Hyderabad's Irani Chai on the brink of extinction?
These tea cafes once dotted the length and breadth of the city. But today, these are a little hard to find
Tables paired with closely packed benches, indistinct chatter, the aroma of freshly baked bread and customers queued up at the sales counter waiting to buy a token for a cup of sweet, creamy and unfrothed Irani chai which comes with a dollop of malai. This aptly describes the traditional Irani cafes of Hyderabad. These tea cafes once dotted the length and breadth of the city. But today, these are a little hard to find. Reason: many Irani cafes are struggling to stay authentic when it comes to the quality and richness of the tea.
“Making Irani chai is not easy. It is a complex process that involves a lot of time, money and attention towards the ingredients,” says A Babu Rao, the owner of Cafe Niloufer who has been an integral part of the cafe culture in Hyderabad and has seen its growth. The problem is the expenses, he says. The cost of the Irani tea powder has shot up to Rs 500 a kg from Rs 300, fresh-farm full-fat buffalo milk costs Rs 100 a litre and commercial LPG cylinder prices have gone up by Rs 200. “It’s not easy to sustain even if a cafe is selling a cup of tea for Rs 15 or Rs 20,” he says.
Not to forget, sweetened condensed milk is what makes the chai so special. “Also, the milk goes on boiling and the tea brewing all day long, which means that the stove has to be kept on all day. Another problem is sourcing quality tea powder to achieve that authentic taste,” Rao, who is also a master tea blender, says.
A classic example of how Irani cafes in the city have been struggling to survive is that of MS Cafe at Artillery Centre Road in Langar Houz. “Things were fine until two years ago. I hiked the price of chai by Rs 2 and started selling a cup for Rs 12. Yet, I was in a loss. Then, I further increased it to Rs 15, but this was difficult to sustain. Ultimately, I had to compromise on the quality of milk and tea powder. The number of customers dropped. Even the regular patrons stopped showing up. The business took a massive hit after the pandemic and its shutdown was inevitable,” says Shakeel Ahmed, the owner of MS Cafe.
Another cafe, New Broadway Tea & Snacks at Somajiguda is feeling the pinch but continues to survive one day at a time. “We have compromised on the quality of tea, but are facing losses. We are somehow able to pull through because the owners have a chain of cafes. But most cafes in Hyderabad do not have this privilege,” says Hameed Uddin, the manager at the cafe.
Babu Rao fears that in another year or so, most Irani cafes selling Irani chai may see a drop in business if they do not hike the costs. “If these are located in an area where people cannot pay much for a cup of tea, then the business is finished,” he says.
Another factor giving these traditional cafes stiff competition is the fancy tea joints cropping up across the city. Serving dum tea, ginger tea, saffron tea and other flavours, these are drawing large crowds.
“Flavoured teas are easier to make and not as expensive or rich as the Irani chai,” says Babu Rao. While the city’s Irani cafes stare at an unpredictable future, it’s best to make the most of these before they vanish from the face of the city.