There is a side to the twin cities that few tourists venture to see, but most locals guard zealously, preserving a piece of history that has its own fan following: the simple Irani chai, served in Irani cafes, the sweet tea served in tiny cups.
The 17-km stretch between Shah Ali Banda in the Old City and the Clock Tower on SD Road in Secunderabad is home to 29 such Irani cafes, all serving their own version of the hot beverage that was first made popular in India by the British. These cafes may be bravely facing the onslaught by the Baristas and Cafe Coffee Days that have mushroomed at every corner today, but they still are a part of the city’s wallpaper, married to its population and culture.
A tour of the city’s Irani cafes, in a quest to savour the famous Irani chai, could begin at the Shah Ghouse Restaurant at Shah Ali Banda. A few paces along, near the calm courtyards of the Mecca Masjid is the Farasha Irani Cafe, and tucked away in a corner of Machli Kaman is the Shahrah Cafe.
And opposite the large white domed Afzalgunj Masjid, a little further on, is the New Grand Hotel. “My ancestors came from Yazd in Iran on a ship and reached the port city of Bombay,” says Jaleel Farrokhroz, the proprietor of New Grand Hotel. “From there they moved to Pune, and later set foot in Hyderabad,” he adds. Farrokhroz claims that the New Grand Hotel was the first Irani cafe in the twin cities and was established in 1936. “Hyderabadis love all things sweet, rich and fattening,” he smiles. “It is a part of Hyderabadi culture,” he says, adding that there is no substitute for Irani chai, which refreshes the weary and energises the weak.
According to Farrokhroz, tea in Iran was made with tea leaves and water and contained no milk. A large granule of sugar was tucked behind the cheek, and tea was enjoyed in small sips. The new settlers from Persia, he claims, realised that they needed to add something native in their new homeland. And so, milk and sugar were added to the original recipe and Irani chai as we know it today, came to be born.
But leave the Old City behind, paying heed to the changing landscape that moves from tiny momand-pop stores to large supermarkets and Hellenic named apartment blocks. Arrive in the swankier Banjara Hills, Road no. 11, and opposite Care Hospital, and come upon another Irani oasis in the form of Sarvi Cafe. One of the more modern Irani cafes, it is a far cry from the old signature wooden chairs and tables, with its yellow tiles and new furniture. This cafe houses a bakery and a take-away counter, catering to those always on the run.
“Sarvi in Farsi means greenery,” says Mirza Ali Sarvi, proprieter of the Sarvi cafe. “We started 25 years ago and have three branches.” He ponders for a few moments as if to align his thoughts and continues, “The best thing about Irani chai is that it is within the reach of the common man.”
The British, he adds, were fastidious in their management of tea estates, raising the bar on its quality every year. He rues the changes from then, saying that the quality of tea dust and milk have both deteriorated. Add to that the craze for skimmed and low fat milk by the younger generation, who also dislike malai, and this changed the original rich taste of the chai.
But back to the quest for the favourite Irani café haunts, and after negotiating the tricky traffic from Cafe Sarvi and arrive in the 200-year-old city of Secunderabad. Near the Clock Tower on Sarojini Devi Road is Garden Restaurant. “Iranian migrants chose Hyderabad as their home because both Urdu and Farsi were the lingua franca,” informs Kazim Khorrami, who established Garden Restaurant in 1952.
Irani chai, he says “is very different from the tea you get in Udipi restaurants and darshinis. Udipis add 3-4 litres of water to every litre of milk. They pour milk, water, tea powder and sugar in the same vessel and as soon as the colour changes they take it off the stove. They don’t let the tea brew,” he explains.
A characteristic of the old Irani cafes is their charm. The owners, the murmur of the old and the young customers, the rustle of newspapers, the lack of fancy decor and the old but serviceable wooden furniture, and tea cups on every table. For some, this atmosphere is soothing and comforting, reminiscent of times spent relaxed. Mujtaba Hosayn, a 24-year-old avid tea drinker from Malakpet says, after a long day at work, the only way to calm my mind is by drinking a cup of Irani chai.”
- It takes 5 litres of boiled milk, 6 litres of water, 300-400 grams of tea dust and 1.3 kgs of sugar to make 100 cups of 90 ml each. Tea dust and sugar are added to the water, and boiled for twenty minutes, forming a decoction
- This decoction is filtered into another container to remove traces of the tea dust
- Milk is boiled separately for 45 minutes in a samovar — a copper container with a spigot at the bottom. After it reaches boiling point, the milk is left to simmer further for 2 hours, till it condenses and is rid of its water content for the most part
- A cup of Irani chai is made of equal parts of the condensed milk and the decoction
- Sugar is not added to the milk while condensing as it caramelises, changing both texture and taste
Enjoy the tea Hyderabadi style and lift up your spirits!!!