahead with the times by serving Chinese food and soft drinks.

Irani cafe
The well to do and the poor frequent the cafes
The Ideal cafe, for example, is now a restaurant and bar serving cold beer and fast food.

Aflatoon Shokriye believes that only new food on the menu will help woo younger patrons.

But he does not want to renovate yet because it will push prices up and drive away the remaining customers.

Rahul Srivastava says one way to save these cafes is to spin off franchise chains where the eateries retain the ambience and flavour of a typical Irani cafe.

"But we should be careful about what we want to protect. Those [new cafes] will never allow their space to be shared by poor and rich alike."

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21 Apr 03 |  South Asia
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27 Sep 02 |  Business
Indian cafes go upmarket
29 Apr 00 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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