In the 50s and 60s when Mumbai was still Bombay, teahouses were a large part of daily life. These shops, which numbered in the hundreds, were often run by Iranis, a group that had emigrated from Persia in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, the teahouses already had a worn colonial air, furnished with bent-cane chairs, high ceilings, giant blemished mirrors, and lazy ceiling fans, something like New York’s older French bistros. A place for friends to meet in advance of a movie or after a shopping spree, Irani cafes furnished Bombayites with a quick cup of chai and a plate of English biscuits long before the era of fast food. They also offered larger meals that constituted a mash up of Indian, Persian, English, and Portuguese influences.
Riding a wave of nostalgia, Irani cafes have recently re-emerged as a fad in other Indian cities like Delhi and Hyderabad, while a handful of much older establishments remain in Mumbai. Now, miraculously, one has appeared in Jersey City. It occupies the former Paratha Junction space on bustling Newark Avenue, the most important Indian shopping street in the metropolitan area. The color scheme is black and red; ladder-back chairs surround lacquered tables, and squarish sconces march along walls covered with cartoons and drawings. A window at shoulder height looks into a kitchen a half-floor higher, approached via a stunted stairway. Nevertheless, the place doesn’t go very far in evoking the décor of an Irani café back in India.
The place is run by a gentleman with the canine nickname of Fido; wearing a fez, he smiles down at you from the outside awning and will occasionally pop into the dining room in person to see how you’re enjoying your cup of chai. That Indian milk tea comes in four varieties. Irani chai ($3) is the signature, made with sweetened condensed milk and heavily scented with cardamom. It’s irresistible, if you like your tea thick and sugary. In the early 20th century, this version was reputedly sometimes doctored with opium, made possible by Persia’s primacy in the poppy trade. Fido’s Irani chai, alas, doesn’t contain any drugs.
Cutting chai is brewed with green tea, so strong it’s administered by the half cup. Regular chai is gingery, and comes with the sugar on the side. Made with the dried herb, mint chai also arrives unsweetened and has a slightly bitter aftertaste. To go with your chai, English-style biscuits made in India are available. Order Krackjack ($1.50) and receive, not boxed caramel corn with roasted peanuts, but a queue of cookies wrapped in gold foil, salty and sweet simultaneously. Other packaged cookies include Parle G (aimed at kids), buttery and grooved Good Day, and Chocolate Bourbon. ("My grandmother used to eat those," an Indian friend noted enthusiastically.)
Other Irani-style snacks might startle you. Brun maska ($1.50) is a round French roll with a perfect crust that arrives so drenched in melted butter it dribbles onto the plate. Bun masaka is more like a hamburger bun. The word "masaka" doesn’t refer directly to butter, though. It means something more like "buttered up," meaning that the sheer quantity of butter is supposed to flatter you. Brun omlette sides the French roll with a nice plate of veggie-dotted scrambled eggs, with raw onions and a couple of lime wedges on the side. It makes a splendid brunch if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
European-style bread is central to the cuisine of the Irani teashop.
Yes, European-style bread is central to the cuisine of the Irani teashop. Foremost among these is pav, an adaptation "pao," the Portuguese word for bread. Here it designates a squarish domed roll that's something like a Parker House. It has made its way into a legion of Indian snacks. Vada pav ($5) is a baseball-size potato fritter mounted on the tiny roll and looking like an elephant sitting on a bicycle. The same roll also accompanies curries in lieu of rice, including the vegetarian daal fry pav (a flavorful lentil stew), and salli boti pav (a chicken curry topped with crisp potato shreds). How you eat these things is up to you, but making curry sliders is not the worst approach.
Mutton dhansak is a curry characteristic of the Parsis — another Persian group that arrived in India several centuries earlier than the Iranis. Mixing lentils and meat in a dark gravy flavored with mint, yogurt, mixed pickle, and chiles, this curry develops a powerful and fruity pungency. It is served pav-style at Fidos. The most Persian dish of all is a pilaf: poultry concealed in a glossy mountain of rice topped with slivered almonds and dried berries (chicken pulao, $10). If there’s a "don’t miss" dish on the menu, this is it.
The bill of fare offers two further specialties not normally part of the Irani café canon. Fido seeks to introduce kathi rolls to the New York area; he’s about 10 years too late. Nevertheless, the paneer tikka (roasted fresh cheese) and sukha gosht (dry lamb curry) are particularly worthwhile. The menu also offers Indian pizzas with a conventional American crust and some wacky toppings, which are named after nuclear devices. The vegetarian atom bomb pizza ($10) explodes with fresh and dried chiles, in addition to various Western and Indian vegetables. Yes, it’s probably one of the hottest things you’ve even eaten. And you’ll probably discover that nothing but a mango lassi ($3) can put the nuclear fires out.
Cost: A snack consisting of a cup of chai and biscuits or buttered buns will cost less than $10 for two; a full meal with shared pilaf or curry and a pizza with mango lassis will cost around $30 for two, including tax but not tip.
Sample dishes: Brun masaka, mutton dhansak pav, Parsi berry pulao, hydrogen bomb pizza
What to drink: Irani chai, mango or salt lassi, and the fizzy Indian cola known as Thums Up.
Bonus tip: Always pick the bread called "brun," over the one called "bun," and expect it to arrive overbuttered — not a bad thing!