As far as Irani restaurants go, Hyderabad is second only to Bombay in their numbers and popularity, and is as peculiar to the city as its kaiko and parson lingo. Bombay, is of course the home of all Irani restaurants, the first Iranians having migrated to Bombay, and only later some of the families moving into Hyderabad. The Irani chai of Hyderabad is famous the world over (how many computer engineers in the USA, thirst for this sweet tea from the Deccan even today). But by establishing these restaurants, the Iranis were only popularising a beverage brought into the country by the British. Parisian cafes may have been the intellectual hub where Sartre while sipping coffee mused over existentialism, but Irani cafes in Hyderabad are no less. Marxism, Malraux and Madhuri Dixit have all been dissected and demolished here, never mind, if the frequenters all went on to IIM (A and C), and cushy jobs as merchant bankers after that.Last time, a jobless junkie from Hyderabad was surveying the number of Irani restaurants. He had counted at least a thousand of them in the twin cities, but he abandoned the project when he went away to America on a scholarship.
Whatever the number, each one has his favourite though minor battles that have been fought over the relative merits of chai served in Madina as against Garden. All Irani restaurants have their peculiarities. Girls rarely visit them, there is no music, and always a broken cup for tea, and steel tumblers for water. The chai is always sweetish and for some reason, only Assam tea leaves are used. To get people addicted to the tea served here, something called Hafim tea with opium seeds was served in the beginning of the Irani era (around 1940s) but it is no longer available now.
For an outsider interested in getting a slice of the Hyderabadi way of life including the God-alone-knows-which-engine-oil-its-cooked-in Hyderabadi Biryani, Madina near Charminar, is one of the oldest and best examples. It was opened in 1947, and was situated on the premises of the Alladin Wakf. At one time, when Hyderabad was richer than Saudi Arabia (the oil still not having been discovered there), the proceeds used to go to Saudi to help poor Muslims there!
Ramzan Ali Jouker who runs the restaurant, and is the son of one of the original founders, says with pride in his voice, “Many people including advocates from the High Court come… especially for the Biryani. We have a hall called the Advocates dining hall. The hotel still has on prominent display a photo of Osman Ali Khan, the Seventh Nizam of Hyderabad.
Another old timer is Haji Darvez, who now runs a chain of Irani hotels in the city including, Cosmopolitan in Narayanguda and Olympia in Abids. Like many Irani hoteliers his father did not come from Iran to Hyderabad but came from Bombay where he opened a restaurant in 1920.
“Irani hotels are not just what they used to be. At one time, no one was allowed to even touch the food which was being prepared in the kitchen except the ustad, the expert cook. And usually the owners took what was left of the food, says Haji, an architect who has spent some time even in America.
Haji remarks that originally all Irani restaurants in Hyderabad used to have their own bakeries attached to them that produced those wonderful specialities which are still popular like the famous Osmania biscuits, so named after the Nizam, Osman Ali Pasha or the tie biscuits, literally so called because they are in the shape of bow tie, fine biscuits large and flat and studded with sugar, and of course, the ever popular, chotte samosa, the basic filling of which is made of onions.
“Now most of these items are supplied from outside, and Irani hotels no longer have their own bakeries,” laments Haji. Another old cafe is the Bombay Bakery at Gunfoundry which has the distinction of being patronised by the likes of the painter, M F Husain and actor, Suresh Oberoi. “Our tandoori rotis are famous all over the city. The Iranian Consulate often places orders for them from us. In fact our traditional Irani breakfast of paneer and roti is in great demand, says Mirza Ali, a second generation hotelier.
The place to go for a good Hyderabad Biryani is Shadab opposite Madina. Shadab is one of those Irani restaurants, like Paradise, which has opened a fancy new restaurant above the original hotel where you can dine in air-conditioned comfort. But for this you have to forego the heat and ambience of Irani cafe (an amateur astrologer predicting the future and always the hum of conversation at the back).One Irani hotel that has retained its original interiors is Grand in Abids, with mirrors on the walls, woodwork and traditional furniture. For a large bustling hotel there is Garden in Secunderabad which probably sells more tea than any other hotel in the twin cities, or Embassy which occupies a strategic location on the Basheerbagh crossing or Alpha in Secunderabad opened in 1950.
Apart from the original Irani restaurant there are the Deccani hotels which are similar in every way to the Iranis, but for the fact they have been started by local Hyderabadis. One such cafe is the Rainbow on Abids, started 20 years ago. Of this restaurant, Mohammad Yousuf one of the owners says, “Ours is the only hotel outside the Old City which serves haleem, a traditional Hyderabadi dish made of ground wheat and mutton, throughout the year, and not just during Ramzan when it is traditionally eaten. Haleem takes at least three hours to prepare. We start making it around 11 a m and its almost 2 p m before its ready.” Like many things that are vanishing in Hyderabad, the Irani hotels too are being demolished or their place taken by new style of C grade restaurants which have tiled or marble floors and dining style long benches, instead of the old cane chairs called, obscurely for some reason, “welcome chairs, ” probably as a tribute to the easy and laid back pace of life that Hyderabad was once famous for.
But those were the balmy days of growing up in Hyderabad, when unlike the young of today you didnt have to rush from computer to Eamcet to GRE classes, and you had all the time in the world to brood over the meaning of life in an Irani restaurant, even while an overzealous waiter swept cigarette butts and biscuit crumbs all over your trouser leg. And if the die hards were to confess that some of the happiest moments of life were in these Irani restaurants it would be a hard thing to comprehend for someone who has not lived the life of the Irani restaurant in Hyderabad!