“My wife always used to say, they come in as customers. Make sure they leave as guests,” remembers Boman Rashid Kohinoor. Kohinoor, 90, is the owner of one of Bombay’s finest Irani restaurants – Britannia and Company. Located in Ballard Pier – South Mumbai’s corporate district – the restaurant is open only for lunch (12 to 4 pm) and runs a waiting queue every day.
As I enter the restaurant, I am ushered to a small round table covered in red and white checked cloth. The high ceilings, the flaking walls, the framed picture of Queen Elizabeth II on the far right wall – all talk of an era gone by. On the railing of the balcony hangs a signboard saying, ” do not argue with the management”. It is in this hall that Bollywood celebrities, Parsi musicians, foreign dignitaries and the local Bombay crowd has savored every last bite of the signature Berry Pulav for the last 30 years. The restaurant – opened by Kohinoor’s father, Rashid in 1923, was counted in the same league as Taj and Oberoi during the British Raj.
“But all this is new age stuff. When I was young I remember the restaurant – with its Japanese wood paneling on the walls, the wooden furniture from Poland, the tables covered in bright white table cloth and the servers wearing their waist-coats and bow-ties. Those were the days,” smiles Kohinoor.
The cuisine has also changed. From the continental fare it used to serve up in the colonial era, to the mughlai which became popular post-independence. It was only after Kohinoor’s wife – Bachan – took the reigns that Parsi food was included in the menu, while scrapping continental food all together. Bachan’s pet rooster also went on to be featured in Britannia logo – of a small black and white rooster, around which runs the line “there is no love greater than the love of eating.”
Bachan’s undeniable contribution to Britannia’s legacy is the Berry Pulav – a dish she learnt while travelling to Tehran. The Indianised version of Zereshk polow is a spicy rice and meat dish. There are boxes marked ‘berry’ lining the walls of the restaurant – as if no one cared to hide the kitchen secrets from the customers. However, the recipe for the popular rice and meat pulav remains a secret to this day. Britannia also has other Parsi specialties such as Patra Ne Macchi (steamed pomphret wrapped in green chutney, cooked inside a banana leaf), Sali Boti (mutton gravy with crispy fries) and Mutton Dhansak (meat in lentil gravy).
“Oh! I remember the time when the American Ambassador, Peter Burleigh came here with 12 officers. They were sitting right here, in the centre”, says Kohinoor, pointing at tables where a group of college kids are having their fill of Raspberry Drink and Sali Boti today. “He requested me for the recipe several times. I made an offer – asked him to give me the recipe for Coca -Cola and in return I shall give him the Pulav recipe. Neither got any.” He laughs.
Following his wife’s advice, he visits each table in his restaurant, talking to his guests, recommending dishes, urging them to take some more dal, asking them if they have enjoyed the meal. It is this familiarity which brings the customers back, time and again.
Hundreds of Parsi restaurants have downed their shutters in recent years. From the 400-odd restaurants and cafes in the 50’s, it has come to only 15 such places in the city. The educated younger generation prefers to move to USA or Europe to make a better life, instead of working in their family shops. On top of that, the pressure to keep prices at a low in the face of rising taxes. Britannia has escaped that fate, Kohinoor’s other cafe – Bastani and Company – hasn’t.
It is not just about the restaurants any more. It is about their race. Parsis are few now, thanks to their rigid marriage policies and conditions of living within their own society. Mahatma Gandhi had once described Parsis as “in number beneath contempt, but in contribution beyond compare.” According to data available, the number of Parsis are expected to come down to 23,000 by 2020.
Kohinoor motions to the server to give me mishti doi in an earthen cup – a very bengali sweet dish which takes me by surprise. He sits down with a file. Neatly stacked inside are photographs, letters and postcards sent from across the world – all thanking him for a delicious meal and a lovely time. He shows me a note written on tissue paper by one of his young customers – ” Boman uncle, You are too cute. I don’t want to leave you behind in Bombay (sic). So, after you finish your lunch I’m going to kidnap you and take you home with me”.
I silently wish it was me who had written that letter.