India Insight

Mumbai’s local delicacies no longer everyone’s cup of tea

January 27, 2014

Every day, for the past few decades, Dayanand Shenoy has taken an early morning train to Grant Road station in south Mumbai from his home in the suburb of Borivali. Initially, it was for work but now it’s just for oven-fresh mava cakes from B Merwan.

The bakery, on the ground floor of a dilapidated four-storey building, has many admirers in India’s financial capital. Hundreds line up daily, some at sunrise, to buy cups of sugary tea and some bun maska (sweet milk bread slathered with butter).

“I don’t remember how long I have been coming here, ever since I can remember,” said Shenoy, a retired businessman. “It is far away, but I can’t do without having some mava cake every day.”

Merwan, set up 100 years ago by the Irani family, opens at half past five each morning, serving municipal workers, shopkeepers, vegetable vendors and schoolchildren who sit in grimy chairs and wait, bleary-eyed, for their food to arrive.

A cup of tea and a bun maska sets patrons back by 16 rupees (25 cents), one of the city’s most inexpensive breakfasts. The cafe also serves omelettes and scrambled eggs. There is an even longer line at the takeout counter where locals pick up the famed Merwan puff pastries and mava (milk solids) cakes that sell out in a couple of hours.

All this might end soon. The building where the Merwan bakery is located is destined for redevelopment. No date has been fixed, said owner Sarosh Irani, but patrons are asking him if the bakery will close.

“We can’t afford another location, with real estate prices so high. We aren’t sure whether we will even close down. Hopefully we don’t,” Irani said. “It isn’t easy to run a place at these prices, but we do it mainly for the people who wouldn’t be able to afford going elsewhere.”

Working-class restaurants like Merwan dot the city. They are known as Irani cafes because they were originally opened by Parsis who moved to India from Iran centuries ago. They are as ubiquitous as the other cornerstone of Mumbai’s eating-out culture — the Udupi restaurant.

Named after a small town in Karnataka, these eateries started out serving south Indian dishes such as idli (fermented rice cake) and dosa (crepes made of rice and lentils). They now also serve northern Indian food and sometimes pizza and pasta with spices and cheese.

The Irani cafes and Udupi restaurants pulled in crowds with their convenient locations, quick service and affordable food. “The business model was low margins, but high volumes,” said Sukesh Shetty, secretary of the Association of Hotels and Restaurants (AHAR).

Shetty, who runs an Udupi restaurant, estimates that at least 90 such eateries have shut down in the last few years because of inflation and a shortage of cheap labour.

Food costs account for 45 percent of restaurant expenses, up from 30 percent three years ago. Fuel makes up 14 percent of costs, up from around 7 percent. With eating out becoming less affordable, patrons prefer to eat at home or from cheaper road-side stalls more often.

“Many restaurant owners think it is better to rent out their premises to a bank and retire for good, rather than fight to keep their business alive,” Shetty said.

Nandini Sardesai, a sociologist working in Mumbai, remembers standing in line with Bollywood actor Rajesh Khanna at Anant Ashram, a well known eatery in the southern neighbourhood of Girgaum, several years ago for their legendary crab curry. Anant Ashram, which also doubled up as a hostel for out-of-town students, shut down in 2009.

“It was a whole sub-culture of the city that is dying slowly, and it just points to the fact that we are now a city of those who cater to the rich and moneyed, rather than the working class and the middle class,” she said.

While the older cafes are shutting down, elite versions of Irani cafes may soon take their place.

Restaurateur A D Singh has launched Soda Bottle Openerwala in a posh Gurgaon neighbourhood on the outskirts of New Delhi. A cup of tea at this restaurant is priced at 60 rupees (about a dollar), ten times its cost at Merwan. The vada pav, a batter-fried potato ball served with a bun, is a Mumbai delicacy that costs 10 rupees on city streets but six times as much in Soda Bottle Openerwala.

These high-end restaurants will soon be seen in the city famous for the original Irani cafes, with a branch of Soda Bottle Openerwala expected to open in Mumbai later this year.

“There is such a legacy of these restaurants that we want to recreate it and package it so that it reaches far and wide,” said Singh.

Sarosh Irani, proprietor of the century-old Merwan, is unconvinced.

“Sixty-five rupees (about a dollar) for a cup of tea! Who’s going to be able to afford that?”

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan; Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay, Tony @tonytharakan and Robert @bobbymacReports  | Disclaimer: This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

 

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