‘Khosh aamadi o safaa aavardi, sad mehr o mohabbat o vafaa aavardi.’
Translation: Welcome! For, your presence brings purity. Kindness, love and sincerity a hundred fold !
But, when one of India’s oldest living Iranians welcomes you to what has been deemed an international icon, the Britannia & Co
traditional Persian restaurant in Mumbai’s Ballard Pier, it’s a rendezvous with an era, an ethos, an epic from a mystical land!
Indeed, the living legend Boman Kohinoor (91), India’s culinary maverick and the pioneer of Persian cuisine in the country, is considered the true-blue ambassador of the ancient legacy of hospitality and endearing culture of his motherland.
Personally acknowledged by Queen Elizabeth, the energetic nonagenarian, a man of many tales — about his childhood days in the rugged Yazd province of Iran to following the Mahatma at Prabhat Feris during the Independence struggle — table-hops to take orders from his guests.“He is a darling! It’s a pure delight hearing him speak about Her Majesty, his passion for life and rib-tickling humor. One is charmed by his charisma!” smiles Patricia, a German writer, who makes it to Mumbai during her India trips just for her favorite meal at Britannia
Established in 1923 by Aqa Rashid Kohinoor (a fiery Iranian immigrant businessman), Britannia
has its story to tell. “The municipal commissioner, a British sahib, promised my grandpa a licence for this place on the condition that he have a British name for it.Hence the name Britannia! It would have taken months otherwise,” laughs Afshin Kohinoor, the third generation torchbearer and one of India’s first traditional Persian chefs.
While the Parsees arrived in India 1,350 years ago, there later emerged a new breed of immigrants from Islamic Iran’s Zoroastrian minority — Zarthushti Iranis — many of whom established Mumbai’s quaint Iranian restaurants, of which a few remain.The legendary culture is dwindling, overshadowed by quick fix Western brands like McDonalds
“They were originally mini supermarkets that sold not only hot snacks but also items of daily use like toothbrushes, soaps and toys.The ‘Irani Hotel’, as it’s popularly called, was the only means of survival for these new immigrants,” explains M F Mahabat, a senior Iranian of the trade.
Renowned for its exhilarating flavors among Britannia’s signature delights is the Polo Ye Zereshk, an all-time favourite of international guests.
A rice preparation with original Iranian barberries, fried onions, saffron, nuts, marble-size kebabs and gravy served with eggs, chicken, mutton or vegetarian, the Polo is a meal in itself. “ In Iran, the Berry Polo is eaten dry, with just a meat leg or so. It was my mother who introduced the gravy, since Indians would never eat dry (lukkha) rice,” shares Afshin.
Notorious for their well-guarded culinary secrets, Mumbai’s Iranian restaurateurs, through the generations, have followed the ‘not even at gunpoint’ dictum when it comes to sharing them!“Even a simple chai formula of one restaurant would never be known to another!” smiles Mahabat. It is said that when the former US Ambassador, a Britannia fan, asked Boman Kohinoor for the chicken Berry Polo recipe, the former flatly refused.“But when dad asked him for the Coca Cola recipe, His Excellence also refused, and they called it quits, all in good humor!” laughs Afshin.
Among other palate tantalisers is the Dhansak
, a Zoroastrian rice delicacy. It is a hallmark of India’s Zoroastrian culinary culture, a marriage of caramelized brown rice
, onions and daal, served with eggs, meat or vegetables.While Sali Boti
, lamb cubes with onion gravy topped with fried noodles (sali), is culinary seduction Zoroastrian-style, Britannia’s famed Custard (crème brûlé) or even mouth-melting baklava
(all the way from Iran) call for the ultimate dolce finale!
Placing ourselves on wooden chairs imported from Poland at Rs 5 a piece by his father, I share a bite with Mehrabaanji, Boman’s younger brother.
With the restaurant’s old-world charm, the fragrance of sandalwood incense and pure flavors, an afternoon of Persian poetry by the affable octogenarian takes you back to the era of ancient fire temples, mobeds and Sufi gatherings!
While ‘There is no love greater than the love of eating’ remains Britannia’s slogan, Robin the rooster stands as the trademark emblem of the restaurant. “He was a chick when mum found him in 1984. He would later sit on the counter, crow at the stroke of 12 and would dazzle guests all day,” reminisces Afshin.
At this lunch-only place, besides young corporate, sailors, diplomats and patrons of varied nationalities are the Kohinoor family’s pets.
When asked about Boman Kohinoor secret mantra, he smiles affectionately. “My grandpa always wanted me to lead an austere life and I simply did!” he says, gleefully reciting a Roba’ee of the great Omar Khayyam:
‘Mey nosh ke omr e jaavedaani in ast.
Khod haaselat az dowr e javaani in ast. Hengaam e gol o mol ast va yaaraan sarmast.
Khosh baash dami ke zendegaani in ast.’
Translation: Drink the wine of bliss, for it’s like eternal life. Like the rich fruit from youth’s harvest. With friends, flowers and wine be glad every moment for this is life!