Irani Bakeries Still Soldiering On

Guest Post by Mrinal Kulkarni who blogs at Retro-Reflections.

Since childhood bakeries have held a special fascination.The exotic and delicious goodies displayed in the glass counters and shelves often led me to press my face against its glass  to peer even more closely.Not to mention the whiff and aroma of freshly baked bread and rolls further tantalizing the pallette. To own a bakery then became a childhood  dream.Though I knew that could never be, visiting one was on my daily agenda .

Living in colonial cities like  Bombay,Coonoor, Wellington, Madras and up  north  in the hills of Musoorie and Shimla through the 50’s,60’s and the 70’s saw a plethora of bakeries almost around every street corner.Each one having  a special quality of its own.

Finally settling down in Bombay and  during my growing years I  perceived bakeries in a different light.Living in a suburb,the area was practically surrounded by at least five to six  bakeries.But these bakeries were different with cafes attached.They belonged to the Iranis who did a brisk business throughout the day and late into the night. Their  method of working, the fare they offered, the ambiance that was created around them made it so popular especially the simplicity sans any  frills. Some of these bakeries had  two sections – a  variety of breads—pau, whole sliced  bread,bun and  brun pau and  bakery products like mawa cakes,cream rolls and the other section was a tea space  with grayish white marble-topped square tables and black chairs against a backdrop of dark brown glass cupboards stacked with different utilities like groceries (the range which expanded over the years). The walls were often adorned with pictures of old Bombay or English countryside. These small joints  eventually began to be known as cafes.These  small  café spaces or little tea and cake joints were in existence for a long time. They excluded an old world charm.Daily samplings soon became a regular  feature for  tongue tickling treats and a place easily accessible and affordable for all.The goodies were not eye-catching nor were they colourful but tasty and tantalizing.The entire aura around these little cafés  was alive and buzzing  which attracted attention of any passerby.The high-and  low-pitched voices of the Irani owner giving orders, the chatter of the Irani errand boys executing  the orders, the clatter of crockery and a general bonhomie that went with it was just as alluring and endearing as to what they were serving.Whiffs and aromas of all kinds made you want to sit around (literally in a no-time bound frame of mind) soaking in the milieu and drinking endless cups of sweet mana——the Irani  chai.

The bakeries were owned by Iranis who  migrated to India,from Iran  to Surat,a flourishing commercial city on the west coast of India, in search of some lucrative  enterprise.They came to India in the late 19th century.Most of them who migrated were not well versed in the literary sense  but possessed astute business sense  and were  proficient  in the business of baking – as  this was their traditional business and the only enterprise they understood.Soon they set up Irani cafes all over the city which  became synonymous with the city’s landscape. A unique feature of an Irani café was that many of them were situated at corner of the street.It is believed they acquired these corner spaces as the Hindu shop-owners were superstitious about setting their own shops there as they felt it would not prosper.

As mentioned earlier one could, or rather one wanted to  linger on in the café for hours.It served as a meeting  place for some,an appropriate setting for both serious political and social discussion for others and leisurely conversation for all and sundry.This space cut across all classes and community.The sweet and delicious hot cuppa-dunked with the typical Irani khari (a buttery and subtly flavoured light flaky biscuit which almost disintegrated  before you could put your mouth to it) was and still is to die for….

The word “Irani” conjures images of old-fashioned  bakeries,wine shops, restaurants and its delicious fare with their typical names——the ubiquitous maska pau (thick yellow butter slathered on a small round of fresh bread, the pau,the origin which dates back to the time of the Portuguese who first introduced this now hugely popular bread in India, particularly Bombay.These cafes, bakeries and restaurants have evolved over the years, introducing several other items on their menu. Khari chai and bhurji, mawa cakes to name a few. At one time almost half the Irani population in the metropolis was  involved in  running of these enterprises (a tradition dating back to almost 100 years) which at one time thrived but now facing stiff competition from modern type of bakeries and deli.The famous Irani bakeries which were one of the famous landmarks of Bombay and visible at strategic corners in most suburbs are practically non-existent except for a few which are trying to be a bit more aggressive  to compete with the modern cafes. However,today the baking process too has changed — all traditional breads baked in wood fire ovens have been replaced with modern energy efficient ovens.

This article besides highlighting their popularity  takes a look at the  plight of the existing bakeries which still occupy certain pockets of the city and are still popular among young and the old who still want their usual fare of  brun maska or khari and chai to drink at leisure and watch the world go by.

What makes these Irani bakeries tick? Obviously its mouth-watering fare – the brun maska (a hard round bun which is oh so soft inside  which when you cut when hot and slather blobs of  butter and dip it in tea is sure to leave a slick of melted butter on the surface –that’s the way its supposed to be eaten. Have it with kheema(minced meat),scrambled eggs with green chillies onions and tomato (akoori) or plain fruit jam , it delicious all the same.Each café puts up its own menu of the day but brun maska, mawa cakes and khari are  constant.

The bread making process  in Iran goes a long way back.Even before the  Iranis migrated to the city of dreams, bread making  in Iran was a traditional process; bread was prepared and baked at home in special ovens.The practice is still carried out in most villages.Each bakery specializes in a special kind of bread and they do not bake other kinds of bread simultaneously. Irani breads are of a wide variety. Barbari  made of white flour is thick and popular among the Turkish people . It is a specially type of leavened bread that seems to have been introduced in Iran fairly recently like the  European style bread. It  is  a long  narrow loaf about 2 to 3 ft long  inch thick and 2-3 ft long and 8-12” wide. It is separated before baking to give it an added crispness and is sprinkled with sesame seeds. It needs to be eaten soon after baking as it becomes stale quickly and is often used as breakfast bread.  La vash made of white flour is thin and several lavash are enough for one person, is of Armenian origin. Sangak is also thin but made from brown flour. It gets its name from the process of baking it on a bed of heated pebbles instead of the wall of the oven , which gives bread a very crisp and irregularly surfaced texture.

Barbari Bread

Image – Courtesy Iranian.com – Barbari bread

La Vash

Image -credit Wiki – La Vash Bread

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Image credit Wiki – La Vash bread stacks

Sangak wiki image 1 wid 2 people

Image credit Wiki – Sangak

Sangak_bakery

Image credit Wiki – Sangak goes into a hot oven

Taftoon or Taftun is made from white flour and is thin but oval in shape.Taftoon and La vash  are baked thin against the wall of the oven and differ primarily in the type of wheat (whole wheat or white) is used to make them.

La vash is very soft. In rural areas many families bake their own bread on a weekly basis and produce a hard La vash which is softened at the time of use by sprinkling a little water on it.

Naan In Iran is a kind of flat bread which is brought directly from the bakers who are called naanva i.e. a naan baker.

Acorn bread was made in ancient Iran. A small bread oven and the remains of acorns were discovered by archaeologists in Iran to conclude that ancient Iranis did bake bread using acorn flour, over 3000 years ago.The Ayapir cultural heritage team found almost 40 kinds of plants species at the ancient site of Izeh in Khuzestan Province, Iran , a dig carried out prior to the rising waters of the reservoir of Karun 3 dam.

To quote Hajir Kiani, the head of the team, “the acorns’ resistance to the elements made it an important foodstuff for the local people. Different parts of the oak tree such as fruits and leaves were used as food and medicinal purposes . The tools found in the mountains when compared to tools found in the present day nomads of the region prove that the baking method  has been almost the same for the past 3000 years.

The Bakhtiari nomads who currently live in the region grinding acorns with a grindstone, then put it inside a basket made of thin branches of the almond tree and put the basket in the stream for about a week. This helped to remove the bitter taste of the acorns.The acorns expand and gradually turn into dough within a week. The only thing to do is to pick up a handful of dough , knead it well and put it on the fire to bake”.

Religiously speaking, bread is treated with so much respect among the Iranians. Muslims are taught to avoid dropping bread on the floor or under feet or dumping it in a disrespectful place.Unused bread is used as feed for birds.

The type and quantity of bread found in the Iranian meals can to some extent be understood as an artifact of traditional dinning habits. During earlier times , the custom was to sit on the floor , a large cloth called sofrah would be spread out and the bowls and platters containing the various dishes put on it. Formerly, there were no plates and cutlery instead thin sheets of flat bread served as plates and for eating from utensils or for  scooping  up morsels of food. The art of fine dinning and etiquette was absent. It was only  under European influence ,use of tables and chairs forks and spoons became common especially in urban areas. These have been described in detail by European travelers who came to Iran.

Grain crops such as wheat and barley are well-suited for cultivation in the arable areas of the Iranian plateau and have been growing there since ancient times . Wheat was used to make a variety of breads that form part of the daily diet. In towns and cities , it is customary to buy bread freshly made from one of the many neighbourhood artisanal bakeries. That is why bakeries cook their bread three times a day, early morning, noon and in the evening . Scenes of crowded bakeries at this time is very common. Since most of the people come to buy bread at the same time, bakeries have long queues at rush hours and families prefer to send male members especially teenagers to buy bread.

 Iranian cafes and bakeries started by the Iranian immigrants in the 19th century  provided cheap food and good company in a leisurely setting.

After coming to India, the Irani bakeries modified their typical Irani bread to suit the taste buds of the Indians as well as specialize in a whole range of eats from garlic bread, shrewsberry biscuits, mawa cakes and to the bun maska and brun maska fare ( a bun or crusty bread sliced horizontally and generously slathered with butter dunked in paani kum chai (strong milky tea) which is usually eaten in the bakery itself  either standing near the entrance or some bakeries do provide for a small tea space where a few chairs and tables are laid . This is usually a quick fare which is satisfying and wholesome.Those cafes with ample  space provide full meals of  akoori on toast ,chicken/mutton patties, kheema pao, lagaan nu custard, falooda (chilled milk with rose syrup, vermicelli and basil seeds).

Honest to a fault the Iranis believe in offering good value for money but have lost ground in the bakery business due to the northerners taking over bakery business.Today the bread is baked elsewhere and through contract.The owners are totally dependent on the delivery.

Living near a Irani café,I  have had several opportunities to meet the owners and understand their problems and methods of survival. It has been a fascinating journey for them when they set out but a hard struggle now and yet they are popular. Often Sunday morning with its  special menu like kheema rice and mutton biryani, long queues are seen.Is this a sign of survival  if so how many more years. The second and third generation of owners certainly do not want to be behind counters.They want to explore the whole wide world  like their counterparts. Will they succeed or come right back into the business,one doesn’t know.

Interview with some Irani owners just might reveal  whats on their mind. So look out for the next read on the Irani cafes and their owners.

 Mrinal blogs at retro-reflections.