Gone are the times when people would spend hours discussing politics, sipping tea from ceramic cups inside the rusty Irani cafes in Hyderabad. Gone are the times when students flocked to the cafes to play their favourite songs from the jukebox, and spend the entire evening, splitting a cup of tea into two. Gone are the times when workers, intellectuals, students and political thinkers shaped the cultural discourse of a city inside tiny concrete roofs that sold nothing but a humble concoction of milk and tea leaves.
As coffee shops and modern-day-cafes are increasingly making a mark in the city’s culinary map, Irani cafes are taking a step back and slowly fading into oblivion. The cafes, which once teemed with people from all walks of life, now have people taking a quick break from work, sipping tea while scrolling past their social media feeds.
At Niloufer Cafe, one of Hyderabad’s few existing Irani joints, the crowd begins to swell after 4 pm with cup after cup of Irani chai passed over the counter in a jiffy. People hurriedly gulp down the tea, and leave the cafe nibbling at an Osmania biscuit.
But, as a true connoisseur will say, you are doing a big disservice to the chai if you do not pour out a portion of the beverage to the saucer, and slurp it up. Needless to mention the crunchy onion samosas, coconut biscuits or the bun maskas, which the waiter serves on dull stainless steel plates. Mourning over the dead and struggling Irani joints in the city, Babu Rao, the owner of Niloufer, tells TNM how the changing landscape has left people with very little to spend on the cafes.
“How many do you see here truly enjoying their tea? If you ask me, none. Irani cafes once were spots were people relaxed. Now after the IT boom, though there isn’t a fall in people coming to the cafes, Irani joints are no longer the addas that had Hyderabad in all its diversity,” Babu Rao says.
From the Garden Cafe at Secunderabad to Alpha and Sarvi Cafe in Banjara Hills, the original Irani joints, unlike their modern coffee-selling counterparts, were totally unpretentious. With rickety tables and wooden chairs spread on mosaic floors, the waiters were never in a hurry to impress customers. There was Nihari and Paaya and most importantly tea, which was sold from 5 in the morning till 12 midnight.
Though the cafes now sell tea throughout the day, the lazy ambience in the joint has been replaced with customers meaning business, with no time to chit chat with each other.
The origin of Irani joints
The Irani chai was popularised in Hyderabad by Irani businessmen who settled in the city, and had close connections with the nizam. Chai was already a favourite beverage of Hyderabadis, but none caught the taste-buds of the city’s population like the Irani chai did.
“Tea was first brought to Hyderabad by the English tea companies which gave free tea samples to people. I remember my grandfather talking about how Lipton and Brooke Bond, as part of their marketing in India, used to serve tea to everyone for free. Within no time, tea became an addiction and people started to come out of their houses by 4 pm every day to have their afternoon chai,” Sajjad Sajid, co-founder of Forum for Better Hyderabad and a history buff, tells TNM.
Also popular at the same time was Ghawa, a drink which was brought to the city by the Arabs.
“But Ghawa, which was sweet and milky, did not attract the Hyderabadi’s taste-buds. Instead, the owners of the present day Madina Hotel (who were from Iran), introduced a new mix of tea leaves and milk which was prepared in huge tandas (pots). The milk was boiled separately and added to a strong concoction of tea leaves and water. The recipe spread to other Deccani cafes too, and Irani chai became the ubiquitous beverage in Hyderabad,” Sajid narrates.
However, it was a long time before the Irani joints became a regular adda spot for anyone from the city.
“Families, during the nizam era, hardly visited any hotels. Eating out was not then part of the Hyderabadi culture. This changed when students, who went to European countries for higher studies, returned to the city and found the Irani cafes an apt spot to spend some time sipping tea and lighting a cigarette. Over time, students, intellectuals, activists- all made the Irani cafe their hangout place. The cafes also had Urdu newspapers. The elders would scan the paper in the morning and the lazier younger generation would read them in the evening,” Sajid says.
Ek pauna, do biskoot
Doreen Hassan, in her book Saffron and Pearls, recalls the sharp memory of a manager at an Irani joint and talks about how bills were never a thing at these cafes. A customer would shout ‘Ek pauna, do biskoot,’ and the waiter would place before him a cup of tea and two biscuits.
“The manager, seated at the door which served as both entrance and exit, would of course know precisely which customer should be charged for it. There were no bills, no frills. The server’s memory was all. Try walking out without paying the bill, the server would only shout louder and more forcefully – ‘Ek pauna, do biskoot!’ Everyone paid,” Hassan writes in her book.
However, things have changed today. Though the cafes still do not print a bill, the tea cups are no longer called Ek Pauna, and the joints sell much more than just tea and snacks. Many of the cafes were razed as part of road widening, the most recent one being the Garden Cafe which was demolished as part of the metro rail construction.
Speaking to TNM, Mohammed Farookh Jaleel, owner of Grand Hotel, one of the longest standing Irani cafes in the city, shares how delicacies in Irani cafes have changed in taste over time.
“Along with tea, Iranian cafes used to serve qubani-ka-meetha, double-ka-meetha, pasindi, which of course none of the cafes serve any longer. As more immigrants started coming to the city, it prompted a major food revolution. Today, certain joints even serve biryani and haleem to sustain. But even the biryani that restaurants serve is just some version of the Hyderabadi biryani, which was originally considered a light meal with the flavour of zaffran (saffron),” Jaleel frets.
Babu Rao at Niloufer says that it has also become difficult to find labour to work in the Irani joints as most of them want to work in new, plush hotels. “Most of the workers I have are people who have been working with me since the past 20 years. We have opened a new cafe at Banjara Hills, but do not expect it to be anything like an Irani joint,” Rao shares.
However, what Sajjad Sajid considers a true loss at the Irani cafes are the jukeboxes. “The cafes had records which the manager played on request. Some places had jukeboxes which were self-operative. The Urdu and Hindi songs and the hundred evenings spent there, the last of our Irani cafes are truly to be cherished,” Sajid adds wistfully.