Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Koolar & Co. : Brun Maska in the Land of Idli

In the hotbed of eateries serving some of the city’s best piping hot dosas, sambars and tasty chutney that is Matunga, lies an equally popular if unlikely restaurant — an Irani one. What is it about Koolar & Co, run by two jolly brothers, that helps it hold its own against the might of rasam? finds out

By Sanjiv Nair | Mid-Day

Yezd is a 3,000 year-old province in Iran. It suffered a considerable amount of isolation from the country due to the asht-e-Kavir, Dasht-e-Lut and the Yazd Deserts which surrounded its dominion. Over time, this isolation triggered a seminal transformation in residents of the province, making them industrious, hard-working and resilient.

Yezd is a 3,000 year-old province in Iran. It suffered a considerable amount of isolation from the country due to the asht-e-Kavir, Dasht-e-Lut and the Yazd Deserts which surrounded its dominion. Over time, this isolation triggered a seminal transformation in residents of the province, making them industrious, hard-working and resilient.

bhurjiUnsurprisingly, most Parsis share similar virtues since a considerable number of Zoroastrians, who migrated to India over the centuries, hail from this ancient city of Iran. At the turn of the 20th century, one such immigrant from Yezd, Mamush Koolar, migrated to Mumbai in the footsteps of his kin, penniless and with hopes of leaving his imprint on the city. Little did he know that nearly a century later, his legacy would become one of the city’s grandest cultural landmarks.

Koolar & Co. in Matunga (East) is an Irani restaurant run by Amir Koolar and his brother Ali. Both wear the beleaguered appearance of people who have been fighting the establishment for their own survival for as long as they have lived. Bureaucracy, red-tapeism and licence acquisition for their restaurant apart, Amir was also the man who made adopting trees legal in India — a battle that he fought in memory of his dead Rottweiler.

However, there is a swagger in the enormous gait of the jolly twosome, both of whom wear their hair long, and dress in stylish pairs of jeans and t- shirts. Engage them in conversation, and they are the jolliest twosome you might ever bump into, with a treasure trove of trivia about Iran and the cultural impact that Iranis have had on India.

"We don’t compromise on the food. Butter will never be substituted with margarine, and a plate of kheema will always pack a kilo of meat in it," says 42 year-old Amir, proudly. "The food we serve is as authentic Parsi food as you will ever find. Even our cooks have been around for several decades."

Irani food for a Madrasi

Being located in a predominantly south Indian locality with some of the city’s most iconic restaurants, seems like positional hara-kiri, we tell them. Amir replies that it’s quite the contrary. "A majority of the visitors to these south Indian restaurants are not from the South. For the local south Indians, our food is a novelty. In fact south Indians who have moved out from Matunga, still visit our caf © from Chembur, Dadar and even Navi Mumbai."

So, why is Koolar & Co removed from all the other Parsi restaurants in the city, located in south Mumbai? Was it merely a stroke of luck or the foresight of a visionary restaurateur?

Ali laughs and tells us the story of Mamush Koolar, his father, who first came to the city around the beginning of the last century, and worked in several establishments doing all kinds of odd jobs, which included washing dishes in other Irani restaurants. The first few years of his life in Mumbai were spent in Dockyard and Marine Line, which in those days was the hub of the city’s notorious underbelly of crime. Together with his elder brother, Zafar Ali Koolar, Mamush amassed a significant amount of savings, enough to start a restaurant of their own. "Their only criterion for its location was to stay as far as possible from the hub of the city’s underworld. Matunga, in those days, was the final stop for trams plying in Mumbai," says Ali. When Koolar discovered a property nestled at the nucleus of King Cross Caf ©, he leaped at the opportunity to use the space to establish his labour of love. In 1932, King George’s Caf © was established, a name which to Koolar & Co was changed after India won its independence.

Egg in your chai?

Amir claims that the caf ©’s menu still aspires to revitalise "the tired urban middle class by providing them with nutritious food." That’s not too far from the truth — one taste of the protein-rich food will attest to it. The aptly named Wrestler Omelette packs in five eggs, and is vouched for by some of the city’s best body builders including fitness expert Kaizaad Kapadia, they claim. The Chicken Egg Omelette is a treat and their Kheema Pav is the stuff legends are made of. The Brun Pao is larger and tougher than your average Mumbai pao. But dunk it into a glass of Irani chai and prepare to yield to pure gastronomical exultation. While on the topic of bliss, do not leave without trying out their Honey Egg — to use a clich ©, it will "blow your mind." A company of three would struggle to finish all of that and it would set you back by a mere Rs 300. Prices however, aren’t the only things that make Koolar & Co. legendary.

In the 1950s, Mumbai’s caf ©s had a rather disconcerting tendency to categorise their services to customers based on their caste and religious affiliation. Zafar Ali Koolar (the older brother of Mamoosh) was the man who championed the cause of abolishing this anachronistic practice, serving each customer alike and even fighting it in court. This was however, only one of several battles fought by this family. Amir claims, "There was a time, when our tea become so famous that competitors floated the rumour that we mixed egg in our milk. A scientifically impossible feat obviously, because egg would make the milk curdle. It took some time for this ridiculous notion to die out, but eventually it did and we persevered."

Koolar & Co has a filmy connection too — scenes from films like Vaastav, Bardaasht and Ram Gopal Varma’s upcoming Department were shot here. However, few are aware of the caf ©’s strong relationship with one of the most iconic families of Indian cinema. Amir recalls that many decades ago, the Kapoor family resided near Matunga (one of the reasons why RK Studios is in Chembur) and would frequent Koolar  & Co. In the evenings, the younger Kapoor siblings would chat up over Irani chai and brun maska. "Prithviraj Kapoor", Amir claims, "was fluent in Persian and would recite Persian poetry with a flawless diction." Even the furniture has held strong from the day that the caf © had first opened its doors to public, bearing testimony to the expert workmanship of the German craftsmen who had manufactured them way back in 1932. 

Age-old customers

What is it about a Parsi caf © in a ‘Madrasi’ area that has customers thronging it even on an obscure Sunday afternoon? Amir says, "Our customers have grown old with us. From across the counter we have seen children becoming men, getting married, and having their own children, who now come to our caf ©. People called us foolish for treating our customers like family members, as we allowed a few rupees here and there to go unpaid. I feel somewhere down the line, our trust and that unpaid money has been repaid by them manifold." 

The future of the iconic caf ©, however remains uncertain. Koolar, Amir’s father expired at an early age, leaving Amir and his brother with the responsibility of running the restaurant. As homage to his roots, he has tried to uphold the very same standards in food and pricing his father adhered to. He has continued to fight inflation and the vagaries of bureaucracy, but he truly desires for things to change, for him to pass on the store sans souci to the next generation. But he still has it in him for a few more bouts. With a twinkle in his eye he quips, "People from Yezd are incredibly tough.  We will persevere, irrespective of what happens. Much like the Yezdi. Where do you think the bike gets its name from?"