The history of and influences behind modern-day Irani cafe culture has been a subject of interest for me since I had my first cup of Irani chai at 17. It’s therefore likely that this post will be more of a history lesson than a review, and it is with this caveat that I proceed.
Bombay’s small but significant Parsi community descend from the thousands of Zoroastrians who fled war-torn Persia centuries back to India, where they were given the freedom to practice their faith and manage their businesses- helping them maintain their Iranian identity, with a touch of Indian soul.
Certain sub-communities went on to set up little tea shops, that became a sanctuary for Parsis to flock to after a long day of work for a chat about their former homeland and their experiences in the relatively new India, supported with a cup (or two) of strong Irani tea.
Needless to say, these quirky cafes drew in huge crowds in due course- with many willing to embrace the offerings of a culture completely alien to them while a few others visited for a touch of familiarity and connect to home long lost.
To this day, Irani cafes are one of the most enduring and loved contributions by the Parsi community to Bombay’s masses and a visit even now brings about an air of nostalgia because of how comfortably dated they have remained despite the ever changing landscape and dynamic of the city around them.
Koolar and Co is almost an oddity when compared to its South Indian restaurateur neighbours occupying the densely populated streets of Matunga. What’s even more contrasting is the quiet calm of the cafe when juxtaposed against the loud, teeming families and fussy children tucking into dosas and sambhar mere metres away.
The ambience bears all the studied similarities of Irani cafes all over the city- high ceilings, multiple doorways, checkered tablecloths, rickety wooden chairs and vintage advertisements plastered over the walls et al.
We quickly called for a few favourites and settled down to munch on our food while watching the world go by- well, at least the miniscule slice of it in and around the imposing King’s Circle in front of us.
It is sacrilege to go here and NOT order their chai and bun maska. The soft buns are slathered with salted Amul butter and are the ideal counterpart to their sweet, milky tea.
I prefer the black Irani chai to their more milky variants. Strong and steaming hot, a little squeeze of lime and dash of sugar is all this needs. Best paired with the brun maska (A more crusty version of the bun maska), the tea softens the bun ever so slightly and adds a touch of sweetness while the brun adds a latent buttery undertone to your next sip of tea. Heaven.
The Keema Fry is simple and heroes the fresh, slightly fatty mutton mince in it till the very last bite. Tomatoey and more mildly spiced than you’d expect, these are perfect spooned onto their fresh pav with a little lemon and some raw onion (all served alongside).
But the dish that really stole our hearts during our visit was their Chicken Cutlet. These are not the weakling cutlets you may be acquainted with, masking meat with oodles of mashed potato and spices. Each perfectly breaded and freshly fried cutlet is filled to the brim with juicy, well seasoned chicken mince with a slight kick of heat. Mind meltingly good, and a dish I’m afraid I could keep eating and never tire of.
Our little mid-meal ended with us leaving all smiles- clearly indicative of our happy wallets and happier tummies.
Koolar and Co encapsulates the very essence of Irani cafe culture that this city has come to know and love. And here’s hoping they continue to serve up some delicious Parsi fare with a side of fond reminiscence for anyone who pays them a visit.