Irani restaurants and Poppy tea

That beautiful scene from the song ‘Pee Loon’ in OATIM featuring the winsome - Prachi Desai a.k.a Bani (for those out of sync with Bollywood, it is the new movie Once upon a time in Mumbai) reminded me of those lovely Irani tea shops and restaurants in Mumbai. The movie was great, the song by Mohit Chauhan ‘mind blowing’ and of course the Bombay of the late 70’s and 80’s depicted in the scene, a different Bombay, long gone.
Of recent, the Irani tea shop Leopold came to limelight with the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, but this is more a pleasant reminiscence of that genre of eating places, which I am sure, will soon fade away with the onslaught of different eating habits and the fast food genre of eateries. Curiously it was only last week that I saw the Antony Bourdain’s new show ‘No reservations’, about his culinary trip to Kerala (you can see clips on youtube). In the show his guides explain the purpose of a tea shop in Kerala to the awestruck Antony, as to how one gupchupped, gossiped and spent time in a tea shop, making it a kind of social event, not a place to just walk in buy or gulp tea and leave in a jiffy.

Well, one did the same in a Irani tea shop in Mumbai, once upon a time and I guess they still do, if only they had the time they seem to still have in Kerala, which I am sure they in Bombay do not, for in Kerala they have time for all kinds of nonsense, especially if it is anything to do with finding fault with somebody else, notably politicians and public servants. Much of the public actions that emanate are germinated in these tea shops, they seem to stimulate the activist gene, I suppose. But that is Kerala, not Mumbai, and as you can see I am drifting now…

We would, a couple of decades ago, walk down from Nariman point, down Madam Cama road, beyond the university grounds, turn right to Colaba and head to Loepold or another Irani café along the causeway, have a ‘bun muska and omelet’ and then hopefully see a movie at Regal. Some days I slipped out & met my cousin who lived in the flats next to the petrol pump behind Regal or meandered towards the gateway of India to watch the pigeons and tourists wandering about and dream of spending a day in the glorious Taj hotel (which I did many years later), the entrance of which was guarded by a fierce mustachioed Sikh with a double barreled shotgun.

I will not discuss the Irani restaurants in great detail, for they are very well written about in a three part blog by a blogger in Golden ripples. But I have to make it clear that the Irani restaurants are not actually Parsi restaurants though they are synonymous with Parsi’s. These Irani’s were later generation Zorastrian Iranians, unlike the Paris who were the original Zorastrians who came to India. Parsis and Iranis are legally distinct, based in part on a 1909 obiter dictum that, among many other issues relating to the Indian Zoroastrians, also observed that Iranis were not obliged to uphold the decisions of the then-regulatory Parsi Panchayat. In other words, they are ‘same-same but different’ with a 1000 year landing gap in India.

But then ambience of these cafes need to be reintroduced and the scene set briefly before I get to the main topic. These cafes do not go all the way back to the 8th-10th century Parsi entry into India, but much later into the 18th century when the Irani’s came. Borrowing text from Wikipedia which quotes

Naomi Lobo has traced the background of these cafes as: “When the Zoroastrian Iranians came to India in the 19th century, they had no riches and were in search of a better livelihood. Bombay, at that time, was already home to another Zoroastrian community, the Parsis. A couple of Iranians worked in Parsi homes as caretakers and met in the evenings to discuss the life they had left behind, and their future prospects. One evening, a man served tea to everyone and charged them a small amount. The result: A business was born, of serving tea. And this was the beginning of an Irani café.

Sarika Mehta says: - “The classic format of these cafes is basic with a subtle colonial touch; high ceilings with black, bent wooden chairs (now cane in some cafes), wooden tables with marble tops and glass jars that allow a peek into the goodies they hold. With huge glass mirrors on the walls to create a feeling of space, visitors are greeted with eagerness and a whiff of baking. The speed of operations is impressive and service quite hassle-free." Mumbai cafes may serve ‘brun maska’ (bread and butter) and ‘paani kam chai’ (a strong Iranian tea), or khari chai (very strong tea), mutton samosas, and Kheema Pavs, and so on and so forth………………and Dukes or a Parsi brewn Raspberry drink.

The marble-topped tables and the black stylish cane chairs (known as 'Welcome' chairs, specially imported from Belgium and Poland) became symbolic of the Irani hotel scene.

And so with all that in the background, I will touch upon a hot affair of the late 19th century. The people who frequented these Irani restaurants, for some reason of the other spread around a rumor that the owners were adding opium to the tea to get them addicted, so that they keep visiting these tea places. Now this spread like wildfire and of course the British government ruling India then had to get involved to sort the matter out. The story is certainly intriguing.

Was that just hogwash? Was there something to it? How did the concept of mixing tea and opium get popular? Was it perhaps a leftover from the Dutch & the Portuguese settlers, probably the former who brought in Opium to Malabar?

I guess you all know about the involvement of the Jews of Bombay with the opium trade, I won’t get into it in great detail, but it is a rich and long story of the 19th century Sassoon family (Sassoon docks Mumbai is named after them) and many the rich Parsi and Jewish traders in Shanghai who controlled the global trade. By the 1820s a large number of Parsis, Marwaris, Gujarati Banias and Konkani Muslims had moved into the opium trade at Mumbai. Of the 42 foreign firms operating in China at the end of the 1830s, 20 were fully owned by Parsis. This effect was evident in the geographical make up of the city. It was the Parsis, many of them beneficiaries of opium’s huge profits, who developed South Bombay. It was primarily opium that linked Bombay to the international capitalist economy and the western Indian hinterland in the nineteenth century. (For more info read Opium City - The Making of Early Victorian Bombay By Amar Farooqui).Indigenous shipping and opium trade too were closely interlinked. Parsis in China were recognizable by their appearance, dress and customs, and were known as white heads for the wearing of white head gear. Opium consumption was noticeable, especially among the bone tired working class and was popular with certain sections of the community.

So a lot of people made money, a lot of people were unhappy about them making money and a lot of others were envious. Whatever said and done, the rumor mills worked overtime and the rumor spread in Bombay. It was soon such a big issue that the British joint commission deliberated on it in 1894. One JM Campbell, the commissioner of opium, enquired into the matter. The story is certainly interesting, but then before that I have to tell you about Poppy tea.

Iran long has been a principal producer of the poppy from which opium is derived. As it was practiced, they made opium tea by adding a pellet of opium to tea or by boiling poppy straw or pods with the tea. Now most of you know about khus khus and the fact that it is popular in Indian cooking, especially certain curries like Kormas. But then in Iran and many other places in that neighborhood, Poppy tea was equally famous. The darker, bitter tea ‘irani chai’ gave a high to the drinker, and some versions at times even involved using certain insecticides. Nevertheless, it suffices to conclude that this was a practice in neighboring countries. In Iran drinking opium in tea and coffee shops was common and an officially tolerated cultural practice. On the other hand, Poppy seed oils were used in Europe as a substitute for or to adulterate salad oil and in making paints, varnish & soap. Journal of the Society of Arts, Volume 40 - By Society of Arts (Great Britain) page 448 mentions also that it was infused with tea in India, especially by Sikhs who were banned from smoking by their religion.

Leaving this topic for a while, we see that the British settled down in India, realized that opium business is big indeed and started cultivating it in Bengal (Malwa in Western India already had it, but it was controlled by the Princes of the region). The EIC had a monopoly over the Bengal produce and shipped it to China which was the main user (Malwa Opium was exported to China even before by the Portuguese). Now that is also another long story and you will recall from my previous blog that George Orwell’s papa was one of those Opium inspectors in Bengal. So Opium and tea were the mainstays of the British East India Company. They had a whole department taking care of this lucrative and sensitive but dark business and that is how Mr JM Campbell got involved in this sordid story in 1894.

The whole furor over tea shops and opium was started by one Miss Sunderbai Powar in 1892. She struggled for 2 years to get herself and the ‘Sunderbai Powar message’ heard by the authorities in India and England.

The Soonderbai Powar message & its disposal

Soonder bai said - That thousands of high caste women die of starvation in their dark zenana rooms because their husbands ruin themselves by smoking in licensed opium dens; that young men are led to smoke opium through the wiles of the opium farmer who sets his servants at the street corners furnished with opium pipes to tempt the youths to smoke; that they (apparently either the opium officials or the opium farmer) quietly mix opium with our tea in refreshment rooms and in hotels, so that a craving for opium arises and before we know what we are doing we shall become slaves of opium.

As the alleged writer. Miss Soonderbai Powar, was born in or near Poona, and has spent almost her whole life in Poona or in Bombay, it follows that these statements referred either to Poona or to Bombay. As each of these statements involved serious charges against the management of the opium revenue in Bombay my duty required me to examine into their truth. Inquiries made through the commissioner of police and the health officer of the municipality failed to reveal any foundation for them, except that, in respect to the third statement, it appeared that there had been a rumour, some two years ago, that certain Irani, that is, Persian Parsi, tea-house keepers, put poppy heads in their tea to darken its colour. As Mr. Almon, the assistant collector of abkari, could procure me independent information, and also as he is responsible for hotel and refreshment room licenses, and under the Abkari Act has power to deal with infringements of the Opium Act, I asked him to make inquiry into the truth of the rumour that poppy heads were sometimes put in tea.

The result of these inquiries was that Mr. Almon failed to find that the rumour had any foundation in fact. Mr. Almon suggested to me that, as is usual in such cases, he might obtain from Miss Soonderbai in Poona the individual who made the statement, information regarding the practice which he hail failed to obtain in Bombay. The letter given above was written with that object and with my knowledge. In reply, Mr. Almon was informed that his friend could not arrange a visit, but that a reference might be made to the Rev. A. W. Prautch, of Thana, to whom his friend was forwarding Mr. Almon's letter, and who his friend wrote would probably know Miss Soonderbai and might arrange an interview. On hearing of Mr. Prautch's connection with the matter I decided to make no further inquiry. Mr. Prautch's statement in the letter to the Chairman, that after the receipt of his friend's communication Mr. Almon called on the witness who declined to see him is, I am informed, without foundation

I have the honour to be,
Sir, Your most obedient servant,
J.M CAMPBELL, Collector of Opium.

But was that true or a whitewash? It had all the looks of a royal whitewash for Soonderbai was a well regarded and much regaled person. A later testimony of sorts came from a tea stall keeper, much after Indian independence. This again is heresy, so take it with a pinch of salt….

The Kayanai and Co Irani tea stall owner provides some more details of the event.

In about 1952 an Irani had a café, and this man used to put kus-kus (poppy) in the tea. And believe it or not, the taxiwallahs who were running the taxi, they used to go there and take their tea always, otherwise they were not happy with their tea. Then one by one, all the cafes started kus-kus tea, we had it here at Kayani, finally the Municipality came to know about it and they stopped it. It is prohibited. The Municipality will take your license and you have to go behind the bar if you tried that now. When Britishers were here, they were foreigners, we Iranis were also foreigners, we got friendly treatment when we went to the government departments; they knew that we were new here, we were also foreigners, so they said “you have to stop putting that in the tea”, and we did.

But the story is not complete without figuring out who Miss Powar was. Sunderbai, an Christian feminist leader from Bombay was also a great friend of Pandita Rambhai (Another lady reformer from Bengal who built up the Sharada Sadan with Sunderbai in Poona), and books refer to her as a great social worker of Poona and Bombay. She spoke not only in Bombay, but also in England, talking about these issues as an eloquent Indian representative (alas! Who remembers these people these days?). She addressed 116 meetings in that one visit to Britain and was lauded as a great Indian feminist and invited back, interestingly being the person to dispel the myth in the West ‘that Opium was needed by the oriental masses and that it suited their constitution’ (the story of these two ladies and their battle with the British and the masses is so touching that it requires a book to cover just the briefs). In posterity, she is far more famous and written about than the JM Campbell who dismissed her opium crusade outright, in the name of profits for the EIC.

And to summarize, the authorities quietly asked the tea shops to stop the practice or risk losing their license and so they stopped serving the poppy tea and all was well. Duke’s raspberry took over and Bombay somehow broke the opium habit.

The Irani restaurants however are a dying breed for they are now afflicted with another malady, the eaters penchant for South Indian quickie healthy food like idlis and dosas, compared to liberal dabs of butter on fresh ‘pav’ with a double omlete – Mahadevan explains in his blog how they have given way to suave Shettys and their udupi restaurants. As he says, the dull looking fair complexioned Irani’s proved to be of no match to the enterprising Sadanand Shetty’s. And he puts it aptly, stating ‘Unlike Udipi hotels, in Irani Restaurants we spend more time and less money.

But then there is always the scene from OATIM that you can go back to or see one of the Basu chatterjee movies with the Parsees. There is bound to be an Irani restaurant in some scene that you can relate to…

Some interesting articles on the Irani hotels

Asia times
Mumbai mania
A complete set of 3 articles on Irani restaurants by Golden ripples
Article 2
Article 3


First report of the Royal commission on opium 1894, Vol 3
Journal of the society of arts 1802

Poster photo –
Brabourne restaurant – Wikipedia
Pallonji Raspberry drink
Bun pictures – Mumbai mania


Very exhaustive treatise. I know for certain that even in smaller towns tea shops used to boil the bark of poppy plant and mix it with tea. Tribals in Bastar also used to boil the bark in water and relished the drink although it was bitter in taste.
harimohan said…
ya irani restaurants are a legend indeed ,the Buharis opposite presidency college chennai was also a similar one we have whiled many afternoons skipping zoology class in its emptiness ,one remembers the plate of fresh cakes they would place with the tea to tempt !
Maddy said…
Sankunny M says

My memory goes to 69-70 to Bombay when I read Iranian restaurants .The first things that struck when I enter their restaurant is the wooden chair , marble top table , large glass jars with cakes and of course a PHOTOGRAPHS OF THEIR GOD may Zoroaster near the cash counter. My favorite spots were , 1 opposite church gate station, 2, on the way to my office YAGAKSHEMA some what opposite HP petroleum HQ., and AIR Bombay(B.R), of course one at Matunga/Dadar.
I remember with tea they will place a typical glass ware , on the top of it some cakes. While billing they will have look on it and charge for the MISSING items!.
bee said…
Yeah, Irani restaurants are fabulous. A part of Bombay was lost when the "big one" closed. Thanks for the interesting post

BTW, the link to our site on your post is misspelt.
Fabi Shaikh said…
But why they stop using this bark ??? Any problam with this khus khus???