Irani Bakes Spread Through India. Now, They’re Disappearing.

As Parsi cafés shutter, Irani bakes that have become teatime staples — from mawa cake to nankhatai — are at risk of vanishing, too.

Mallika Basu

April 25, 2022

Irani Bakes Spread Through India. Now, They’re Disappearing.
Bhakra

Take light Victoria sponge batter, incorporate pillowy leftover evaporated milk solids, and add cardamom and nutmeg, and you get a cake steeped in rich, delectable history. Mawa cake combines age-old skill, European influences, and a generous dash of ingenuity. It is part of a family of Parsi and Iranian cakes and bakes that have been captivating palates for generations. 

Sugar is a key ingredient and potent symbol for the Parsi community in the Indian subcontinent. The first Persians to arrive in India over a thousand years ago were Zoroastrians fleeing religious persecution in Iran. Legend has it that a local Indian king sent waiting Persian refugees a cup overflowing with milk, signifying that there was no more room in his kingdom. The Persians, however, sent the cup back after blending in a spoonful of sugar, showing how they would enrich the local community. The king welcomed the people — Parsis, meaning from ancient Persia or Pars, as they came to be known — to their new home in the Western parts of India.

Parsis brought not only their hospitality and entrepreneurial spirit, but also a strong love of sweet and savory snacks. They quickly went about incorporating local tastes and textures into their palate, inspired by Indian locals as well as Dutch and Portuguese colonizers. These influences would lead to the invention of various breads, biscuits, and cakes that would soon spread throughout the subcontinent and change teatime in the country forever. Now, as Parsi cafés face headwinds with many shuttering their doors over the past few years, the tradition of these very baked goods may be in danger of dying out.