The loafers of Cowasji Patel Street
“Tamé soo joyé ché?” screamed Parvez Irani in a voice that might make yeast rise.
His target was an over-excited, bald Gujarati customer, half-risen in his seat, and debating whether or not to hit Ramuda the waiter. Who had apparently got the order wrong.
“I asked this oaf for two maska paus,” shrieked the customer. “He brought me two plates!!”
“Then?” yelled Irani, raising an arm towards the waiter to keep him leashed. “If you want two maska paus, you must ask for one plate, ni?” Irani quickly looked towards me, to check if his logic had impressed me. His fierce mask dropped briefly to reveal a demented grin. “You are an old customer, ni? You should know such things, ni? One plate has two maska paus. This time, I’ll take it back. OK? Hey you, take the gentleman’s maska pau back.”
“You eat our maska pau, you’ll go mad,” Irani said to me confidentially. “The maska pau at Yezdani is the best maska pau in Bombay. You write that down.” He gestured towards my open notepad.
Actually, I had just finished eating Yezdani’s maska pau, watched closely by young Zyros Zend. This one is the new generation Zend, with a one-day stubble on his cheeks and a diploma in catering from Sophia Polytechnic. Yezdani today is run by four rough and gruff Zends, two fathers and two sons. There is ferocious-looking Parvez Irani, and his son Tirandaz; there is the redoubtable Zend M Zend and his son Zyros.
Now Zyros scratches his beard and addresses me, saying, “What you must understand, Pereira, is that our bread is different from all these new-fangled modern breads. Here, we make real bread.”
“My name isn’t Pereira,” I said mildly.
“How do you like our maska pau?” he asked, and then added, tangentially: “In the old days, we used to make Iranian tea too. You would have gone mad, Pereira.”
“My name is actually quite different from Pereira,” I muttered politely, my mouth full of maska pau. It was my first ever maska pau and I was marveling how something so simple — a plain sliced bun with butter — could taste so glorious. The pau was still warm from the oven, brown and crisp on the outside, but within it was mother-soft, healthy, happy bread.
“No additives, no preservatives,” said Zyros. “Not like these modern Garden-type breads. They’re pure chemicals, additives and preservatives. You can’t make a toast with those, but it will last for days and days. Our bread, you can’t eat it if it is more than a day old.”
Yezdani, God bless its soul, is not in a mood to change with changing times. It is a bakery that actually prefers its ancient wood-fired ovens to modern electrical computer-controlled ones. It prefers real bread to long-lasting supermarket bread. It is, in brief, a bakery out of time and distinctly out of sync with today’s pre-processed mindsets.
Part of this stubbornness stems from a heritage that stretches right back to the last century, when an Iranian baker called Zend wends his way to India. In the beginning, you might say, was the Zend. The first family bakery was where the movie house Alexandra stands today, on Belassis Road.
When patriarch Zend’s son, Mehrwan Zend, took over the business, he bought the current premises at Cawasji Patel Street, a bakery replete with one wood-fired oven. The year was 1951, when the range of bakery products Yezdani is famous for started: pau, brun pau, Fancy bread, marble bread, Shrewsbury biscuits, apple pie, cakes. A diesel oven was bought; a new wood-fired oven was built; the old wood-fired was broken.
There are only two differences between a wood-fired oven and the modern kind. First, nothing stops a wood-fired one, not even a power cut; second, baking in a wood-fired oven is an art. Imagine an oven that takes four hours to heat up to 300°C, and then cools down slowly over the next 12 hours. In a wood-fired oven, you don’t control temperature, you exploit it. As the temperature drops, you may put different items in to bake, starting with the ones that need the most heat, such as pau, to the ones that need only a little, like biscuits.
Yezdani’s shift begins at 2 am and continues till 11 am. The breads are the first to emerge, by around dawn. If you were there, you would see burly Biharis and UP-ites, sweating and heaving in an inferno made hazy with flour, reaching deep into the belly of the ovens with long tongs to whisk out trays of bakes two at a time. The trays with hot paus clatter down a ramp placed at the mouth of the oven and hit the floor, where another fellow waits to dab them with butter.
By 4:30 or so, the breadloads leave for destinations such as the Taj Mahal Hotel (where the staff will enjoy them at breakfast) to clubs such as the US Club and the National Sports Club of India, and innumerable Udipi eateries which will soon be dishing out breakfast.
“You ask my uncle about how grandfather Zend used to push the bread out in a handcart at 4 in the morning and deliver home to home upto Parel,” said Zyros conspiratorially.
But I had another question for uncle. “They say you have a special bread that increases fertility and produces male babies. Is it true?”
P. M. Irani roared behind the cash counter. “That’s a bloody joke we make about our world-famous Seven Grain Bread,” he said.
Zyros, wiping his eyes, said, “You have no sense of humour, Pereira. Thanks for coming.”