Irani chai, bun maska, broon and kheema, and bun omelette. I sit and stare into nowhere, just soaking it all in. The sunlight streaming in highlights the dust in the air. There are a few flies about, and the marble-topped tables have been scarred by lovers. The formaica ones have been wiped thin. Cheap stainless steel cutlery and coarse china cups and plates are de rigeur. The waiter has the clichéd checked duster over his shoulder, and the owner-manager picks his nose contentedly.
Each one is the same. The chai is thick and sweet, and you either hate it or love it from the first time you take a sip. The omelettes are fluffy, and the pau, lusciously soft. And they’re all elegantly named; Metro, Café
But what really draws me to these joints, apart from the delicacies on the menu, are the signs on the walls. Intriguing at times, sometimes plain silly, they contribute to the ambience. I make my way to the ‘wash besan’ and am greeted by a ‘do not comb’. But I’m bald, so I take it personally. I get back to my table. The facility holds more chairs and tables than seems feasible, but the waiter traipses from table, to kitchen window and back, threading his way with a delicacy that would confound a ballerina.
I turn my attention back to the signs. ‘Do not gamble’, ‘consuming of alcohol is prohibited in the ristorant premisses. – By order’. ‘Only one cup tea will not be served to two persons.’ Fair enough, you don’t want a cheapskate bunch blocking a table.
Then I get back to the menu. All irani café owners have realised that in addition to the traditional fare they serve, ‘Indian snaks’ should be on the menu. So we get sada dosa, masala dosa, cheese sada dosa, cheese masala dosa, onion uttapam, tomato uttapam, onion tomato uttapam, onion tomato cheese uttapam…you get the drift. And there are permutations and combinations for everything. You take a base, which is a dosa say, and pick and choose your toppings. Best of all, you’ll already find it printed on the menu, coz somebody already thought of it. They need to sort out the prices, you see. But how the ‘ghee mysore rava masala dosa’ costs 23 rupees to the ‘paper butter sada dosa’s’ 24 rupees is beyond me.
Then I turn to ‘Eggs’. Aha. There’s omlet, masala omlet, cheese omlet, masala cheese omlet, and all are available as either ‘single’ or ‘double’ – one or two eggs, that is. Best of all, there’s a ‘bred omlet’. The cook made one daddy omelette and one mummy omelette and they keep having baby omelettes. Clever.
But while irani cafes might be fading away, they will never truly die. They live in the hearts, and stomachs, of millions of people. Student, blue collar, white collar, tout, tourist, film star and flunky, lover, and loser, have all dined, and I say dined, at these joints. You walk out heavier, and your wallet not much lighter, and revel in the delight of tasty, cheap meal. I feel a burp coming on, bred by an omelette!