Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Boman Rashid Kohinoor: In Memorarium

RIP Boman Kohinoor: Mumbai’s famed Britannia restaurant loses its beloved diamond

Mumbai’s popular restaurateur, Boman Kohinoor, the co-owner of Iranian-Parsi cafe Britannia & Co at Ballard Pier, died Wednesday at the city’s Parsee General Hospital.

Article in Indian Express

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Mumbai’s popular restaurateur, Boman Kohinoor, the co-owner of Iranian-Parsi cafe Britannia & Co at Ballard Pier, died Wednesday at the city’s Parsee General Hospital. (Express photo: Janak Rathod)

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Boman was 97 year old. (Express photo: Janak Rathod)

June, 2014: “Kate, William, George” he says, his wrinkled hands pointing to the laminated photograph. His eyes twinkle behind his square-framed glasses as he discloses that Kate is pregnant again, flashing a smile that reveals several missing teeth. “What?!” He nods knowingly, “I received inside information last week.”

Article by Avanti G. Diwan | Indian Express

You’d think that Kate is his daughter, or niece, or perhaps his brother’s wife’s or nephew’s sister. But I look down at the photograph in his shaking hands and it’s the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, beaming in baby blue. Prince George, their first born and the future King of England, is swaddled in their arms. I look up, and there they are again, a waving Kate and William, this time, in cardboard-cut-out form. Perched against a mezzanine, they are the first displays in a priceless exhibition of hand-painted signs: “Debit and Credit Card Not Accepted.” “Please do not argue with management.” “Management has got right to check any article or Individual on suspicion”. “Customers are requested to take of their belongings”. “Right to admission is reserved. “Only at Britannia & Co. est. 1923, Wakefield House, 16 Ballard Estate, Bombay.”

December, 2016: Every day, as the lunch hour nears, lawyers, college students, office workers and tourists throng to Britannia, a city institution, that has been serving its patrons “exotic Parsi and Iranian cuisine” for as long as India has been independent. Here, customers feast on patra ni macchi, sali boti and dhansak. Of course, the queen of them all, is the delectable berry pulao, a chicken dish of speckled white and yellow rice, that is garnished with cashews, caramelised onions and crimson barberries imported from Iran. I am sipping on my Pallonji’s (est. 1885) Raspberry soda, when I glance down at the words on the menu before me: “There is no love greater than the love of eating.” Tell me about it.

June 2017: The pista green paint is peeling off the café walls, and the whirring of prehistoric ceiling fans alternates with the scraping of forks against plates licked clean. He is shuffling about the restaurant now, stopping by tables to show and tell. Out comes the folder of his prized possessions: The laminated, xerox-copied, dog-eared documents. When the German lady is ready, he begins, “I seldom go out when someone from the Taj Mahal Hotel called on me and said their highnesses want that I should meet them.” A pause, and a pursing of lips later, “I was very honoured to meet the charming prince and the beautiful princess.” His audience is gripped. The next story: “See this, Her Majesty the Queen had written this letter to me.” “Japan! A Japanese man came here, now see this article he wrote.”

December 2018: Boman Kohinoor —Irani, nonagenarian, seasoned raconteur and the Queen’s Guard in Bombay — is the proprietor of Britannia Restaurant, and one of my favourite people in the world. Although 90, he is a permanent fixture at the establishment his father set up as a continental restaurant in 1923. Mr Kohinoor is an Irani — a descendant of the small community of Zoroastrians, who fleeing religious persecution in Iran, made India their home in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Mr Kohinoor tells me that Britannia’s berry pulao is but a spicier version of the Persian zereshk polow, which his late wife adapted to suit the Indian palate. He also talks of his grandfather, a 19th century immigrant from Yazd, who lived to be “114 -one, one four.” He tells me he’s planning to beat his record. “When I die, you see that rascal at the counter,” he points past me, “behind the counter, he is my son, he will take over.” I look back, and spot the rascal, a middle-aged gentleman. Beside him, on the counter is a snoozing cat. I wonder if the animal is a nod to the Persian heritage. Next to it, a sign reads, “Do not disturb”.

Mr Kohinoor urges me to live until 120. He then says, “God bless you,” and “Please give my regards to Madame Hillary Clinton, and no regards to Mr Trump.” I laugh. The cat stirs and stretches, its eyes glinting towards the wall across.

On the flaking pista wall, hang three national flags, one below the other: The Indian tricolour, the Union Jack, and the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Within a metre’s distance, is a portrait of Zarathustra, the Zoroastrian prophet, and his maxims, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” Two other persons provide Zoroaster company. To his left, is a smiling Gandhi, wrapped in khadi. To his right, is Queen Elizabeth II, a crown atop her head, a sceptre clasped in her hand. I wonder what they think.

This article was first published on September 27, 2019 in the print edition under the title ‘The Kohinoor in Bombay’s crown’. The writer, a Mumbaikar, studies history and Persian at Princeton University.

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The iconic eatery was set up in 1923 by Rashid Kohinoor, whose family fled from Iran to avoid religious persecution and settled in Mumbai the year Boman Kohinoor was born. (Express photo: Janak Rathod)

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Boman took charge of the restaurant at a young age after his father died in an accident. (Express photo: Janak Rathod)

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For several years, Boman was the genial face of the restaurant. He was often seen chatting with visitors, recommending what should they order, sharing anecdotes and cracking jokes.(Express photo: Janak Rathod)

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The restaurant which initially served continental food had introduced Parsi cuisine later. (Express photo: Janak Rathod)

For Boman Kohinoor of Mumbai’s Britannia & Co, there was no love greater than the love of eating

The famed restaurant owner died on Wednesday at the age of 97.

Article in The Scroll

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Britannia & Co. is a lovely piece of vintage Bombay. It occupies the ground floor of an elegant building which dates from the early twenties and was designed by the Scottish architect George Wittet. Wittet also designed the Gateway of India – the imposing triumphal arch at Apollo Bunder in the Indo-Saracenic style, built to commemorate the (presumably triumphal) visit of King George V to this part of his empire in 1911. Unfortunately for King George, he only saw the much less exciting small cardboard version of it, since the actual building was not built until 1924.

Boman Kohinoor is the owner of the café, and a man of legendary kindness. He shares his name with the famous diamond taken from India by the British to crown Queen Victoria the Empress of India. Certainly, don’t leave Britannia without speaking to Mr. Kohinoor. Many a conversation with him might go this way: “How old do you think I am?” he will ask. You might study him and perhaps feel slightly uncomfortable venturing a guess (he’s clearly very old indeed). In turn, he will peer back at you through his milk-bottle-bottom thick glasses, with a hint of a smile about his lips. He gives you a clue. “I’m as old as this place.” Eventually he relents: “I was born in 1923. The same year that Britannia opened.” He may also go on to tell you how his family came from the Yazd region in Iran in the early 1920s fleeing persecution, or how the British army requisitioned his restaurant in the Second World War, or how he went back to Iran in 1979 before returning to Bombay in 1982. It’s hard to separate Britannia, the restaurant, from Mr. Kohinoor, the man. They are the same thing.

Under Mr. Kohinoor’s watchful eye, Britannia is, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its graceful dilapidation, one of the loveliest of the surviving Irani cafés. Fans turn slowly under its high ceilings. Bentwood chairs from Europe creak pleasantly. Exposed wiring droops across flaking blue-green walls on which hang faded sepia portraits and an elegant clock. Smartly-dressed waiters (moustachio’d and bow-tied) serve local office workers, lunching ladies and curious tourists with equal aplomb. Mr. Kohinoor himself will take your order, just as he always has, his joy in serving you delicious food delightfully apparent.

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Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

You might smile at the life-size cardboard cut-outs of Prince William and Kate, who watch over the room without a trace of irony from their balcony vantage point. If you comment on them (and most likely even if you don’t) Mr. Kohinoor will proudly show you his collection of laminated letters from the Queen, well-thumbed physical evidence of his enduring fondness for the British monarchy.

Amongst the various signs on the exterior of the café (“Exotic Parsi and Iranian cuisine”; “Special Veg & Non-veg Foods”) there is one which sets out Britannia’s motto: “There is no love greater than the love of eating.” This (slightly paraphrased) Bernard Shaw quote is set out around a logo of a rooster. It is most certainly true that at Britannia you will love to eat.

And what should you eat? Your lunch (Britannia doesn’t open in the mornings or the evenings, except on Saturdays) should involve a fragrant Chicken Berry Pulao – a recipe created by Mr. Kohinoor’s wife in 1982 when the family returned from Iran (presumably having packed the barberries required in the recipe). Also order the excellent Parsi speciality, Salli Boti, a rich lamb curry topped with salli crisp-chips and mopped up with plenty of fresh chapati. You could also sample a local favourite, the confusingly named Bombay Duck – not bird or beast, but a small, bony and slightly gelatinous, deep-fried fish. Admittedly this is an acquired taste. Dessert must be Crème Caramel and Mishti Doi (a Bengali style set yoghurt-curd). And to drink? Tangy Sosyo, Pallonji’s Parsi raspberry or fiery ginger soda (not for the faint of heart), or a light and refreshing fresh lime soda. “Nice and sweet, to beat the Bombay heat”, as Mr. Kohinoor likes to say.

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Hunger sated, thirst slaked, belt loosened a couple of notches, you take your leave of Mr. Kohinoor and Britannia. It is perfectly normal to already be planning your excuse to return. Of course the great man is old enough that when you next return he might not be here. We will shed many tears when he eventually does pass. However, his delight in serving his customers is so tangible that when he does breathe his last he will surely look back over his life of loving service with joy and pride.

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