Mumbai's romance with Irani cafes and bun maska is fading away

Mumbai May 29, 2020, 02.26 PM(IST) Written By: Ishan Choudhary

Bun Maska Photograph:( DNA )

Story highlights

The bun maska, though humble, is a culinary icon which is an integral part of the old city's food culture.

One of the fondest memories of my childhood were the early morning inter-school cricket matches at Mumbai's iconic Cross Maidan. This venue was special for me as a budding cricketer because the square boundaries were short on either side and it was a batsman's paradise. It would generally mean that if the wicket was good, any team batting first would pile on the runs. But piling on all those runs meant that one would need to fill up the old gas tank to its capacity. In maidan cricket lingo, the gas tank would refer to one’s tummy. Fortunately, the Khau Galli, Mumbai's very own eat street, was right next to the ground.

I distinctly remember this old man who would place a humble wooden table and sell nothing but soft buns sandwiched with fresh butter and jam. As I passed the entrance of the maidan, where he would usually set up his stall, a smile from him was like an entry ticket on the field, without which my day would be incomplete. His routine while setting up his bun maska stall, was much like a batsman prepping himself mentally to go out in the middle to fend off a spell of hostile fast bowling. A tall lanky figure, he would walk briskly with a spring in his step, which hid his age, otherwise clearly visible in the wrinkles on his face. He would take out his foldable wooden stool, which looked like it would give away any moment. But perhaps it had carried the weight of this man’s life and livelihood for a long time. Then he would reach into his huge cloth bag, and out came the freshly baked buns!

BUn Maska

At times, the batsman batting nearest to his stall would get distracted at the aroma of the freshly baked bread, which mingled well with the moist maidan essence. And then like a skillful batsman negotiating a battery of pace bowling, the man would use his butter knife with precision, to create a work of culinary art – perfectly sliced buns with the right amount of Amul butter and some jam. Not too little, not too much! For only five rupees, any batsman eating the bun maska, could lead the charge against the opposition till the lunch break.

The bun maska, though humble, is a culinary icon which is an integral part of the old city's food culture. A piping hot cutting chai and a bun maska to start the day is a routine without which many Mumbaikars would have a restless day, almost as if something was missing. One can easily find small tables set up outside most Mumbai railway stations selling the bun maska for a humble sum. But none of these have the character and grace of the bun maska that you get at the city's traditional Irani cafes. The aroma of freshly baked buns with melting butter and the Irani chai was enough is enough to kick start the day on an optimistic note. A good Irani chai can actually make your worries disappear and an unassumingly sumptuous bun maska with it is just the push one needs to get the day going.

Mumbai's romance with Irani cafes goes back to the 19th century when Zoroastrian immigrants from Central Asia opened up bakeries and cafes, marking the start of a never-ending romance with Mumbaikars. There were around 200 notable Irani cafes across Mumbai in the 50s, and now only a handful remain. Breathing their last, these colonial joints known for their unique bun maska, kheema pav, mutton samosas, pastries and other mouth-watering delicacies were the talk of the town. One such Irani joint was Grant Road's B Merwan & Sons. Their mawa cakes are to die for. I remember my father getting up as early as six in the morning during summer vacations to make sure that he got to the bakery all the way from Kandivli so that he could manage to get me fresh cakes by the time I was up.

Cafe

The term 'to sell like hot cakes' would perhaps have started from the Merwan bakery because those cakes with their soft spongy interior and christmasy cardamom after taste would sell out by nine. One can still grab a chai and mawa cake or a mutton puff at the bakery, but the glory days have been over for a long time. The hustle and bustle of the 20th century that gave these Irani joints its identity is long lost in today's coffee shop culture. Simplicity, perhaps, has no takers. I still pass the bakery whenever I am in the old city and one glimpse of it's crumbling pre-independence architecture still woos me. The Victorian-style carvings at the entrance, the century-old wooden gates are still a tease. The typical 60s advertising with posters on the bakery's exterior and the large font announcing the menu are all there, but it's not the same anymore. Something seems a miss


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) . 

Ishan Choudhary

The writer is a former journalist based in Mumbai. He now works as a communications professional while attempting to tell untold stories of his beloved city