The year 1981 saw the release of Manmohan Desai blockbuster Naseeb. While most may remember it for Amitabh Bachchan’s cage fighting, Kim’s lip reading talent and Hema Malini’s pink boa, I will always associate the film with the beginning of a love affair with the mawa cake. The cake that travelled from the streets of Bombay, through a cake fight in a five star hotel kitchen, and hand delivered by an airline pilot to a casino in London, had to be a special one.
Mawa cakes, the soft, buttery, cardamom-infused cupcakes rolled in wax paper, have been a menu staple at Irani cafés and bakeries from the time they opened in Bombay and Poona in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A hundred years later, Bombay’s mawa cake still travels from the city’s Irani cafés to The Big Smoke and is savoured by the likes of celebrated Parsi chef Cyrus Todiwala, OBE. “The B. Merwan family bakes the best mawa cakes ever. In fact we have three mini ones in our freezer right now,” shares Todiwala.
B. Merwan & Co. recently celebrated a century of serving patrons an affordable breakfast and delicious mawa cakes; and also announced that March 2014 would be the last time this would happen.
Just as the very first Irani café in India has never been identified with any certainty, the origins of the mawa cake too are shrouded in mystery. Dan Sheffield, a lecturer at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, researched three old texts for any references to the cake: 17th-century Gujarati Zartoshtnamu (The Book of Zarathustra), Persian-language Khulāsat al-Maʼkūlāt va’l-Mashrūbāt (The Essence of Edibles and Potables), and Parsi cookbook Vividhvani published in 1903. He says of Vividhvani, “By this time Bombay Parsi cuisine had already been very anglicized. The book, which is around 1500 pages, has recipes for 57 varieties of cake ranging from coffee cake and cherry cake to things with exotic names like Cake Napoleon, Chantilly Cake, Cake Baqirkhani, etc., but still no mawa cake.”
Irani cafes opened during an interesting time. On the one hand, the city’s “respectable” members still preferred to dine in private clubs or at home, and on the other, the large number of itinerant male workers flooding the city, living away from their families and home cooking, created a market for inexpensive dining. Irani cafés like Kayani, Ideal and B. Merwan sold them hundreds of cups of tea every day; and with that, mawa cakes and khari biscuits.
Almost every Irani bakery in the country claims bragging rights for its invention. However, the café most inextricably linked with mawa cakes is Grant Road’s B. Merwan.
Cyrus Todiwala is convinced that the cake was a B. Merwan brainchild: “In the early 1900s our milk was not pasteurised, neither was refrigeration available. Milk had to be boiled over and over again to stop it from going off in our heat and humidity. This boiling created an automatic mawa and by the end of the day they would have a lot of it. The Irani owner experimented with it by adding it to a cake and created one of the most significant tea time cakes Bombay has ever known.”
It’s a believable story. But there are others too…
The second spate of Irani Zoroastrians that fled from the Islamic Qajar regime were mainly bakers, sweet makers and café owners. It is believed that this is when the mawa cake inspiration came to Mumbai along with a host of other Irani delicacies. Parsi food specialist Katy’s Kitchen’s Kurush Dalal is convinced that the mawa cake is an adaptation of the traditional Zoroastrians tea cake kumas. “The Irani refugees were not very educated but knew how to bake. They modified their traditional kumas with local ingredients – khoya and cardamom – to make the mawa cake,” he says.
There are still other stories that inform us of mawa cakes being just a clever twist on the homely sponge cake. When Sheriar Irani’s grandfather started Pune’s first Irani bakery, the legendary Royal Bakery, he experimented with new flavours for a sponge cake until he hit upon the perfect recipe and called it the mawa cake. “The British soldiers stationed in the cantonment came to buy my grandfather’s cakes after their daily exercise. Even today we sell almost 70 kilos of mawa cake every day. But the recipe is a secret,” whispers Irani.
Irrespective of how and who created the mawa cake, by the early 1920s, more locals than ever before were enjoying this treat from Irani bakeries. Up until now bakeries were restricted to British cantonments, but the Iranis began to serve no fuss food in a no fuss setting, bringing hitherto considered extravagances within easy reach of the public.
Even as Irani café’s and bakeries fight for survival in a culinary landscape that doesn’t have the patience for, nor an interest in languid brun-maska-chais, the mawa cake manages to hold its own on counters crowded with cronut-esque creations. Modern bakery Theobroma’s Kamal Messman spent her childhood eating B. Merwan’s mawa cakes. “That is what inspired me to make my own,” Messman shares. “I sell several mawa cakes every day even now.”
Unconfirmed reports even suggest that the trains would stop longer at the Grand Road station so that passengers could get their daily fix of mawa cake.
As Bombay became Mumbai and macaroons replace mawa cakes, the city must brace itself for the death of yet another institution. When it downs its shutters on March 31st, B. Merwan & Co. will also declare the end of an era. It isn’t often that just a whiff of something has the power to evoke a generation of memories; that a humble cake has the power to command queues for a hundred years. It isn’t often that the closure of one café would end so much living – of its owners, its bakers, its city.
It is possible that Mumbai will once again see an invention with the ability to summon such nostalgia; but until then, we must learn to live without its most famous buttery mawa cakes, loaded with cardamom and charisma of a disappearing time.
This story was commissioned by the newspaper Mint Lounge and was first published by them on 18th January 2013. The edited version of the article can be read here.