Maska-Pav and a slice of history

Sep 25, 2011, 09:25 IST | Anjana Vaswani

Alliance Francaise has roped in noted film critic Rafique Baghdadi to lead a trail through some of the city's Irani restaurants. Sign up to find out what drives old Iranian men to roll open shutters at 5 am every day

Alliance Francaise has roped in noted film critic Rafique Baghdadi to lead a trail through some of the city's Irani restaurants. Sign up to find out what drives old Iranian men to roll open shutters at 5 am every day

Forty-eight countries now participate in Europe Heritage Day, a cultural phenomenon that started in 1984, when Jack Lang, France's Minister of Culture recognised how crucial it was to preserve not just castles and cathedrals, but ordinary constructions like shops, cemeteries and cinemas too. The aim was to bring the public closer to any building that had historic significance.

Ask Rafique Baghdadi about the historic relevance of the city's Irani restaurants, and you'd best get comfortable with your Brun Pav and chai, because it's a subject he knows like the back of his hand.

Cafe Military, Fort; Rafique Baghdadi (in picture) great for: Keema Pav

Saddened by the rapidly disappearing relics of our heritage, Baghdadi talks animatedly about their German-design chairs and juke boxes, the freedom-fighters and, much later, the actors and young lovers who'd meet at what, at the time, were the city's only public dining spaces.

Britannia & Co, Ballard Estate, SS Ram Gulam Marg great for: Berry Pulao

"In his poem, Don't Worry Darling, We Have a Legend and a History, Darius Cooper (poet and professor of critical thinking, humanities, and film in the Department of English at San Diego Mesa College) has mentioned the family rooms of Irani restaurants," Baghdadi smiles. "Those were the only places you could take your girlfriend to back in the '80s."

The well-known film critic highlights that each Irani restaurant had its own character and identity, offering, by way of example, the blackboard that used to stand at the entrance of Bastani cafe in Dhobi Talao, which inspired Nissim Ezekiel's 1982 poem, Irani Restaurant Instructions. "Do not spit, Do not sit more, Pay promptly, time is valuable," Baghdadi remembers the lines, telling us that the original board carried instructions like, "Don't use the telephone and don't talk politics."

At some Irani restaurants, even today, you see glorious nostalgia-laced sceneries painted on glass. "They are the restaurant owner's perception of what we call 'firdaus' in Urdu... paradise."

Apart from stopping by for Irani chai, which, Baghdadi asserts, "spoils all other varieties of tea for you," Irani restaurants were also where you'd read the newspaper. Diners would share one newspaper, so one section would be with one visitor, while another would lie at the next table. "They'd also gamble on the cotton figures that would be published," Baghdadi reveals.

"In the '50s, people would stop by to listen to popular radio shows like Geet Mala." By playing radio shows and introducing juke boxes, Baghdadi feels, Irani restaurants contributed to the development of a cultural fondness for music. It's not surprising, therefore, that these distinctive eateries have featured in numerous Indian films.

Kyani & Co. in Dhobi Talao, which will be Baghdadi's first stop on the upcoming trail, has been featured in several films. Like his ancestors did before him, Aflatoon Shokriye, who currently runs the landmark eatery since 1904, still lifts the shutters at 5 am each day and, Baghdadi adds, "The Khari biscuits and Mawa cakes are of the highest quality after all these years." In fact, regulars know the exact time at which a hit food item will be brought in fresh from the bakery.

Baghdadi's next stop is Fort's Cafe Military, an Irani restaurant frequented by stock brokers and lawyers who work in the vicinity. It has been around since 1933, and Keema Pav is its speciality. "This is one of the few Iranian eateries that still wears the traditional look," Baghdadi points out, sharing that it was a favourite haunt of late Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar who was spotted here almost every Thursday.

Baghdadi's troupe will have the pleasure of sampling Britannia & Co's legendary Berry Pulao. Established in 1922 in a building that was constructed by the famous George Whitter in 1920 in Ballard Estate, the place is still run by 96 ear-old Boman Kohinoor and his sons.

Baghdadi remembers Kohinoor's late wife who would prepare a special Samundari Khazana dish once a year. "Of course, the place is best known for its Berry Pulao, Salli Boti and Bombay Duck, but back then, the seafood recipe was a dish worth waiting for," says Baghdadi.

While the trail leaves out Dhobi Talao's Sassanian and Grant Road's B Merwan & Co., Baghdadi promises to share stories of what makes these institutions iconic. To register for the trail that's scheduled for September 28, call Alliance Francaise at 22035993 or 22036187

Poetry and the Irani cafe
Nissim Ezekiel's 1982 poem that was inspired by the board outside Bastani cafe:
Do not spit
Do not sit more
Pay promptly, time is valuable
Do not write letter
without order refreshment
Do not comb,
hair is spoiling floor
Do not make mischiefs in cabin
our waiter is reporting
Come again
All are welcome whatever cast
If not satisfied tell us
otherwise tell others
God is great

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