India’s Irani Chai

Irani, Chai, cup
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A century ago, Iranians migrated to India and set up cafes serving an Indo-Iranian blend of chai. But a sweet tradition is now fading away.

Given a choice between a tea with a past, and a tea with a brand, which would you choose?

In parts of Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad, the iconic Irani Chai retains a devout fan base. A sweet, milky concoction, it is served with chunky ‘Osmania’ biscuits. It normally comes for under 15 rupees a cup, far cheaper than tea in air-conditioned café chains. The milk is boiled for several hours before it is sweetened with condensed milk or mawa, and added to the tea decoction.

Irani, Chai, cafe, tea, hyderabad, osmania, biscuit, tradition, culture
Image: 7MB

Irani cafes emerged from the blend of Indian and Iranian cultures in the early 1800’s. Today, the blend of global cultures is fading them into oblivion. When many once lined the streets in Mumbai and Hyderabad, today more and more are shut down to make way for Metro projects and other developments.

The habit of drinking chai has undergone many changes in history. India had a sleepy tradition with tea, with some evidence of it in ancient times, followed by a long period of absence. In the early 1800s, tea plantations were introduced by the British to make the subcontinent a competitor to the Chinese tea industry. Adopted as an evening drink by the aristocratic class, it didn’t reach mainstream adoption until the 1900s, when the Tea Board began aggressive marketing campaigns to spread the practise of drinking tea.

Irani, Chai, cafe, tea, hyderabad, osmania, biscuit, tradition, culture
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Around that time, in the 1890s, Iranians migrated from the famine-struck Yazd province in Iran and sowed the seeds for a long legacy in the subcontinent. With Irani chai initially made without milk, the latter was added later to suit Indian tastes. Over the years, small vendors grew into strategically placed cafes – and Bombay’s Irani café culture was born.

Many Iranians travelled from Bombay to Pune and finally to Hyderabad, the Nizam’s city. Hyderabad soon became a hotspot of Persian culture. The Irani café was a place all could gather, meet and discuss – irrespective of caste, creed or religion. With a slower pace of life, it was the ideal location for a laidback experience.

At one time the city had hundreds of cafés. Today, their numbers are dwindling.

Part of the reason is that these cafes were family run business – and the younger generations now seek other lines of work. Many however are shut down to make way for newer shops.

Irani, Chai, cafe, tea, hyderabad, osmania, biscuit, tradition, culture
Image: 7MB

Tea itself is not going out of fashion anytime soon though – with a host of new start-ups emerging to appify the model, even as established players try to make the experience a premium one. As global brands make inroads into the Indian market, the $1.4 billion domestic tea market is expected to grow, while prices stay stable. Today, India is the second largest producer and fourth largest exporter of tea in the world.

Though Irani cafes form a tiny part of India’s domestic market, visiting them is an iconic experience. The appeal of Irani chai with quaint surroundings that reflect an older India, will never fade for those who grew with it. It remains a quintessential drink for the Indian on the go, or for the Indian who doesn’t want to go anywhere particularly soon.

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