Food

Cooking a culinary history at Mumbai's Britannia & Co

Mumbai 26/10/17 Boman Kohinoor owner of Cafe Britannia in Ballard Estate Photo: Emmanual Yogini

One cannot possibly go to Britannia & Co in Ballard Estate in Mumbai and not relish the signature mutton or chicken berry pulao . This sweet-sour fragrant pilaf rice layered with chunks of mutton or chicken swathed in a rich, spiced tomato sauce, topped with sour berries, crunchy cashews and sweet, sticky caramelised onions, is the piece de resistance on their menu.

And while it may seem that this Indo-Iranian Parsi dish has been a part of this café ever since it was started in 1923, it was actually introduced by Bachan Kohinoor, the late wife of 94-year-old Boman Kohinoor, the current owner of this legendary restaurant. Continental food was what Britannia & Co was synonymous with, ever since it was started by Boman’s father, Rashid, in 1923. “The British naturally did not want spicy food, so we catered to their palates,” says Boman.

It was only after Independence that some Mughlai fare was made part of the menu, as they did not feel the need to serve Continental food only. After retirement, Boman’s wife took an active interest in the restaurant and infused her Parsi touch into the menu. Her personal recipes were shared with the chefs and are followed till date. Berry pulao , chicken dhansak , sali boti , fish patra and caramel custard became a part of the offerings here and are still the fastest selling items.

“Gradually, once the British left, we did away with the Continental dishes and included spicy Parsi and Mughlai dishes for our diners,” Boman quips.

Tweaking a legacy

He further reminisces, “In those days, berry pulao was made of soft fluffy rice, tender meat or chicken and imported Irani zereshk berries. It was priced at a measly ₹45 a plate. My wife tweaked the recipe she had sampled when posted in Tehran and created her own version, which soon became the high point of our restaurant. Owing to inflation, the price of mutton berry pulao is ₹750 a plate today.”

Like many other Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran, Rashid Kohinoor came to Bombay and decided to get into the restaurant business. His son Boman has been involved in the running of Britannia since he was 16 years old, as he had to step in when his father died in 1939 in an accident. Although Boman still comes daily to the restaurant, his son Afshin looks into the running of the restaurant. Boman is happy taking orders, talking to his guests and regaling them with colourful old stories.

Mumbai 26/10/17 Boman Kohinoor owner of Cafe Britannia in Ballard Estate Photo: Emmanual Yogini

Mumbai 26/10/17 Boman Kohinoor owner of Cafe Britannia in Ballard Estate Photo: Emmanual Yogini

 

He revels in the nostalgia and accolades Britannia has received over the years. On a wall, cultural tributes, which Boman is immensely proud of, preside. A painting of Queen Elizabeth II is next to a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, both hanging beneath a gilt-framed picture of Zarathustra, the Zoroastrian prophet worshipped by the Parsis. He further shows off to his guests the letter he has received from Her Majesty’s office. These are his priceless treasures.

Dreams come true

The highlight of his life, he feels, was when his dream to meet Prince William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, came true and he actually got a chance to see them.

Making money has never been Boman’s mantra. Small wonder then that the restaurant opens daily for four hours only, for dinner on Saturdays and remains closed on Sundays.

The Bentwood furniture imported by his father is still a part of the restaurant, but Boman confesses, “This place was very sophisticated and posh back then. Now it is simple and ordinary.”

Content with his limited menu offerings, Boman does not feel the need to make additions. “Guests come here for their favourite dishes; so why complicate matters by introducing more. Let us continue to serve these well,” he states, matter-of-factly.

No compromises

Their food may appear more expensive than some other Irani cafés, but Boman emphasises they use only fresh, good quality ingredients and never compromise on anything. Competition has never bothered him, as he is confident of his food and knows he has a loyal clientèle. “We have people coming from abroad regularly to dine here and some even carry back our food,” he says proudly. He adds, “An air hostess flying to London used to carry 100 chapatis with her as she loved the soft, fluffy chapatis we make.”

The fame that Britannia enjoys in Mumbai and even in other parts of the country and world is what he holds dear. “Patrons come here from all over the globe, and after eating our food, write about it in the media. That is how we have gained word-of-mouth publicity. Else we have never advertised,” he declares with pride.

One of the last Irani restaurants in Mumbai, Boman has given almost 80 years of his life to this place and wants it to continue forever. “I want the family legacy to continue, that’s all,” he says. He is hopeful his grandson Daanish, who is still quite young, will step in, but is realistic too. “It is not possible for one person to manage Britannia. Let’s see what happens after me,” he signs off.

In this weekly column, we take a peek at some of the country’s most iconic restaurants


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Printable version | Apr 17, 2022 9:29:35 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/cooking-a-culinary-history/article20479933.ece