Why Hyderabads love for Irani chai is turning cold

Why Hyderabad's love for Irani chai is turning cold

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When the K Chandrasekhar Rao government demolished the Telangana Secretariat buildings in Hyderabad last year to build a vaastu-compliant sophisticated complex, there was a ‘collateral casualty’ — Irani chai served in the decades-old Tehran Cafe across the road. For decades, the tea joint had served as the most favoured hangout place of the secretariat staff, sharing their personal...

When the K Chandrasekhar Rao government demolished the Telangana Secretariat buildings in Hyderabad last year to build a vaastu-compliant sophisticated complex, there was a ‘collateral casualty’ — Irani chai served in the decades-old Tehran Cafe across the road.

For decades, the tea joint had served as the most favoured hangout place of the secretariat staff, sharing their personal and professional ‘haal chal’ over cups of Irani chai and Osmania biscuits. As the shutters came down on the cafe, it joined a host of many such chai joints in Hyderabad that have slowly disappeared into oblivion over the years.

Orient at Abids was another such Irani chai cafe, popular among intellectuals, budding poets, painters, aspiring writers and others. Revolutionary poet and communist leader Maqdoom Mohiuddin and several labour leaders used to brainstorm here over cups of tea. It also used to be the meeting point of journalists sniffing out not just the aroma of good chai but also ideas for their next big story.

Rich, aromatic history

Irani chai was introduced to the citizens of this historic city by the Persian settlers. Hyderabad and Iran have history and culture intertwined for more than 450 years. The Iranians had planned the grand Charminar (1591) and Hyderabad four centuries ago during the Qutub Shahi regime and took to serving the unique Irani tea at the turn of the 20th century.

At the time, tea itself was a new indulgence for Hyderabad. Old-timers recall that there was no such tea culture in the city. Tea with sugar used to be a luxury of a few, mostly the upper middle class and the rich since sugar was a controlled commodity back then and was sold in ration shops. For the poor and lower middle class, jaggery tea was the norm.

The Garden Restaurant at Secunderabad Clock Tower was cut to one-fourth of its original size in order to make way for Metro rail tracks.

It was Brooke Bond company that introduced Hyderabad to tea after World War II.

Every evening, a company trolley used to come out in the streets to offer tea for free. After six months or so, people got used to the routine and would wait for tea every evening. Then the company began to distribute free tea bags. As people began to get more used to the cuppa, it started marketing tea at very low prices. A little later, Lipton too entered the market. This and many such anecdotes are popular in Hyderabad, thanks to the endless session at irani cafes.

Not many know that drinking tea was considered a taboo till the 1930s.

“Tea was quite a taboo in Hyderabad till the ’30s. Just like cricket, tea too was unheard of at the time,” says Inamur Rahman Ghyur, a food and culture expert.

Ghyur tells The Federal that the English companies, Brooke Bond and Lipton, would hardsell it to people saying it’s a refreshing drink. “It started to go down well with the upper and middle class people. Once the upper class picked it up, it began to seep into the Hyderabad culture. My late father till the 70s used to taunt and call us ‘chai peene wale’ (damn tea drinkers).”

A unique taste

It is said Iranians, known to be good cooks, started joining the tea business by adding flavours to the drink. They would add some condiments into milk along with the tea leaves/powder and churn out a rich and strong brew.

The uniqueness of Irani chai lies more in the subtle process of making it than just the tea leaves or powder (chai patti), as is normally considered. Tea and milk are slow cooked in separate stainless steel and copper bowls and later mixed into the serving cup.

Although Arabs introduced another drink called Ghawa to Hyderabad, the too sweet and milky beverage could not impress the tea lovers.

While people got used to waking up to a good cup of chai in the morning, Irani chai caught up with both young and old. Soon, it became a synonym for Hyderabad, just like biryani.

A typical day in any Irani restaurant would mean customers ordering ‘chai-biscuit’ — the most common request– the moment they enter. Soon, eight to 10 biscuits on a steel plate will come along with two cups — one with chai and the other empty, in case somebody

Many of these cafes have been forced to limit their operations to quick, counter services.

wanted to share a ‘full chai’. Customers needn’t necessarily consume all the stuff served on the plate. They may eat as many samosas (in case you ordered chai-samosa) or Osmania biscuits as they want and leave the rest. Only those consumed would be billed.

The biggest takeaway, however, used to be the time spent there. One could lounge around as long as they wanted, without anyone eagerly waiting on them to vacate their chairs. For, there used to be as many tables available in Irani cafes which normally used to have sprawling premises. But shrinking commercial spaces and changing lifestyles have taken a big toll on these cafes in Hyderabad. Many have been bulldozed to be replaced by huge multi-storeyed commercial complexes.

Diamond restaurant at Ranigunj in Secunderabad now houses one such commercial complex.

Garden Restaurant at Secunderabad Clock Tower, was another big victim of the Metro Rail. The cafe was cut to one-fourth of its original size, in order to widen the road while the Metro rail tracks were being laid.

Irani chai seems to be fast losing its steam even in the Old City, where it once boasted of a loyal fan following.

So much so that many of these cafes have been forced to limit their operations to quick, counter services. The famous Paradise restaurant, for example, changed its chai section to self-service, where people buy their tea and gulp it down standing.

Reminiscing the good old days, long-time patron Anuradha Reddy says, “Garden was my most favourite joint. I used to pick up samosas from there since my school days. I would go on my bicycle to school, only to come that way in the evening for the samosas.”

Two years ago when she came to know that the restaurant would be partially demolished, she went there and poured her heart out to the owner (second generation) about her favourite samosas. “I told him how I used to get four samosas for just Re 1. He listened to me and then offered four samosas for the same rate and joined me for a selfie.”

Like Arunadha, Irani cafes were a favourite of none other than the celebrated painter MF Husain. Stories of the barefoot genius frequenting Irani cafes in Hyderabad and Secunderabad in the late 90s are still famous. Husain not just loved Irani tea but also enjoyed bun maska (buttered bun), Osmania biscuits and onion samosas (chhota samosa) at the Garden Restaurant.

After the lockdown, Alpha at Secunderabad railway station began serving tea in counters set up outside.

He was often seen in his trademark black attire with a life-size brush, reading newspapers while having his favourite snacks.

Even after he built his famous Cinema Ghar on road No 12, Banjara Hills in 1999, Husain continued to be a common sight in Irani tea joints.

His legions of fans still gush over stories how the cafe owners would refuse to take money from the ever-smiling artist and would rather ask for his autograph.

Changing times

Anuradha, who also happens to be the convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Hyderabad chapter, says, “Irani cafes used to be the go-to places to meet friends and families and catch up on what’s happening. There was a time when people would sit for hours and actually talk to each other. Today, if you go anyplace, you see people with bored expressions, staring into their mobile phones.”

However, old-timers feel things were quite different not so long ago. The fact that even non-Iranian locals opened similar chai cafes in the 80s says a lot about the popularity of tea among people.

In the ’90s, though, there were swirling rumours that some ‘mysterious substances’ were added to chai because of which people got addicted to it. However, the industry often rubbished those rumours.

These cafes also used to keep the daily editions of Urdu newspapers. People would grab one to read and leave it on the table, for the next visitor to read.

But times have changed. And so have people and the vibrant addas, says Babu Rao of the famous Niloufer cafe at Lakdi-ka-Pul.

“We don’t find youngsters engaged in passionate discussions about politics and life over chai. They just come, gulp down a cup of tea and leave.” Also, soft drinks have replaced tea in people’s lives.

Earlier, most of the cafes allowed their customers to smoke. Many believe, the ban on smoking in public places is another reason many started to find these cafes not so friendly.

Yet others were forced to look for options keeping in mind the financial issues. Sarvi, a famous tea joint at the upscale Banjara Hills, found the biryani business more profitable and reduced its tea wing into a small section.

Owner of Imperial Cafe at Khairatabad says shortage of manpower also contributed to the closure of some cafes. “Earlier, we used to have regular workers. Over the years, they began to look for alternative jobs. Now, many of us manage with workers hired on a daily basis. We don’t know whether they turn up tomorrow,” he rues.

What is adding to the woes of such cafe owners are the mushrooming Andhra tea stalls in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. These new stalls offer a small cup of tea for Rs 6 or Rs 7. Many tea addicts, mostly from the poor and lower middle class, drifted away from the Irani cafes, where a cup of costs between Rs 12 and Rs 14. Imroze at Ameerpet charges Rs 16 per cup.

The latest blow to the few existing cafes came last year as Covid-19 hit them hard.

After the lockdown induced by the pandemic, Alpha at Secunderabad railway station started serving tea by setting up counters outside.

But die-hard fans of Irani chai are still hopeful that the good old days will be back someday sooner than later. Because, who can’t resist that sweet aroma wafting from the freshly brewed pots.

Recalling his tryst with Irani chai, historian Ejaz Farruq says, “I used to drink a big mug of black tea every day. For a change, I started trying Irani chai.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

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