Britannia Restaurant in Mumbai Serves Up Nostalgia on a Plate


September 6, 2011

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For Nowruz, the Parsi New Year, which this year fell on August 19, a particularly long queue spilled out of Britannia Café’s doors and onto the wide boulevard of Mumbai’s elegant Ballard Estate. A cheery red and white sign offered clues to explain the patience and persistence of the hungry Sunday lunch: “There is no greater love than the love of eating.”

By Lucy Archibald | Wall Street Journal

britannia restaurant mumbaiA rainbow of Parsi, Hindu, British and French names were added to a waiting-list and a head waiter barked out orders as tables became available. Above him, an old black and white photograph of the restaurant’s founder, Rashid Kohinoor, oversaw proceedings.

Mr. Kohinoor came to Bombay from Iran in 1905 and established his business in 1923. Life in Yazd, a desert city in Iran, was tough and he was one of many Zoroastrians who accepted the invitation from Mumbai’s Parsi community, which descends from Iranian Zoroastrians, to move to the city and begin a new life.

Mahatma Gandhi described Parsis as “in number beneath contempt, but in contribution beyond compare.” And like so many other migrant communities, economic and educational circumstances meant that for most recently-immigrated Iranian Zoroastrians, their initial contribution was mainly to open hundreds of food stalls, bakeries and cafés.

As the Parsi community has dwindled – it is expected to reach no more than 23,000 members by 2020 – the majority of these cafés and bakeries have closed. But three generations on, Britannia continues to thrive, partly because this isn’t a ghettoized business: the restaurant is filled with Indians of different creeds and social status, smart Hindu ladies-who-lunch, local students, visiting Parsis and a sprinkling of foreigners.

Cyrus Rustom, originally a Mumbai Parsi, now living in Toronto, was having lunch with his wife and son: “My family have been coming here for 50 or 60 years. We always try to come when we’re back in town.”

The veteran staff greet Mr. Rustom like an old friend, but it’s the Brits who seem to be served most attentively. After all, the restaurant is called Britannia and Boman Kohinoor, Mr. Kohinoor’s son, is a passionate Anglophile!

At 88-years old (he’d rather say “almost 90?), and with glasses that magnify his eyes to cartoonish proportions, he shuffles between the tables at a steady pace, checking that all is well in his domain. Given the slightest provocation, he goes to fetch his prized possession for a touring exhibition. Beaming, he presents it to both charmed and bewildered diners: a letter on headed Windsor notepaper from HRH Queen Elizabeth. Protected in dog-eared laminated plastic, the relic missive thanks him for his kind correspondence and loyalty.

He also offers a manifesto, entitled “Let’s Bring Back the Brits,”-  a letter from a mysterious Y. Shyamasundar to a newspaper, published about a decade ago, photocopied onto white paper slips, wilting slightly in the monsoon, and beseeching that the British be recalled to India.

Mr. Kohinoor’s very unfashionable views on colonialism are informed by a childhood spent growing up under the Raj and reflect the co-operative, mutually appreciative relationship that was established between the British and Parsis from as early as the 17th century. The British offered this minority community routes to education and commercial success, and in turn the Parsis offered the colonial incumbents political validation. Even the founder of Britannia, Rashid Kohinoor was given his food and beverage license in just 24 hours in 1923, on a condition set by the British commissioner that he give his restaurant a British name.

The colonial era Mr. Kohinoor looks back at rosily may have vanished, but there is a comforting stillness about Britannia. The interior, with its grand chandelier and antique clock – accidentally set against flaking pastel paint and whiteboards, inscribed with the tried and tested menu – captures the sort of faded grandeur that hip restaurants spend thousands trying to imitate.

There’s a no nonsense nostalgia to the menu itself too. The Berry Pulav (300 rupees, $6.5), an Indianised version of the Iranian dish Zereshk Polow, is legendary, with or without chicken or mutton (Britannia doesn’t serve beef.) Fluffy basmati, golden with saffron, is seasoned and cooked with crisp tendrils of onion and vegetables in an aromatic Dhansak sauce- a lentil-based sauce with aubergines, pumpkin, liberally seasoned and spiced. The dish is finished with dried barberries that cut through the rich flavors with their tartness.

Another specialty is Bombay Duck (200 rupees) – not duck at all, but rather a small white fish, dried, salted and cooked in batter. Legend has it that during the Raj the fish was transported by rail after drying on the “Bombay Dak,” the Bombay Mail train. The fish became synonymous with the train, and the name later evolved into Bombay Duck – or so the story goes.

Puddings at Brittania are an old-fashioned affair–the sort that encourage long afternoon naps. The Caramel Custard (80 rupees) is comforting and just sweet enough, floating in a pool of burnt caramel. But the highlight is the Mishti Doi (70 rupees): popular in Orissa and West Bengal, it is a yogurt pudding sweetened with brown sugar and with a refreshing kick of citrus and cardamom. It comes served in charming terracotta pots, that also serve a practical purpose: the homemade yogurt thickens best overnight when held in such a porous container.

But it’s the British recipe for Strawberry Cream that Mr. Kohinoor is really after. He enunciates each syllable so theatrically that it’s as if he’s tasting the strawberries on his tongue. It’s a recipe that could only exist in the recipe book of some grand, antiquated regiment, or in the England of Britannia’s imagination…

Britannia & Co. (Restaurant), 11,Sprott Road (opp. New Custom House), Ballard Estate, Fort,Mumbai, +91 022 22615264. Open Monday-Saturday 12 p.m. -4 p.m.

Lucy Archibald is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.