India’s pioneering Persian chef Afshin Kohinoor unlocks his culinary treasure chest for Krishnaraj Iyengar
Welcome my dear welcome,” he gushes over his galla counter as a mixed international crowd pours in on a Saturday afternoon. After selfie sessions with Julius, the handsome pet canine standing tall on the counter, they make themselves at home on old wooden chairs and sturdy tables with quaint checkered table cloth for some pure culinary magic.
Article by Krishnaraj Iyengar | Deccan Herald
In 1923, Aqa Rashid, an Iranian entrepreneur from the rugged province of Yazd in Iran’s hinterland established a restaurant in Mumbai’s port area, Ballard Pier. He gave it a British name as a gesture to the then British municipal saheb who favoured him with a license within just 24 hours. 97 years later, his grandson, India’s pioneering Persian chef Afshin Kohinoor, manages Britannia & Co, Mumbai’s heritage gourmet treasure which his late father, the legendary Boman Kohinoor elevated on par with some of the world’s finest culinary gateways.
The aromas and flavours of his hallmark innovations even penetrated the walls of Buckingham Palace.
Proudly displaying Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s letter of appreciation to his ardent patrons, the nonagenarian who recently passed away in Mumbai, personally table-hopped taking orders until his last days.
Draped in a traditional Zoroastrian skull cap and a black and white Iranian scarf, chef Afshin passionately unfolds the saga of his unique cuisine.
Breaking away from the typical chai, bun maska staple synonymous with Mumbai’s famed Irani cafes, Britannia offers the authentic cuisine of Iran along with traditional Parsi Zoroastrian delights that have drawn aficionados from the world over. “There is no love greater than the love of eating,” says the restaurant’s famous slogan.
Tell us about Britannia’s journey…
We began with colonial cuisine and a few Indian dishes. During the Second World War, the British had converted the restaurant into an administrative office from 1943-45 as their war ships were docked just a few metres away from here. 1947 onwards, the cuisine gradually changed to Mangalorean and Mughlai.
The Iranian and Parsi menu emerged only in 1982 after my mother, a Parsi lady felt the need to do justice to this ‘Irani restaurant’ and she introduced original Iranian dishes like Berry Pulao, Baghali Pulao, Shirin Pulao and the response was overwhelming.
Your Berry Pulao is world famous…
We pioneered it in India. Known as Zereshk Polo in Persian, its originally rice, saffron, leg piece of chicken with barberries. My mother realised that Indians would never touch rice sans gravy so she introduced, by trial and error, a perfect, tantalising onion and tomato-based masala gravy to compliment the rice and the barberries and it became a hit. We import barberries from Iran. They cut cholesterol and the starch in
the rice. Our Zereshk Polo is rice, saffron ( the leaves soaked in boiled water and mixed with rice), barberries, marble-shaped kebabs (chicken, mutton or potato depending on the choice of berry pulao), crispy fried onions, masala gravy made with a secret recipe, with boneless chicken, mutton, egg, paneer or vegetables.
What are Britannia’s other authentic Iranian delicacies?
Baaghlava, or Persian Baklava. It’s like the Indian halwa and eaten warm. Among the various varieties of the dessert, this version, unlike the fluffy Turkish one, is sans fresh cream and egg. The magic lies in shelled almonds, pistachios, rose water, sugar, cardamom, flour, coconut powder and saffron. We also offer Iran’s nougat after Gaz Shervin, a sweet made with sugar, rose water, egg white, honey and pistachios, the percentage of pistachio determining its price.
You popularised traditional Parsi cuisine internationally…
True. Our signature Dhansak is what Parsis eat for lunch after the fourth day’s Chaharom prayers following a funeral. It is caramelised rice served with kebabs (meat or vegetarian) and fried onions, paired with a dal prepared with a complex recipe served in a bowl along with the mutton, chicken, or vegetarian. The mouthwatering dal is then eaten mixed with the rice. Sali Boti, another exotic Parsi delight, is mutton with gravy and topped with finely cut potato wafers which are sprinkled over it. Sali Chicken and Sali Keema (minced meat) are equally popular. While a mixed vegetable stew is a vegetarian Parsi favourite with French beans, carrots, potatoes and green peas, Patra ni Machhi is preferred by health-conscious fish-lovers. The simplest dish, it’s just steamed silver pomfret with refreshing coriander, green chillies and coconut chutney. We cook it with a dash of vinegar.
Tell us about your legendary caramel custard…
The passion for our custard binds people of diverse nationalities. The recipe is my mother’s, her version of crème burlee, high-fat cow’s milk, cream, sugar and eggs. The ratio of the egg white and the yellow is the key. We receive orders for our custard from Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, Thailand and Europe.