Irani chai has a little extra sugar for your sweet tooth, and tastes better with generously buttered bread.
The Persian diaspora in India can be traced back to the late 1800s when several Zoroastrians from Iran made their way across the Hindukush to get to India. The journey spanned around four countries and two continents. The main reason for their move is exemplified by Darwin’s theory of evolution. All they wanted to do was survive. And survive they did; through trade and commerce and through their prolific cafes, which became the center of a Zoroastrian-Hindu cultural fusion in many Indian cities.
The roots of the first Irani café can be found in Mumbai, where tea sellers from Persia started out on the streets. With time, they moved to cafes with vintage inspired decor and high ceilings to carry out their businesses. By 20th century, Irani cafes mapped across several nooks and corners of major Indian cities.
In Hyderabad, the city’s love for diaspora and a fusion of cultures within the Indian subcontinent is well known. Whether it is the biryani or halim, Hyderabad’s food culture attracts gluttons from across the world.
However, it is the Irani chai that they all swear by. The Old City is dotted with dozens of cafes with ornate furniture that is carved with patterns, chequered floors, and sky high ceilings. These cafes are home to the iconic Irani chai, a favorite of many for its distinctly sweet taste. During the period of origin of the Irani chai in South India, especially Hyderabad, the preferred drink of the residents used to be coffee. However, with the progression of time, the addiction and preference for a sweet cup of tea underwent a meteoric rise, propelling the Irani café into the once coffee-dominated territory.
The specialty of the chai lies in the fact that it is not made solely from milk. A bit of condensed milk is added to the mix, and the tea is prepared like a coffee concentrate, without letting the vapors escape from the vessel in which it is prepared. The key to balancing the taste perfectly is to not mix the tea and the milk during preparation, but only when it is served.
The typical accompaniment of Irani chai is the famous Osmania biscuits, which reflect the royal heritage of Hyderabad, or the lukmi, which is the local variant of a samosa. The tea is often called 90ml tea, is an allusion to its standard volume. Brun maska is what the Persians traditionally ate with the Irani chai. It is a butter coated bread that is dipped in the sweet concoction to give a salty-sweet taste.
It is clear that the Irani chai has been a favorite in India’s major cities and provinces. However, with the emergence of commercialized coffee houses across the country, the number has dwindled. There are still a number of places like Lamakaan and Taiba that serve the traditional Irani chai.
The Irani cafés has played an important role in the interaction between Persian and Indian culture. They synthesize a food culture that is distinct and accessible at the same time. So the next time you’re in Hyderabad, walk into a Irani café and have the waiter ask you, “Ek Irani Chai hona?”
Written by Shantanu Tilak
You cannot get Hyderabadi Irani chai to your home, but you can get our Hyderabad Souvenir t-shirts! Buy one at our store – link.