On a visit to Britannia Restaurant in Ballard Estate, sometime in December 2011, a chat with Mr. Boman Kohinoor, opened up a lot of stories behind the Parsi and Irani cafes in Mumbai.
Mr. Kohinoor, a second generation owner of the restaurant opened his heart out over a glass of Fresh lime soda. The conversation is reproduced below in an abridged form.
An Interview : A chat with Mr. Boman Kohinoor, Britannia Restaurant in Ballard Estate.
- Rajarshi : Some cafes are called Parsi cafes and some are called Iranian cafes. What is the difference?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: There is hardly any difference. The Iranis and Parsis and the Parsis and Iranis have mixed. The Parsis have come to India from Iran 1275 years ago, and the Irani Parsis have come to India (like my grandfather) 130 or 140 years ago. But we belong to the same community, so the restaurants are practically the same.
- Rajarshi : What are the very special or specific dishes that are offered on the menu as Parsi food ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: Authentic Parsi food or you may say mix of Parsi and Irani food. So authentic Parsi food is Sali boti that is mutton pieces cooked in special Parsi gravy and it is garnished with Sali and eaten with Parsi chapati. Garam garam naram naram Parsi chapati.
- Rajarshi : What is Sali ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: Sali means fine chips, kind of finger chips. Fine chips are called Sali.
- Rajarshi : The same thing that was served with the Chicken Cutlet ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: Ya…. For Sali boti or Sali chicken … the chicken or mutton is garnished with fine chips called Sali. Now the other item, which is our signature item, the Berry Pulav, it is a special type of biriyani.
- Rajarshi : Is it a special item of Britannia cafe or is it a Brittania special?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: No no no…. it is a Britannia special. It is a combination of Irani Parsi or Irani Indian Biriyani.
- Rajarshi : I see a dish here called Mishti Doi … is it a Parsi dish ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: It is a sweet dish to be taken after lunch. Mishti Doi or Caramel or Rum Ball or Chocolate Mousse is the desserts served after lunch. Whoever likes orders it.
- Rajarshi : Ya, but Mishiti Doi is a Bengali item….
Mr. B. Kohinoor: Ya true it is a Bengali item, we are preparing it here. We have copied it from there.
- Rajarshi : Why suddenly a Bengali sweet item in a Parsi menu ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: Because customers here often ask for curd, so we like to offer them the Mishti Doi. We have copied it from Bengal. So the Europeans and all people like it very much. But of course this comes next best, the best is Caramel Custard.
- Rajarshi : The desserts are prepared here only, even the Bengali Mishti Doi ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: Ya, all desserts are prepared here.
- Rajarshi : Why the name Britannia ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: My father wanted to start this restaurant, when this restaurant was renovated and decorated; he wanted to get quick permission from the British commissioner, to start it straight away. Those were the days of the British, so he thought of giving it a British name, so that the British municipal commissioner at that time being British on seeing the name Britannia he will grant permission immediately. That was the British era, so that is why he gave the name ‘Britannia’.
- Rajarshi : You had another Parsi restaurant called Bastani and Co. Which you had to close down. Why?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: That used to sell no dishes like food but only give snacks. Like Pattice – chicken, mutton, vegetarian and sandwiches, puddings, bread butter brun maska and chai. It was like a tea coffee and snack bar.
There were 4 – 5 partners. When they grew old they retired from business. So myself and my brother, we continued. Now when those people retired their children used to come and trouble us. They would not come to help but they would come to trouble us. They wanted more money, etc. Some were not even eligible for it because in Parsi religion adoption is illegal.
One Irani gentleman who was married did not have children. He brought up one small Irani girl. When the old man died, the girl came and said, “I am adopted by that gentleman, so you take me as partner”. But we said No, your mother will be our partner. So we took the mother as our partner. Then when the mother died she came again and started troubling us. Another partner when became old retired from business. He is much older to me. He has sons. He asked one of the sons to come and help, but he would not come. But every month he used to come and trouble us. He went to court claiming it was his father’s business. So we had to go to court. We went for arbitration.
Both of them were wrong. Adoption was illegal. So the girl who was adopted by that gentleman lost the case. She went to the High court there she lost again. So her share was gone and came to other Parsis.
Then one gentleman was our partner who was benami. Somebody else had invested money and put his name. During British time it was legal but afterwards it became illegal. So the gentleman went to America where his son was there. He appointed one gentleman to come and claim the share. We said he is a benami and is not eligible. So he also went to court and he also lost.
The third one, a very old man, 92 year old. One of his son took his power of attorney. He came and said I do not want to continue but dissolve the partnership. This went on, the arbitration, till about 8 months ago. And I have become very old now, 88 -89 years. My brother is 80 and he would not come to help. So nothing doing. We closed that place, which is close to Metro Cinema. Its 7 years now that it is closed. Now we have put it up in the market for sale.
- Rajarshi : We checked out some other Irani restaurants in Bombay like Kyani cafe…
Mr. B. Kohinoor: Ya. Kyani cafe same like Bastani cafe opposite each other. And they are serving tea, coffee, cold drinks and snacks. That’s all.
- Rajarshi : We also checked a place called Free India Restaurant, who have a Zoroastrian symbol in their shop, but now being run by non Parsis. So what is the fate of these Parsi cafes? Are they dying out?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: No no. For example now, my son says I don’t want to run. I am tired of this. Then we have got some other competitors. They are called Udupi shops. So they come and they take on royalty. So it is our shop given on royalty to them. So they keep our tradition and continue with Tea and Idli sambar and all those things. As a south Indian cafe they continue.
- Rajarshi : How do you look at the new cafes like Cafe Mondegar or Cafe Leopold who have transformed from the traditional Irani cafes ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: They are now Beer bars. They were not like this before. But they have survived. If they had not converted to beer bars, they would not have made profit and like other shops they would have also now closed down. Now, the reason for closing Irani restaurants. There are several reasons. One reason is that when our sons, they become engineers, they become doctors, they become lawyers, they think it is below their dignity to run a restaurant. So they go away and old people cannot run. So ultimately we have to sell. This is one of the reasons.
The second reason was in the 60s and 70s, Iran, where we come from, my ancestors, prospered during the time of the king, the Shah of Iran. And the property prices were rising. So they would sell their restaurants, go back and start constructing on their lands.
The third reason was that we were heavily burdened with taxes. Income tax, sales tax, profession tax. Then came the eating house license. Then we have to pay for disposing garbage, which during British time was free. Then during those days we had to pay nominal eating house taxes, say Rs. 100 a year. Now you know how much I paid last month? Rs. 30,000. Taxes and levies went up. How much can we increase on our food? We are very liberal, we go on marginal profit. And then when we have to pay so much tax, we would naturally sell off our property. Real Estate property has gone up. So we would get more money. My son, who has done Commerce, says if we deposit the money in banks we would get 10%. So calculating thus we make double the profit.
There are buyers, so he wants to sell it off. These are the reasons why these cafes are closing down.
- Rajarshi : Recently in an interview with Hindustan Times, you have said that if you get a good bargain you would sell off this place.
Mr. B. Kohinoor: See, I was a partner in four restaurants. This is the only one which has remained. And I have got sentimental values. This was found by my father, and I am not prepared to sell it off. But you see that gentleman at the counter; he is my son. He wants to sell it because he is getting good money. He is putting in labor and he is not getting returns. Real estate prices have gone up, so he wants to sell.
I am 90 years old now. I will vanish from family affairs. He asks me to sell it, take as much as you want and give the rest to me. Why do you want to work at the age of 90? He is 50 years old. I have another one who is 48 years old, and he is the chef of this restaurant. The younger one is the chef. The older one is managing finance. And I am running between both of them.
- Rajarshi : What was Britannia restaurant like when it was started ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: This place was started during the British regime. My father was selling continental food. No masala. No Indian food. No dishes like Masala biriyani or masala food. Only continental type and non spicy. Then slowly after independence we started Mughlai and continental. After that we withdrew the continental and started the Parsi and the Mughlai. This is what we are continuing.
Actually the Parsi dishes were started by my wife. She was a Parsi of the ancient times. My grandfather came 140 years ago. But I married a Parsi girl from my community, who came long back.
- Rajarshi : Would you share your recipes with anyone ?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: There are two recipes we would never disclose. One is Berry Pulav and the other caramel custard. These two we won’t part. The others we can give. The American ambassador had visited last month. He wanted the recipe for Berry Pulav. I said give me the formula of Coca Cola. No formula for Coca Cola then no recipe for Berry Pulav.
- Rajarshi : You have very nice rhyming lines with the food items. Would you please share once more with us?
Mr. B. Kohinoor: I have nice rhyming lines. One is about our favourite drink. That is “Fresh lime soda sweet, to beat the Mumbai heat!”. And we have got one more, for Sali boti and Sali chicken; both are Parsi items to be eaten with bread or Parsi chapatti. So I promote our Parsi chapatti by saying “Hot and soft Parsi chapatti, garam garam naram naram”.