It all began with a milkshake.
After the Arab conquest of Persia in the mid seventh century, adherents to Zoroastrianism, which may be the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, fled their ancestral home. Piling into boats and carrying their sacred fire with them, they landed on India’s west coast, in the state of Gujarat.
According to lore, the local king eyed the newcomers with suspicion. Not speaking their language, he presented the Zoroastrians with a jug of milk, filled to the brim, in an effort to communicate that there was no room for them in his kingdom. In response, the Zoroastrian high priests dissolved sugar in the milk without spilling a drop from the jug, demonstrating how they would enrich the local community without displacing anyone.
The sweetened milk won over the king—and eventually the rest of India. Thousands more Zoroastrians came to India, crossing present day Iran, Pakistan, and India on foot, on camel, and by boat.
Known as “Parsis,” or “Iranis” for later waves of Zoroastrian migrants, this small and tight-knit community has since built impressive businesses and charitable institutions in India. But their most well-known legacy remains culinary.
“People are crazy about Irani food,” says Sarosh Irani, the co-owner of B. Merwan & Co, a Parsi-style bakery and cafe in Mumbai. Waking up every night at midnight, he takes the train into work and arrives by 3 a.m. to carry on his grandfather’s tradition of baking his breads and pastries in a wood-fired oven. By 7 a.m., the cafe’s famous mawa cakes are warm and fragrant, and the doors are opened.
Eager to build lives for themselves in their new home, hundreds of Zoroastrians opened restaurants and cafes like Irani’s between 1890 and 1940, with more established Parsis often supporting newer Irani arrivals with small loans. Serving cheap, tasty food in simple but stately decor, they became the Greek diners of India. Frequented by diplomats, day laborers, and everyone in between, they helped shape India’s largest city by bringing people of all classes, genders, religions, and ethnicities together over cups of chai.
Indians cherish the timeless quality of Parsi restaurants. But this adherence to tradition—a type of authenticity celebrated by modern food culture—may lead to their extinction. In a rapidly modernizing Mumbai, these beloved eateries are disappearing, replaced by hip, Parsi-inspired ventures run by outsiders.
Parsi cuisine reflects the migratory roots of its people, with blends of Iranian and Gujarati flavors. In a country full of vegetarians, Parsi food is hearty and meaty. Local favorites include half-fry eggs, minced lamb in rich tomato sauce, and thick mutton stew with caramelized rice. Simple bun maska—bread and butter—with chai is another staple.
B. Merwan & Co has been serving its bun maska in the same location, behind the bustling Grant Road train station, since Sarosh’s grandfather, Boman Merwan, opened it in 1914. Housed in the first floor of one of south Bombay’s many beautifully dilapidated old buildings, nothing much has changed about the cafe in the past century. (Mumbai is still often called by its former name, Bombay.) With a full breakfast of coffee, bread, and an omelet costing less than two dollars, even the prices barely seem to have changed.
“Whatever you see here is 103 years old,” Sarosh says from his perch behind a large wooden cashier’s desk at the front of the cafe. He looks up from his receipt book and smiles. “It’s only we that are not that old.”