In the old British Quarter of Bombay, stands a century old building. Britannia & Co, one of Bombay’s oldest and most renowned Irani cafes was established in 1923 by an Irani migrant, Rashid Kohinoor, father of Boman Kohinoor. Initially serving just continental food to the British officers stationed in the South Bombay estate, Britannia slowly grew, and post independence, added traditional Parsi food to its menu. With no hang-ups about social status, ethnicity or religion, this iconic cafe went on to become one of the culinary legends of Bombay.
Boman Kohinoor, who was the senior partner at Britannia, would welcome eaters, narrate to them about Britannia’s vibrant history and take their orders himself. I remember when I met Boman on my first visit to Britannia, he asked where I was from, and I replied with “UK,” to which he probed further with “United Kingdom, England or Great Britain sir?” I realised then that he had great interest in Britain and British history. He asked me to hold on and came back immediately with a bunch of papers in his hand. He showed me photographs of how he’d met the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, letters he’d written to her Majesty the Queen and one that she’d written back to him. He continued to tell me about the historic relevance of Britain to his cafe, by explaining how his father had named the cafe to please the then British commissioner of Bombay, who was in charge of issuing licences, and how Britannia was originally set up to serve the British soldiers.
After such a pleasant chat, I was ready to order, I knew exactly what I wanted, the two main things I’d heard so much about, but seeing as though I was talking with the man himself, I thought I’d ask his recommendation. “You can try the mutton Salli Boti, or the Berry Pilau..” and as he paused I jumped in, that’s exactly what I’d come for. “I’ll go with them both please” I confirmed. Salli Boti is a popular Parsi sweet and sour dish made with boneless cuts of mutton (in India, mutton means goat), in a rich and thick tomato based sauce, topped with crispy fried potato sticks. It’s available at most of the few remaining Irani cafes in South Bombay, but Britannia’s has got to be one of the best in the city. The Berry Pilau is light and fluffy, different to the pilau available at traditional Mughlai eateries, and is topped with vibrant red zereshk berries that come from Iran.
As I sat tucking into the fantastic food, I looked around and just took in the atmosphere. High ceilings, slow turning fans, cracked paintwork, dark wood furniture, marble top tables. This place had kept its old world charm of a bygone Bombay and probably not changed much in the last 50 years. On the adjacent wall, hung the national flag of India, Iran as well as the Union Jack, in dedication to Britannia’s story. As I left, Boman approached me again to thank me and graciously said, “Say hello to the Queen for me, we’d love to see Her Majesty back here again.” A controversial statement to some, no doubt, but this was the connection Boman felt with Britain.
As we bid farewell to Boman, I wonder if people new to Britannia will ever get the same experience of knowing about its story, about its beginnings and glorious past. For me, talking with the owners and creators of an eatery, hearing about it’s provenance and heritage adds a whole new dimension to dining. I keep saying this, but I really believe it, food isn’t just food, it’s storytelling, it’s an experience. This is what authenticity is.
Thank you Boman, may your legacy live on.
Boman passed away on 25th September at the age of 97, at the Parsi General Hospital, Bombay.
Bhendi Bazaar is a salute to the khao gallis of Bombay. To the artisanal way of cooking. Fresh ingredients, cooking from scratch, with care, hands, heart. It was born of two of my biggest passions; good food, and all things Bombay.
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