Nestled at 16 Ballard Estate, Fort, Mumbai, Britannia & Co, the Indo-Persian café, stands in stark contrast to most structures that surround it.
This pre-independence eatery was started by Rashid Kohinoor, an immigrant Zoroastrian, whose ancestors fled Iran to avoid religious persecution and settled in metropolitan Mumbai.
In 1923, the same year his son, Boman Kohinoor, was born, Rashid decided to dabble in the food business, and that is how the iconic Iranian-Parsi café came about.
Britannia & Co. Source: Facebook/Hengul J. Das
96 years since, it continues to capture the hearts of all those who walk into it. The guests are fed mouth-watering dishes, with a side of pre-independence stories and humorous anecdotes by its owner, Boman.
Incidentally, the 96-year-old is as old as the café!
Boman took over the operations at the tender age of 16 after his father passed away in an accident in 1939. Today, he continues to run it with the help of his children, the third generation of the Kohinoor family.
In the nine decades of existence, the café has come a long way from catering to the spice-intolerant British officials stationed in the Fort area. It adapted several dishes to suit the Indian palate and today, one can also find spicy Parsi and Mughlai food in the menu.
However, through the years, the ambience hasn’t changed. It runs for four hours a day except on Sundays, when it stays shut, and the Bentwood furniture imported from Poland during Boman’s father’s time is still around.
While it was originally known for its continental food, some of the bestsellers were introduced by Bachan Kohinoor, Boman’s late wife.
A legal adviser, she was posted in Iran for several years, while Boman ran Britannia in India. When she retired, she moved back to the city and introduced dishes like the classic berry pulao, chicken dhansak, sali boti, patra ni macchi and caramel custard in the restaurant.
The closely-guarded recipes continue to be followed even today.
The food is definitely more expensive than other Irani cafés, but the quality, quantity, and service make it worth it.
1. Chicken Berry pulao
This is the café’s signature dish, and comprises flavourful chicken cooked with the right balance of spices, tomatoes, served with aromatic and fluffy basmati rice, topped with barberries, crispy fried shallots, cashews, and caramelised onions.
Bachan had introduced some variations on the dry Iranian berry pulao, by adding spices and more gravy to the recipe. Also, the zereshk berries used in the dish are reportedly imported from Iran.
2. Sali boti
Topped with shoe-string fried potatoes, this classic Parsi dish with a reddish-brown gravy and tender mutton that falls apart in your mouth with every bite is a must-try.
3. Mutton dhansak
A Parsi dal, it consists of nuggets of tender mutton cooked with a thick mixture of lentils and pureed vegetables adding to the consistency of the dish.
In an interview with CNN travel, Boman adds how non-Indian patrons love to pack packets of berry pulao to take abroad, while Indian patrons choose the more traditional patra ni macchi and dhansak.
He tells us about a Singaporean lady who has been taking large orders of sali boti and dhansak for more than ten years, while an aged Parsi doctor picks up ten orders of patra ni macchi to London every six months. Freezing them, he treats himself to the Parsi meal over days.
There is one anecdote that stands out amongst the many. One of an NRI in London.
The man requested an Air-India air hostess who regularly flew from the Mumbai-London sector to take 100 chapatis from the café every week for him. Packed in air-tight containers, these chapatis made their way to Heathrow every week for seven months until it stopped.
Either the hostess’ route changed, or if the two shared a romantic relationship, it may have ended, suspects Kohinoor.
Boman and his love for the Royal family
The man has a collection of letters, and one even carries the official letterhead of Windsor Castle. Many of these are from the people who have dined at Britannia & Co and include big names like George Bush Senior, Dick Cheney, and even the Pope.
A painting of Queen Elizabeth II and a portrait of freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi, hand side by side beneath a picture of the Zoroastrian prophet, Zarathustra. Three flags adorn the wall—the Indian flag, the flag of the United Kingdom and a Zoroastrian flag.
One of the nonagenarian’s biggest dreams was to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, which came true when Kate Middleton and Prince William visited India.
A legacy to carry forward
You may look at Britannia & Co’s logo and wonder why they never really decided to trade the black cockerel for a modern logo. The Hindu reports that it has an emotional connect, and is a tribute to Bachan Kohinoor’s pet.
The publication also adds how the restaurant’s 99-year-old lease expires in 2023. But we hope the Kohinoor family legacy and its passion for serving food continues for another 100 years.
The next time you are in South Mumbai, don’t forget to treat yourself at Britannia & Company.
Wakefield House, 11 Sprott Road, 16 Ballard Estate, Fort, Mumbai.
Opening hours: 11:30 am – 4 pm from Mondays to Saturdays (closed on Sundays).
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)