Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Irani Cafes: A fading love story

The little culinary revolution that Mumbai’s tiny Iranian diaspora began a 100 years ago is now quickly dwindling

“Agar teer e aalambejombad be jay. Na barradragi, gar nakhwaahadkhodaay (Even if the world shoots all its arrows at you, not even a vein will be pierced if God protects you),” gushes 97-year-old Aqa Boman Kohinoor, digging into mouth-melting baklava at his legendary heritage restaurant, Britannia & Co, established in 1923, the year of his birth.

Article by Krishnaraj Iyengar | The Tribune

2019_5$largeimg03_Friday_2019_213012803gallery

The Mumbai restaurant, personally acknowledged by Queen Elizabeth for its hallmark culinary excellence, is a rendezvous with Iran’s ancient culture. The old-style décor, Aqa’s passion for classical Persian poetry and authentic delicacies from his motherland, Iran, make Britannia & Co a little world of its own. “Faith has kept me going. My love for people and for life is my mantra of longevity,” he smiles, excusing himself to personally take orders from a young German couple on the neighbouring table.

At the galla, his son Afshin Kohinoor, third-generation owner and Iranian chef, instructs his children Diana and Daanesh in rugged Yezdi Persian. The youngsters obediently follow, handling accounts on a brand new computer. “Both my parents speak to us in Persian. Though we speak English more commonly, Persian is our zabaan-e-maadari (mother tongue). We haven’t forgotten it,” says Diana, a young management graduate.

She and her brother zealously assist their father in preserving the culinary legacy and Persian language which many of India’s young Iranians have forgotten.

In the early 1900s, many members of Islamic Iran’s Zoroastrian minority immigrated to India to seek a better life. They came to be known as Zarthushti Iranis. Having shared a historic friendship with Iran, India was a haven for these entrepreneurs who established a unique restaurant culture in Mumbai. “The Irani Hotel, as it is commonly called, was a place where one could enjoy a hot, filling snack and also buy items of daily use, like toothbrushes, bread and toys for the kids,” reminisces MF Mahabat, a senior member of the Iranian community and a former restaurateur.

Ideal Railway Restaurant, set up by his late father, Aqa Faridoon Hormazdiyaar Mahabat, once stood tall outside a suburban railway station in western Mumbai. Today, it’s a bustling McDonald’s outlet. Just a handful of these relics remain as India’s endearing Iranian gems.

The old world charm of a typical Irani hotel has been subject of fascination: checkered table cloth, round wooden chairs and tables, sepia images of a colonial ‘Bombay’ and the famous notice — “No chit-chat, no talking loudly, no arguing with the waiter, no sitting for long time…” etched in bold letters behind the counter!

Having created a unique cuisine with Parsi, Muslim and British influences, the famous bun-maska (oven-fresh buttered buns), akuri (Parsi-Zoroastrian minced egg), mawa cake (muffins) and, of course, the famed chai have been among the Mumbaikars’ favourite snacks for generations. Britannia, on the other hand, pioneered original Persian cuisine with their exotic zereshk polo rice and baaghlavaa or Persian baklava. It also offers the finest traditional Parsi cuisine with dhansaak, fish paatra and custard, an irresistible Parsi version of crème brulee.

Icons like the 115-year-old Kyani & Co in Mumbai’s Dhobi Talao area, where legends like Raj Kapoor often grabbed a bite before a shoot, have been preserved by veterans like grand old Aflatoon Shokri who passed away in 2013. His son Farokh Shokri today steers his forefathers’ legacy ahead. While in his day, the scholarly Aflatoon’s vibrancy retained the eatery’s regal Iranian touch, today his fond memories resound in every corner. I remember my late grandfather sharing nostalgic memories of dating his first love at Kyani back in the 1940s. It is there that he proposed marriage for an instant yes. “I owe it to the chai that probably made your grandma say yes before giving it too much thought,” he would joke!

Iranian restaurants like Yazdani Bakery and Sassanian & Co still tug along even as historic outlets like The Way Side Inn with its celebrated colonial and Parsi cuisine shut down more than two decades ago to the dismay of its patrons. The owner, Parvez Patel, suffered losses, his children having showed no interest in continuing the legacy. Many millennial Iranians too prefer to settle abroad for brighter career prospects rather than shout orders to waiters from over an old Irani counter.

Few are as lucky as the Kohinoors to have a dynamic fourth generation of hardworking torchbearers who are in no mood to quit. “My kids are learning the ropes to preserve what their great grandfather created, the culinary excellence, the old world feel and the Persian mehmaannavaazi we have inherited,” Afshin Kohinoor says.