Irani Cafés: A page from my childhood

When I walked into the newly opened SodaBottleOpenerWala – there was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. An attempt to recreate the typical Irani cafés we had in plenty when I was growing up, this new café reminded me of the ones we visited as kids. I can still vividly recall the one near my house from where we bought our pao [loaves of bread] and eggs. The one half a km away where we went for falooda – the delicious concoction of ice cream, spaghetti, rose syrup and onion seeds served in a tall glass with a long spoon; and the one that sold Shrewsbury biscuits ( a typical Parsi cookie made with milk powder). Then there is the famous Britannia café where the owner kept his pet rooster on the counter while we gorged on the café’s signature dish the Berry Pulao. And the one near my brothers’ school which still appears in some cola ads – it is the only Irani café used in TV commercials and was patronised by the actor Shashi Kapoor in his younger days when the Kapoor family lived a few metres away.

A little about Irani cafés: The Irani cafés have been and still remain a part of Mumbai’s soul. Their décor, ambience, typical fixtures, eccentric owners, harried but efficient waiters have been an important and integral part of Bombay, now Mumbai’s history. These cafés are pretty much an India specific phenomenon though the Irani café culture came to India with the Persians back in the early 1900s. Today Mumbai boasts of the largest number of such places serving traditional Irani chai along with a slew of other specialties.

Gradually, and very unfortunately, the tradition of such cafés died down. Only 25 such cafés are now still in existence. Luckily there are still two of them near my home in Mumbai. So, SodaBottleOpenerWala in Jubilee Hills is a very welcome addition to the food scene of Hyderabad as far as I am concerned. A café marked with the idiosyncratic traits of the Parsi and Irani communities, the décor and food reflect the same. A replica of the juke box of old is placed in a corner. Old photographs, a wall filled with goti soda bottles [where a marble (goti) is used to seal the air in with the soda and then pushed in to release the liquid – again a Bombay speciality of old]; flowers placed in aluminium kettles and a counter out in the front, with giant bell jars selling the toffees and candies we loved as kids. Black and white tiles on the floor, red and white gingham table cloths, coloured glass lamps and dome lights from Chor bazaar, cuckoo clocks, brass tea kettles and boxes, tin boxes, locks, old paraphernalia and much more are a delight to discover and enjoy as you settle down to take your pick from the menu.  There is even a little toy train chugging away on a track placed just below the ceiling.

The name SodaBottleOpenerWala itself is a play on what is actually a Parsi surname – forged in the days when people took on their professions as their surname. Hence the bottle opener predominantly used to open soda bottles became the surname for someone who probably made these openers or served as a bartender… who really knows.

To date, these cafés in Mumbai are known for their reasonably priced food, distinctive dishes and Parsi food. Here at SodaBottleOpenerWala, contemporised to modern tastes, the menu has on offer typical dishes like Stick Chai (extremely sweet tea), Bun Maska (crusty bread with butter – an absolute treat when dunked in sweet tea – the salty butter and the tea taste divine together), Kheema Pao (minced meat curry with bread) and typical Parsi cutlets, patties, rolls, fruitcakes, and confectionery. For the average Hyderbadi, this concept is a novel one and the local foodies are heading there in droves. From what I saw from  my multiple visits there, the Vada Pao – Mumbai’s most favourite street snack is very popular – endless servings of those were being brought out from the kitchen. I tried it too – the round boiled potato stuffing, coated in batter and deep fried; served inside a pao with chutney and a green chilli. It was reasonably good. But some seriously ignorant folks were eating the snack with a knife and fork – which is the same as eating a burger with cutlery.

The café is an all-day diner so you can have a Berry Pulao for a late brunch and you can have a Bun Maska late evening with tea. SodaBottleOpenerWala serves a mix of classic Parsi dishes and Bombay street food. Specialties include Dhansak (a classic Parsi dish of mutton with lentils and served with caramelised rice and onion salad), Paatra Ni Macchi (chutney coated pomfret steamed inside a banana leaf), Berry Pulao (veg, chicken and mutton variants), Prawn Patio (a tangy prawn preparation that is sweet, sour and mildly spicy) and other old time favourites like Goan Fish Curry, Chicken Baida Roti, Bohri Keema Pao and the Bhendi Bazaar Sheekh Paratha (a combination of a juicy sheekh and crispy fried paratha that originated in the lanes behind Bhendi Bazar – a market selling steel vessels though bhendi is the Hindi word for okra or lady finger.

I tried several dishes from the menu – the Spicy Mushroom on Khari, the Bombay Rasta Sandwich, Chicken Farcha, Prawn Patio, Bhendi Bazaar Sheekh Paratha, Berry Pulao, Raspberry soda and the Falooda. Not all together mind you – I can’t eat so much at one go. This was over two visits and small portions. The Mushroom on Khari [the khari is a crisp, salty, fluffy pastry, a lot like the vol au vent except it is rectangular and usually had plain with tea] won my vote – the warmed up pastry with the mushroom and cheese is for a very filling snack. The  Chicken Farcha was also excellently made and the Veg Berry Pulao took me straight back to my rookie days when after dropping my article off at a newspaper I wrote for, I would stop at the Britannia Café for a serving of this lovely Parsi pulao made with veggies, fried onions and berries. I would give the Sheekh Paratha a miss as I am not a meat lover. The Bombay Rasta Sandwich came grilled with chips but I was expecting the non-grilled variety – stuffed with veggies and laced with spicy green chutney. It was very filling but disappointing given my expectation of the authentic one; especially since there is another grilled one on the menu.

The falooda awakened my inner child and bought back memories of celebrations after exam results or a break after shopping. And there are plenty more dishes that I will try I am sure, on my future visits there.

SodaBottleOpenerWala is part of the Olive Group of restaurants, co-owned by AD Singh, which first opened its doors in November 2013 at the popular food lover’s destination at Cyber Hub, Gurgaon. It was followed by Khan Market in October 2014 and recently opened its doors at Lavelle Road, Bangalore in April 2015. Each outlet is complete with a bar and an outdoor space/balcony.

Most notably, the head chef here is Anahita N Dhondy – a bonafide Parsi who learnt cooking from her mother, also a Parsi. No wonder then that some of the dishes on the menu are made from recipes that are at least 100-200 years old. It doesn’t get more authentic than that. Now, it remains to be seen whether Hyderabad will take to this wonderful, quixotic culture of the Irani café and be open enough to try the authentic Parsi dishes or play safe with the snacks and berry pulaos.  As for me, I know I will be a frequent customer there. It is not often that I get food from my childhood here in this city that I now call home.

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