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.
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.
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.
Excerpted with permission from Dishoom: From Bombay with Love, Bloomsbury.
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