Mava Cake: A Labor Of Love

A mava cake is a cardamom-scented delicacy popularized and sold almost exclusively by the wonderful Irani restaurants of Bombay.

These restaurants, unique little bakeries and eateries opened by Iranian immigrants who came to the city in the 19th century, were usually corner joints housed in grand old British-era buildings.

In Andheri, a suburb of Bombay where I grew up, there were two just outside the railway station. When we were children, my father would treat my brother and I to a quick snack of warm-from-the-oven bun-muska (a sweet bun slathered with Amul butter) after we’d taken the train back from visiting relatives or friends.


Many of the city’s better-known Irani restaurants were in South Bombay: Kyani’s, Bastani’s, Yazdani’s, Sassanian’s… You could almost describe them as the city’s first fast-food joints but that wouldn’t do them justice because although the food arrived fast, the atmosphere was anything but rushed.

In fact, time seemed to slow down inside an Irani restaurant. They were usually spacious and airy with at least two wide doorways– said to be designed to keep up a smooth flow of people exiting and entering the restaurant. The floors were marble, the tables were round and marble-topped with a wooden base, and the wooden chairs were straightbacked and fragile-looking. Rumor had it that the chairs were deliberately designed to be uncomfortable to keep diners from sitting too long.

Inside, tacked on to one of the many mirrors on the walls, would be an amusing list of do nots: Do not comb hair, do not spit, do not talk politics…. Sometimes, also tacked to the mirrors, would be pictures of Zoroastrian gods.

Despite the chairs, people tended to linger. The food was invariably cheap and no, nobody really cared if you did talk politics. In fact, a popular pastime for older residents would be to go to the local Irani restaurant first thing in the morning, order a cup of tea, and discuss the morning newspaper to every last detail, often with the restaurant owner at the cashier’s counter.

Your order was always taken by one of the matter-of-fact waiters (always male) with a pencil tucked behind his ear and an elephant’s memory for everything you ordered. The special sweet, thick, milky tea could be had paani kam (with less water) so it would be sweeter and thicker and milkier. Or you could order Market, an unusual mix of tea and coffee. Or a plate of salty, layered, crispy khari biscuits or sweet, buttery, melt-in-the-mouth Shrewsberry biscuits. Mutton patties and chicken patties. Slim sandwiches of white buttered bread with pieces of boiled meat inside. Or the ultimate decadence– a dish of pastries filled with all kinds of cupcakes and cakes, including the wonderful mava cake. You could take what you liked, and the bill would be written up only for the pastries you ate.

When you were ready to go, you always paid the cashier, never the waiter. At the cashier’s counter, you could also order slabs of brun paav, a hard-crusted roll, or other fresh-baked breads. The warm rolls would be wrapped in a newspaper before being handed to you. Desi, who lived in Dhobi Talao for a few years, remembers buying brun paav each morning from Kyani’s and dunking a roll into hot tea for a delicious breakfast.

Behind the cashier would be rows of large glass jars filled with all sorts of baked biscuits (cookies) and other goodies that you could order by weight. Desi and I never failed to pick up a few mava cakes shaped like mini loaves and always fresh baked. The scent alone was deeply satisfying, although nothing compared to the experience of biting into one. The cakes were dense and rather textured, as I remember, and not as fluffy and light as cakes usually are. The fragrance of cardamom combined with the rich sweetness of the cake was intoxicating.

Unfortunately, like a lot of good things, Irani restaurants are fast fading from Bombay’s landscape. Most have been replaced by fast-food joints, pizza takeouts and pubs. The last time I was in Andheri, I saw at least one of the Irani restaurants outside the railway station had given way to a McDonald’s with the same yellow arches and the same old food you can find almost anywhere in the world. What could be sadder?

Bastani’s, an institution for many Bombayites, closed its doors a year or so ago. Apparently, fewer than 25 Irani restaurants remain in the city, down from more than 400 in the 1950s. To those who remember a gentler, kinder Bombay, it is truly the end of an era of great eating.

Since I left Bombay, I’ve missed the mava cake probably more than most other foods from back home that I don’t easily find here. And although in the past I could still eat a mava cake– or a dozen– when I visited the city, things changed drastically when I went vegan. Because the main ingredient in the mava cake, the one that gives it its unique flavor, is the mava, or a reduction of milk, which of course is a no-no for me.

Making a vegan mava cake, then, became almost an obsession. I tried to substitute the mava with different proportions of tofu, but I was never too happy with the results because the tofu always left the cake a tad too moist, although the taste was pretty good. Then, one day, I had a brainwave– vegan cream cheese!

Although vegan cream cheese is not made with dairy, it has a lot of the flavor of regular cream cheese and, I thought, it’d make a great substitute for mava.

The result was pretty delicious and the flavor pretty close, although I’ll be the first to say that the cake was lighter and fluffier than a typical mava cake, simply because I used my usual cupcake recipe as a base. The next time I might try it with a pound cake recipe, because the denser texture of a pound cake resembles a mava cake more closely.

I also shaped my mava cakes as cupcakes because I didn’t have any mini loaf pans, and they looked pretty darn cute.

So here it is, the recipe of a labor of love. I’ve also shared with you pictures of one of South Bombay’s Irani joints, Sassanian’s, which we went to the last time we were in the city. The owner and his sister (left and above) told us they were having a hard time holding on in the face of competition from the dozens of fast-food chains that have descended on the city since India opened its economy in the 1990s, and which younger Bombayites find more attractive.

But I, for one, cannot imagine a Bombay without one of these cute corner eateries where one could never spend enough time with friends, where the food was always delicious and the prices always low. Here’s to all those amazing Irani restaurants– and here’s hoping they survive!


Vegan Mava Cake

(Makes 10 cupcakes)

Ingredients:

1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp powdered cardamom

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup soy milk + 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar. Mix and set aside to curdle for a few minutes

1/4 cup vegan cream cheese, like Tofutti, at room temperature.

1/2 cup or 8 tbsp vegan butter like Earth Balance, also at room temperature.

2 tsp pure vanilla extract

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and mix well. Add the cardamom powder and mix. Set aside.

In another bowl, with a hand mixer or a stand mixer set to medium speed, cream the vegan butter and the sugar until light and fluffy, for no more than 2 minutes. Add the cream cheese and beat until just mixed. Do not overbeat.

Add the vanilla extract.

Add the flour mixture in three batches alternating with the soymilk, beating in well after each addition so there are no lumps. Scrape down the bowl after each addition.

Line 10 cups of a standard-sized muffin pan with cupcake liners. Divide the batter equally among the cups, filling each cup about 2/3rds.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven about 25-28 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool on a rack. Mava cakes are never frosted, so all you have to do now is eat it. Enjoy!

This mava cake, a uniquely Indian treat, goes to It’s A Vegan World: Indian, started right here at Holy Cow! and hosted this month by Graziana of Erbe in cucina.

***

I wanted to apologize to anyone who missed me for my rather slow blogging schedule this last week. I got sick and although I had every intention of putting up this mava cake post a couple of days back, my congested head said otherwise. Anyway, better late than never. Thanks for your patience!

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Comments

  1. Jaya Wagle says

    Vaishali, that was quite a narrative on the Iranian restaurant scene. I was a single girl living in Mumbai and I would always go to an Iranian restaurant for their “bun”, the mava cake and the jujubs. I was never a fan of the tea, being particular about how I like mine, but I loved the atmosphere, the marble topped table, the slow whirring fans and the old Irani guys sitting around chatting up a storm. Thank you for bringing up a lovely memory. :)

  2. Pavani says

    Its really sad to see all the old eateries in India being taken over by fast food centers. Its the same story in Hyderabad.. Mawa cakes look yum.. I’m sure they tasted great too. Hope you are feeling better now and enjoying the long weekend.

  3. Shri says

    Wow!I am amazed at your recipes..how well you substitute to make a recipe vegan!Delicious one.I loved how you described Bombay’s food joints..It took me back to India for a moment:)

  4. kahliyalogue says

    Vaishali,thank you so much for such a beautiful post! I truly enjoyed the memoire and share your sadness as these picturesque samples of another world give in to the giant modern monsters.. :(
    Bravo on such determined efforts to recreate a dream..I know this issue so well from myself..but I am so glad we are doing these steps..enabling people to continue to enjoy classic wonderful recipes without the need to involve cruelty .. :) bytheway,I can smell that amazing whiff of cardamom till here..!Mia

  5. Indhu says

    loved your description of the Iranain bakeris in Bombay. I have never been to Bombay.. and it’s been one of my perennial wishes to travel on the local trains in Bombay… lovely recipe :)

  6. Parita says

    I love these…they were regular at our home..infact i would have these almost everyday! Your post reminds me i havent had mava cakes in long time!
    Vegan version sounds delicious and cakes have baked beautifully!

  7. Stephanie says

    Hi, Wow, how sad that the unique Iranian restaurants are being replaced….I thin it is so sad…you could travel the world and end up just seeing the same boring companies the world over…It’s too bad the choices some people are making…hope they will change their mind before it is too late!!
    Peace, Stephanie
    PS I have never rolled a sushi roll…it’s all my daughter…she is good at just about anything she puts a mind to!!

  8. Pari says

    extremely well written post. though I have never visited an Iranian restaurant I do feel sad for them.
    Will surely try these cakes when I visit next.
    love your version too.

  9. jan says

    Vaishali this looks really good. I want to make these for a weekend get together. If I want to use regular Khava/Mava, do I still need to do this step?
    -3/4 cup soy milk + 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar. Mix and set aside to curdle for a few minutes
    Please let me know.
    Thanks,
    Janhavi

    • Vaishali Honawar says

      Janhavi, the mava would replace the vegan cream cheese but you still need a liquid component like to soymilk. Since this is not a vegan version, you could use buttermilk, although it makes my heart sad that you don’t want to try the vegan version.

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