The atmosphere inside Niloufer café at Hyderabad is charged with activity. There is a lingering fragrance of freshly-baked cookies. Waiters deftly balance trays laden with hot buns and other baked goods, while customers sit around savouring piping hot Irani chai. “Whenever we make a trip to Charminar, we make it a point to taste some authentic Irani chai and biscuits. The Niloufer café in the city offers this experience when we can’t make it all the way to the old city,” says Murali Kumar, an engineering professional. The most unique features of most Irani cafes—be it in the old quarters or the main city—are marble-topped tables, chequered flooring and the cookie jar. The Niloufer café in Hyderabad, interestingly, was named after the Nizam’s daughter-in-law from Iran.
Irani chai or Hyderabadi dum tea is the extra rich, creamy tea introduced by Persian travellers of olden times. Growing up in Hyderabad, I have fond memories of Irani cafes in the older part of the city. I used to wonder what was so special about the Irani chai until I tasted it during my college days. The rich texture and the unique taste were totally different from the regular teas we brewed at home.
The milk was boiled separately on the dum (the lid covered with a cloth to seal the aromas) for a long time until the milk was reduced to half the quantity. It was then added to the boiling water and tea leaves. Irani chai is low on water and hence is also known as paani kam chai, some cafes add khoya or mawa to the chai to give it a unique taste.
Irani cafes were started by Zoroastrians and Persian muslims who migrated to India from Iran during the late 19th century. India was one of the most sought after places for Parsis to migrate at that time. By the 20th century, Irani cafes could be seen sprouting in every nook and corner of Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad. They started by selling chai and biscuits.
Today, after Mumbai, Hyderabad has the most number of Irani cafes. The migrants who moved to Hyderabad moved in close circles with the Nizam. They were known as Irani cafes simply because they were run by people from Iran. Migrating to Hyderabad was easy as the official spoken languages during the Nizam’s time were Persian and Urdu. “Irani chai is to tea what maska is to a bun, so let’s visit the closest Irani café for some chai, bun maska and kheema pao for some pun and fun,” says Shubra Verma, an insurance professional and a fan of Irani chai.
The Irani cafes of Hyderabad have managed to retain their loyal customers even in the face of stiff competition from modern cafes. Nimrah Café is iconic for its tea, Osmania biscuits and for its location right next to Charminar. It was started by Abood Bin Aslam in 1993, and his son, Aslam Bin Abu, manages the café now. “Our main aim is that a common man should be able to afford food at our café,” says Aslam. This place attracts crowds from all over Hyderabad and many tourists visiting Charminar make a mandatory trip to Nimrah to savour their chai with some macron coconut cookies, Osmania biscuits, lukhmi and shirmal (flat bread).
While Grand Hotel, Alpha hotel, Nimrah Café, Shah Ghouse, Farasha and Garden Restaurant are a few of the oldest Irani cafes, SodaBottleOpenerWala, the new Niloufer café, Karachi Bakery and Bikanerwala at Banjara Hills in Hyderabad are the new bunch of cafes trying to bridge the gap between the old and new through their delicious chai, cookies and other local dishes. The Grand Hotel is one of the oldest standing hotels in Hyderabad and was started in 1935. This mix of old and new cafes are giving their very own unique Hyderabadi touch to their dishes by serving haleem, biryani, nihari paya, ande ka khagina and katti dal apart from the Irani chai and Osmania biscuits.