B. MERWAN & CO. IS A LIVING MUSEUM OF BOMBAY FOOD
B. Merwan & Co. is a century-old Irani café famous for its mawa cakes, which are often sold out shortly after it opens. It was founded in 1914 by Boman Merwan and is now run by his grandsons. Although the café closed - ostensibly for good - in 2014, it re-opened mere weeks later and has continued strong ever since.
B. Merwan & Co., Shop No. 1/ 2, Merwan Building, Frere Bridge, Allibhai Premji Road, Opp. Grant Road Station (e), Mumbai 400 007. Phone: 022 2309 3321
I didn’t grow up around Irani cafés. I have no misty-eyed memories of mawa cake mornings and raspberry soda afternoons. When I started discovering these culinary monuments as an adult, I felt like a touristy fraud trying to fit in. The Iranis didn’t care. The slightly off-kilter, alternately cantankerous and adorable old men who manned the counters had two things in common: a running feud with their waiters and the courtesy to let me in, chat me up, feed me and house me for an hour or two. Kyani, Koolar and Sassanian have all spruced up their menus; my favourite remains an immutable classic.
B. Merwan & Co. are “High-Class Bakers & Confectioners” and “High-Class Provision Stores” that beseech you to “try our fresh mawa cakes, mawa puff, jam puff” and “all kinds of biscuits and bread”. They have waited upon patrons outside Grant Road station for 103 years.
Borrowing from a Busybee column: a visit here consists of “a cup of tea, two slices of bread and butter, then you moved out, making place for the next customer. Chairs that were not too comfortable discouraged the customers from lingering. And the round marble-topped tables were equally practical in the pre-Formica days, one swab of a cloth and they would be clean”. The limited menu is painted on a pillar daubed black. Portraits of ancestors and Zarathustra gaze benignly upon you. Hexagonal petals tile the floor. Grills and shutters are painted green. There is no door – and NO ADMISSION – to the kitchen where T-shirts and trousers hang from nails. I’ve never entered the special room “for families and ladies”.
Choosing a table near the entrance, I watch an expressionless employee cleave paos with a knife right out of The Revenant. Armies of puffs and patties march off aluminium trays. Two strangers join me on the ancient bentwood chairs. One whips out an old Nokia phone and asks the caller, “Paisa mila na tereko?” Reassured, he cocks an eye at the waiter who instantly produces a modest heap of khari biscuits. My other companion pulls out his wallet and counts his cash before enquiring about the price of an omelette. “Notebandi ke time mein sochna padta hai,” he says sheepishly. I want brun maska pao that is crunchy on the outside and soft within. But it’s evening, they’ve run out and I settle for bun maska and chai.
Merwan waiters wear no uniforms. They shout their orders to the kitchen and weave their way to a continuously heated samovar full of black tea. Splashing a dollop of sugared milk into a bone china cup, they fill it with Irani chai from a perennially leaking tap and ferry upto seven cups – on saucers bearing a flowery motif – in the crook of a single elbow.
I dunk my lavishly buttered bun in sweet, sweet tea and listen to the clangour of clashing cutlery blend with the buzz of relaxed conversation. There are no laptops here. Mirrors on every wall permit a little narcissism and encourage the covert study of a Bombay scene straight out of a Mario Miranda tableau.
An elderly Parsi gentleman leafs through The Asian Age, whiling the hours away. A Pathan chacha with hennaed hair, wearing a black kurta over a barrel chest, noisily slurps down his tea. An old lady with a Zoroastrian nose, greying locks covered by a colourful scarf, crosses her bare arms and surveys him with disgust. A young man in a boat-neck tee is charmed by the courtly owner who potters about unnecessarily, taking orders and clearing dishes while the waiters strive to bench him. An office-goer on his way home, a low-budget suitor or a writer looking for a story: Merwan will never shoo you away, even if all you want is a cup of tea.
I indulge my palate with a not-too-sweet custard and pocket a legendary mawa cake for the road. There are no bills here. My waiter is too busy to shout my total to the cash counter, so I walk up, pay my dues and leave – no questions asked.
Merwan is a living museum of Bombay and Bombay food. Its fare is simple and wholesome and its 20th century prices plug the gap between rich and poor. Its ethos echoes the concluding lines of Nissim Ezekiel’s poem Irani Restaurant Instructions:
All are welcome whatever caste
If not satisfied tell us
Otherwise tell others
GOD IS GREAT.”
Photographs by Suruchi Maira