Berry old memory: Kunal Vijayakar on Britannia’s delights


October 7, 2019

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Mumbai will miss Boman Kohinoor, who passed away at 97, after a lifetime spent behind the counter of Ballard Estate’s iconic Britannia & Co. See what makes the place so special.

Article by Kunal Vijayakar | Hindustan Times


A lunch of berry pulao, made to Boman Kohinoor’s wife’s recipe, is considered one of the must-do meals in Mumbai. (SANTOSH HARHARE/ HT PHOTO)

Much has been written about the sunny, buoyant and elderly keeper of the 96-year -old legacy of one of Mumbai’s extraordinary institutions. Boman Kohinoor, the man behind Britannia & Co passed away. And for a mere restaurateur, an unprecedented amount of ink was poured in tribute. Which in itself goes to show that Kohinoor, wasn’t mere at all. He was part of the fabric of Mumbai that is now slowly being frayed and is turning threadbare. In him, we have lost one of the few remaining symbols of a city that represented another more gentle and upright age.

I must have first visited Britannia when I was a kid. In those days, driving to the heritage precincts of Ballard Estate was no great thing. We did not give even a second glance to those grand buildings of this European-style business district designed in the Indo Saracenic style. We just drove past the Mint and took a left at the tall Port Trust World War I memorial and hopped off right outside Britannia. The streets were thinly populated, hardly anyone owned cars and finding parking wasn’t even a glimmer of a problem.

In those days, the signboard above the restaurant read “Britannia & Co High Class Restaurant”. On the sides of the worn tin signage were two advertisements for Dukes Mangola and Lemonade. Remnants of crystal chandeliers with tiny golden globe lights, high ceilings and arched doorways hinted at a time when Britannia was indeed a high-class restaurant. It catered only to British Officers and served only European food. Like many prime properties in Mumbai at the time, Britannia too was acquired by the army to house soldiers during World War II. When the war was over, Britannia was handed back to the owners, but all the officers and Europeans had gone and the ground floor of Neville House, on Currimbhoy Road was never the same. But the Iranis and the Kohinoor brothers were not going to take things lying down.

Come Independence, the restaurant was back with nationalistic vigour, with a spicy mainly Parsi menu and dishes based on recipes from the Kohinoor home.

We were young, and Boman Kohinoor by that logic was a much younger man. When we all trooped into the restaurant as children, running around deciding on which table to grab, the bright green checkered table linen beckoning us, a large red rooster with a black plumed tail, and a ruddy Kohinoor who both sat majestically, one on top of and the other behind the cash counter greeted us. If he ever spotted you struggle with the large menu cards tucked under the glass that covered the tables, he would spring into action to help.

The usual order was the Mutton Berry Pulao. That was the single most important dish at Britannia. The Britannia Berry Pulao comes closest to the Irani Zereshk Polow as it can to a Persian dish. Zereshk Polow is a simple steamed rice dish flavoured with saffron, sprinkled with sour barberries (berry) and served with chello kabab, kibbeh or chunks of meat. Some Persian homes cook the meat and rice together and then finish it off with saffron and the berries. Britannia, added fried onions and tomatoes, Parsi spices, potato and served it as a robust pulao. It came flavoured with Parsi garam masala, saffron and sprinkled with nuts and berries imported from Iran.

Kohinoor would come to the table, greet you, the bottles of Raspberry would appear as he’d explain the menu, snap at a waiter, order your choice and then regale you with his sentiments about British Royalty

We would sit under those creaky fans hanging a mile above our heads and sweat with joy eating Berry Pulao with Britannia’s dark, thick, loaded masala dhansak dal, like it was our last meal. (Their dhansak which nobody ever talks about, is also incredible) Of course it wasn’t our last meal. Along with the pulao, there was always an order of Britannia’s eminent Sali Kheema (mutton) that we wiped back with soft large rotlis, and deep fried lacy mutton cutlets – soft mince spicy patty dipped in crumbs and egg and fried. During the right season, they served fried bombils and Patra ni Macchi as specials but I never ventured there.

Kohinoor would come to the table, greet you, the bottles of Raspberry would appear as he’d explain the menu, snap at a waiter, order your choice and then regale you with his sentiments about British Royalty. He’d insist you try the queen of desserts, the caramel custard. Originally a classic French dessert, called Crème Caramel, it’s been completely claimed by Irani cafés and Parsi housewives. Chilled wobbly custard with sweet and bitter burnt caramel on top. In the old days you’d get jelly too. But I cannot fathom when such a quintessential Irani place added Bengali mishti doi to its menu, which I’d always prefer over the custard, much to Kohinoor’s vexation.

Mind you, though the walls were unpainted and the plaster was peeling, the meal wasn’t cheap. It did set you back a bit. But then, what’s a few extra rupees for a trip to another time, place and dimension. A few years ago the rooster left his roost and now hangs on the wall as a photo in frame. Sadly the next time we go there, so will Boman Kohinoor. My only prayer is that while he will be sorely missed by his many patrons, may his legacy live on for a long time in Britannia’s Mutton Berry Pulao.