By Dr. Shernaz Baji Avari
Jamshedi Navroze is the New Year of the miniscule Irani community amongst Zoroastrian which flags off every year on 21st March. Dr. SHERNAZ BAJI AVARI pays tribute to the Iranis who have contributed much to the nation’s gastronomical delight and otherwise too in diverse fields
Dr. Shernaz Baji Avari
The Iranis that I know of and have had the privilege to interact with over a period of time, standout as a warm, generous, hard working and humorous community who delight in tinkling their glasses with the choicest liquor accompanied by the range of profanities as well! Their bun-muska-chai and khari biscuits, mawa cakes and pastries as well as some sumptuous food set our gastronomical fires burning, even as kheema pav and kaleji taste like an added bonus. Hardworking, mostly entrepreneurs with ancestral backing, they are quite famous for their distinguished career choices such as bakers, restaurateurs, wine shop owners, farmers owning huge ‘wadis’, florists and also advocates. Rarely do we find an Irani who is a banker or doing a desk job from 9 am to 5 pm.
‘Nomo Khodo’ is their signature word which is uttered on any good occasion but that’s what I thought. Young and dashing Fardeen Irani of Mickey Mehta’s Wellness Temple corrects me by saying that it is Namekhuda. It literally means the Name of God which is used to depicting something very beautiful or amazing and also a way to keep away the evil eye.
Today we find Iranis mostly in Maharashtra and more so in Mumbai. They are also scattered in some parts of Gujarat. While the word ‘Irani’ is used as a general surname, they majorly have surnames depending on their home town in Iran like Kermanis, Yazdani, Yazdagardi, Khosravi, Faroodi and Jafrabadi. Iranian men can be defined as tall, fair and handsome while the Iranian women have inherited rosy peaches-and-cream complexion in semblance to the Persian beauties and queens.
Let’s take a sneak peak into some prominent members of this miniscule community.
Canadian novelist Anosh Irani may not be that famous here in India but a lot of Iranis have displayed their talent in Bollywood as well as in many other fields. Aruna Irani sizzled on screen with her dancing abilities while Boman Irani started off with humble beginnings as a baker who later as a photographer switched over to acting in films and theatre. He has successfully made an impact on the viewers and is famous for his outstanding wit and humour. Daisy Irani, Bollywood child actress of the 50’s and 60’s made her mark in the yesteryears of cinema and continues to do so while her sister, Honey Irani is a succesful screen writer. Bakhtiar Irani and his wife Tanaz are popular TV actors while his sister,Delnaz Irani is also a famous TV actress. Sanaya Irani, an actress and model is also currently making a mark on the small screen. Ardeshir Irani was the Director of the first sound film Alam Ara while Faredoon Irani and Nariman Irani are popular cinematographers in Bollywood. F.K. Irani is an Industrialist and founder of Jawa.
Jamshed Khodadad Irani popularly known as Jenni Irani is a cricketer and Kaikhusru Irani a great philosopher. C. R. Irani, Indian journalist and Editor-in-chief of The Statesman was quite popular in his field. Dinshaw Irani stands out as a Zoroastrian leader who provided aid to the Zoroastrian community in Iran. Boman Irani, Chairman and Managing Director of Rustomjee having his Corporate office at Andheri (E) is an architect and builder of repute. His present projects are Rustomjee Seasons, Rustomjee Paramount & Rustomjee Elements. Go, grab your space before they are sold out lock, stock and barrel! Boman is married to another Irani, model and actress, the stunning Parizad Zorabian who too has her own farming business in poultry.
Meher Baba, a spiritual leader, born in Pune, to Irani parents Shireen and Sheriar Irani and a sibling Mani Irani has lakhs of devotees who worship him and rever his philosophical teachings.
Now let's have an insight into the world famous Irani cafes, bakeries and restaurants. Of the 400 Iranian cafes in Mumbai in 1950 only 30 remain, but the surviving ones enjoy a stronghold over the years. The Iranis in their cafes were the first to introduce a juke box so that the customers could come and enjoy music while sipping their tea leisurely and reading newspapers. The oblong mirrors adorning the walls of several cafes were installed to help the man at the counter to keep a watchful eye on each customer! Besides serving bun-maska-chai, khari biscuits and batasas, they progressed to serving breakfast and lunch dishes. So off we go to taste their ‘akoori’ an egg preparation quite like the ‘bhurji’ and kheema-pav, kababs and Persian items like the Berry Pulav, the signature dish of Britania & Co. with berries imported from Iran. Talking of Brittania & Co. Restaurant at Ballard Estate which is coming close to running effortlessly for almost a century and still going great guns in spite of its no-décor look, is mainly due to its evergreen vintage Proprietor Boman Kohinoor, who inspite of being a nonagenarian still actively comes to his restaurant daily along with his enterprising and hardworking sons Afshin and Romin. They serve Parsi dishes like Sali-boti, gravy cutlets, Patra-ni-Machhi (I am yet to taste such fresh and wholesome pomfrets). This is one delicacy cooked in banyan leaves but out here they serve in foil, which is equally a favorite of the Parsi-Iranis as well as other non-veg communities. Speaking of non-veg., rarely do we find an Irani who is a teetotaler and a veg! Jimmy Boy also in the vicinity of Horniman Circle, Fort, serves Parsi Lagan-nu-bhonu and is frequented by all communities. Infact, I have observed over the years that it is the non-Parsi gourmet who is more interested in savouring Parsi-Irani delicacies. Café Universal in Fort serves Parsi, Continental, Fast Food, North Indian and Chinese cuisine and is quite famous amongst the office crowds. Ideal Corner at Fort is the ideal corner for tasting delicious Parsi cuisine and is owned by Pervez Patel. Pervez tells us that his ancestors were all Iranis and that’s how he is in the business. Yazdani Bakery and Restaurant at Fort is more than 60 years old, owned by the Zend ancestors is the most sought after bakery for its fresh bread, pizza breads, cakes, pastries and chai-bun-maska. Different cakes are baked by them and displayed prominently in their showcase. They also have a blackboard at the entrance showcasing the day’s various delicacies. Merwan Zend Irani is the first owner of Yezdani Bakery. It is now run by his 2 sons, Z.M. Zend (now 80 and still takes part in Mumbai Marathon) and Pervez M. Irani. Pervez recalls an interesting tale very enthusiastically regarding the ‘Khara Parsi Statue’ at Nagpada, now shifted to Byculla, Fire brigade. He states that at Nagpada, it was at such a height that nobody could see or understand what was happening up there! But now at Byculla flyover, parallel to the Statue, one can see the Statue prominently while passing by. It is the only Statue where two prayer books of Zend Avesta are held. ‘Khara Parsi’ an unknown man was known as ‘bhai’ (not a don) as he was very helpful to one and all who came to seek his help. The name Byculla (instead of bhai-culla) is a tribute to this ‘bhai’ amongst the community. The Zends are also the owners of Peekay Wines close to Crawford Market which does booming business and sells liquor at discounted rates. The Parsi-Irani community, undoubtedly serves quality liquors at Navjotes and Weddings and most of them shop at Peekay Wines for their quota of liquor. Ideal Café at Chowpatty serves North Indian delicacies, Fast Food, Chinese and Parsi cuisine.
Café Military at Fort, with its old world charm, long mirrors depicting scenic beauty along with the typical Irani chairs and table-cloth serves Parsi, Moghlai food from breakfast to dinner. Kayani Bakery at Dhobi Talao opp. Metro is one of the oldest and famous bakeries which serves Parsi delicacies and pastries, bun-maska-chai included. Talking of Kayani, the one at Pune holds an iconic position in the history. Every one who visits Pune makes a trip to Kayani specially to have their signature biscuit – shrewsbury biscuits. Kayani bakery’s stuff are sold like hot cakes and very often you may come out disappointed if the stock is over. Such is the patronage they enjoy over the years. Shrewsbury biscuits are also sold by other bakeries but none can compare to the Pune bakery’s taste and quality. Café Excelsior at Fort, opp. Excelsior Theatre is one of the oldest restaurants in the vicinity, owned by Adi Mazkori. This restaurant is a must visit if you are in the vicinity of Fort or are seeing a movie at Excelsior or Sterling Cineplex. Adi Mazkori’s generosity has to be seen to be believed. Try out their Parsi cuisine, Fast Food, Chicken pattice (my favourite) and kheema-pav. Tell them to wrap up the kheema in Rotis and you are sure to ask for more and more! They also serve North Indian, Lebanese (do try their Shorba) and Chinese cuisine.
Sassanian at Marine Lines, opposite the mosque at the centre, is also one of the oldest restaurants andis frequented by their faithful patronage for their cakes, pastries, amazing desserts and have now branched out to serve Parsi cuisine and fast food including sizzlers. Paris Bakery at Dhobi Talao is very famous for its biscuits, cakes, khari, batassa et al. The items are fresh and tasty and never compromise on the quality. If any customer inquires about the price of a product like batasas or biscuits, owner Danesh Nejadkaj offers them a sample and lo and behold they are hooked and booked to that product, hook,line and sinker! My aunt’s favorite is still the packet of batasa from Paris bakery though she stays way out at Dadar!
Rashid Irani, English Film critic and owner of the now extinct Brabourne Restaurant at Girgaum shut its doors in 2008. The same holds true for Bastani opposite Kayani at Dhobi Talao which is also non-operative for the last many years and now we hear that B. Merwan opp. Grant Road station is also going to shut shop or may have already as the whole building is sold off. As a child going to the nearby Girton High School, I had the privilege of savouring their mawa cakes for 4 annas! The taste still lingers in my mouth. Talking of genuine mawa cakes which I adore, the oblong shaped ones you get at Spenta Bakery at Bora Bazar, Fort, owned by Cyrus Irani, married to my late cousine Pervin’s daughter Delna, is still my personal favourite and for Rs.15/- a piece it’s a steal! They also serve other types of cakes, biscuits, veg.pizzas and veg. sandwiches. You can order birthday cakes from them and I am sure you will not be disappointed.
Not to be left behind is Dr. Mansoor Yezdi, a very amicable gentleman by nature and temperament has brought the Irani-chai into the forefront once again. Basically, he is a documentary film maker who has traced the journey of the Irani chaiwallas from Persia, since his great grandfather was also from Iran. This film is a gift to the Mumbaikars. Yezdi has taken a 370 sq.ft. space at Rosary Chawl, Mahim (W) and introduced it as Mumbai’s first Irani Café in 5 decades and has given an authentic look by hunting for furniture and décor to give the cafe an authentic ambiance. For this, he had to search every nook and corner of Chor Bazar. It took him a year to find the right décor for this 32 seater café. There are ceramic kettles, tiles with Persian inscription and the famed ‘samovar’ (a tea urn) were imported from Iran. A film-maker by profession, a chai-walla at heart! His ancestors have been in the café business since 1890 when his father owned Light of Mahim at Cadell Road which was later sold by his partner in 1980. He has painstakingly and devotedly made a documentary on the Irani Café Culture of Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad, which is worth viewing. WIBS fresh bread is very popular which is owned by Khodadad P. Irani. Dara Irani and his brother are famous advocates in Pune. Armand Aga of Armayesh Global is excellent in embroidery. Mr. Shahzad owns Café New York at Hughes Road which is a very popular joint. There are many more in Amchi Mumbai but due tospace constraints, I have to sign off.
Jamshedi Navroze 1395 in 2016 flags off in Mumbai at 10 am, on 20th March in Tehran, at 8 am in Toronto, at 12.30 am in Sydney, at 3.30 pm in Perth, at 12.30 pm in Auckland, at 5.30 pm, in Bangkok, at 11.30 am in Singapore, at 12.30 pm in Seattle which will be on 19th March. Today Navroze festival is celebrated at many places across the globe and the United Nations has declared it as a National Holiday some years back.
Let’s make a toast to the Irani culture and community, their chota ‘pegs’ and mota always on par with their food intake. Jolly and humourous, they can be the life of a party and have proved to be the most generous and hardworking community this side of the globe.
This Jamshedi Navroze is represented by the brown monkey! The monkey is a vegetarian with the fastest agility and mobility and may we all enjoy the same. But be aware as the monkey is also shrewd and can steal things away in a blink before you can think or wink if you are not careful. So be aware of thieves and emotional thieves as well!
JAMSHEDI NAVROZE MUBARAK to all Parsis and Iranis. May their tribe increase which is the need of the hour.