Britannia restaurant: Flying food and other Parsi tales

Britannia restaurant: Flying food and other Parsi tales

Boman Kohinoor and his son/chef Romin tell CNNGo the long history of Britannia & Co. and share the sacred sali meat recipe from one of Mumbai's best loved restaurants
Britannia Mumbai
It is not uncommon for locals, travelers and tourists to walk in with copies of articles that might have appeared in a French gourmet magazine.
In 1923, like a few other Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran, Rashid Kohinoor decided to get into the restaurant business in the city once known as Bombay. Could he have imagined that Britannia & Co. would have people requesting reservations right up to era of iPad menus?

Britannia & Co. is now in the able hands of the third generation, still whipping up food influenced by the family’s Iranian and Parsi roots. It is not hard to imagine what the joint must have looked like when it first threw open its doors to the British Officers stationed in the Fort area. Not much, the Kohinoors say, has changed; including the Bentwood furniture imported from Poland during the eatery's early years.

A few modern amenities like a phone and the five-foot odd stacks of air-tight containers, aluminum foil boxes and other packaging paraphernalia have been added and help Britannia run a thriving home-delivery business in South Mumbai.

Flying fish and other tales

Often patrons carry their own parcels back home in Mumbai, or on the evening flight back to Delhi or Bangalore. But you have no idea how far Britannia's food can fly.

Boman Kohinoor is immensely charming, he personally takes orders and makes small talk with the diners. At 88 he is nothing like the young and dynamic restaurateurs the city is buzzing with.

Boman Kohinoor, who inherited the restaurant from his father Rashid, talks about a lady from Singapore who has been visiting for over a decade now. She loves to go back with large numbers of her favorite dishes like sali boti (mutton gravy with crispy fries) and dhansak (chicken or mutton in a lentil gravy), which the family relishes over weeks.

Another patron, an old Parsi doctor, picks up 10 numbers of just one dish -- the steamed fish in banana leaf called Patra ni Macchi -- and takes it back to London every six months. He freezes them and treats himself occasionally to a genuine Parsi delicacy. 

Similarly people in Hong Kong, Malaysia, London, Paris and even as far as Canada, many of them emigrants, carry back a bite of Mumbai's memories and the taste they grew up with.

Part of Britannia's charm is its legacy and also the widespread attention it has received from the local and international media. It is not uncommon for locals, travelers and tourists to walk in with copies of articles that might have appeared in a French gourmet magazine or a local daily, clippings that Boman Kohinoor digs out from his dusty file and shows us. 

Bachan Kohinoor invents the berry pulav

Britannia MumbaiBritannia's Berry Pulav.The earliest offerings of Britannia were reflective of the family’s Iranian heritage. But Boman’s late wife, Bachan, was a Parsi and after their marriage she introduced Parsi specialties like dhansak and fish patra to the menu. Ironically, she was also the force behind the very famous and very Iranian berry rice pulav. Mrs Kohinoor was a legal adviser in Iran, posted there for several years while her husband managed the restaurant in India. On her return, she suggested that berry pulav be introduced and to this day, the barberry in Britannia’s signature dish is imported from Iran. But the dish has been adapted to suit Indian tastes. The pulav in Iran is dry and just lightly flavored, whereas Britannia’s version is spicier and more like an Indian biryani, with the pulav rice heaped over a gravy dish.

Visitors from other cities in India like to fly back with the novel berry pulav but Indians from abroad often like to carry with them more traditional Parsi fish patra and dhansak, says Romin, the chef who was taught the art of cooking from his mother Bachan Kohinoor. The recipes of the special dishes like the berry pulav and the caramel custard are like family jewels, you have to either inherit them or be willing to part with a six-figure sum (in Indian rupees).

100 chapatis, please

Even the humble, basic chapati from Britannia enjoys international acclaim. Patrons are agog over their melt-in-the-mouth quality. Boman Kohinoor recounts the story of an NRI in London from a few years ago. The gentleman requested an Air India air hostess who used to fly the Mumbai-London sector to carry about 100 chapatis every week for him. Britannia’s air-tight parceled chapatis arrived at Heathrow, without fail, every week, for seven months. After which, either the lady’s route changed or their relationship ended, possibly over the chapatis. 

Romin is also befuddled at the popularity of the chapatis. "We use whole wheat and make them just as the Parsis do," he says. In fact, he insists, the chapatis, dhansak and fish patra taste just as they would at a Parsi wedding.

Centurion in the making?

Britannia MumbaiBritannia's 99-year lease expires in 2023. Over the years, nostalgic patrons have mourned the demise of the Irani café culture in our city, wanting to hold on to a time gone by for just a little longer. 

The restaurant industry has changed dramatically since the era of family-run businesses. While Boman Kohinoor is immensely charming, he personally takes orders and makes small talk with the diners. At 88 years of age he is nothing like the young and dynamic restaurateurs the city is buzzing with. 

Romin, his younger son and the chef, is simple, soft-spoken and much of his life has been spent in the kitchen at Britannia, very different from the many globally trained, urbane Swiss-educated chef-cum-owners Mumbai now boasts of.

"I don’t have an email or even own a computer," Romin says. In the current era of snazzy logos and chic branding, Britannia's logo is an unappetizing black cock. An ode to a pet that Bachan Kohinoor had for several years. It's likely that Britannia's owners are more motivated by sentiment than profit, and while they must make enough for a comfortable life, the earnings from the restaurant cannot be commensurate with its fame and legacy. They are open for just four hours a day and their rates are nominal.

At points, both Boman's sons wanted to quit but he persuaded them to stay on. In fact, his eldest son Afshin, who assists him in managing the place, returned only a few years ago after a stint in Iran. The restaurant's 99-year lease expires in 2023, just a little over a decade left. There is also just one person from the fourth generation, 13-year-old Daanish Kohinoor, and as his grandfather says, a restaurant is hard to manage single-handedly.

Here's an authentic Britannia recipe for posterity, and a gravy-stained page of Mumbai history.

Britannia-style sali chicken in five steps

(Chicken in gravy with crispy fries, serves four)

You will need:

2 finely chopped green chillies

2 large finely chopped onions

A tiny piece of ginger

Half a teaspoon of cinnamon powder

Half a teaspoon of turmeric powder

1 teaspoon of garam masala

Half a teaspoon of cumin seeds

7 or so curry leaves

6 cloves of garlic

Salt

1 kilo of boneless chicken thighs, 10 pieces or so, cut in thirds

2 tablespoons of oil

On the side:

1 small sliced onion

1 lime cut into wedges

3 cups of thin and crispy fried potato stick chips

(Britannia gets them from Camy Wafers in Colaba)

Method:

Step 1: Make a thick paste out of the garlic, ginger, garam masala, cinnamom and turmeric and set aside.

Step 2: Drop curry leaves and cumin seeds in a pan with hot oil and stir slightly. After a few seconds, when the seeds start to splutter, add the chopped onions and chillies, let it cook and stir occasionally for about five minutes. Add the spices and stir for a minute or so.

Step 3: Now bring in the chicken and stir in the pan till it’s well coated with the spices. Pour two cups of water, add salt and bring to boil. Cover with a lid, reduce heat and let the chicken cook for half an hour.

Step 4: Uncover the dish and let it to simmer in low flame for another thirty minutes until the chicken is soft and tender. 

Step 5: In a deep plate, place the chicken and arrange a nice, thick layer of potato sticks around the edges. Serve piping hot with juicy lime wedges and onion.

I really have to end this story now. Or I'll drool over my keyboard.

Britannia & Co., 11 Sprott Rd., Ballard Estate, near Fort; tel +91 (0) 22 22615264

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