Friday 8 September 2017

A Postcard From India 1- Mumbai's Cafe Britannia

It is believed that the first Parsis came to India some time between the 8th and 10th centuries, fleeing persecution in what is now Iran. Together with the Iranis, the Parsis are one of two groups practising the Zoroastrian faith. They have been extremely successful in India, particularly during the period of British rule when several members of the community achieved positions of prominence including in science, industry and the military. In recent decades the community has declined significantly in number due to emigration and an extremely low birth rate, but their presence is still felt though their historical achievements, the remaining Parsi temples and through their contribution to the city's cuisine.

Boman Kohinoor, proud owner of Cafe Britannia and fan of the Royal family
During the middle decades of the 20th century, Mumbai was home to several hundred Parsi/ Irani cafes serving authentic dishes including sali boti (mutton pieces cooked in a special gravy), fish patra, berry pulav and Parsi chapatis. Whilst most of these cafes have disappeared, some have survived through reinventing themselves as places to drink beer and to have snacks and a few have clung on to their roots. 

Cafe Britannia is one of the few remaining authentic Parsi cafes in the city. Founded in 1923 by Rashid Kohinoor, a Zoroastrian immigrant from Iran, it was originally established to serve continental dishes to British officers during the colonial period. Rashid's son, Boman, the current owner and still working despite being in his 90's tells a story that the name of the cafe was chosen because eating places needed to be licensed by the British and his father thought the name might encourage them to deal quickly and positively with the application. He was proved right and the cafe has been operating since then.

Some of the keynote dishes are advertised at the entrance
I ate lunch there a few days ago. I was charmed by the peeling paint, the beautiful bent wood chairs imported from Poland decades ago and the idiosyncratic rules and regulations displayed on the wall and on the menu all of which give a glimpse of a world almost disappeared. The rules include sensible stuff such as not allowing outside food to be brought in and a requirement to vacate seats as soon as you have paid to allow others to sit down but my favourite was a little less expected - do not argue with the management. I wish I'd thought of that when I worked with the public.

My food was delicious - vegetable biryani with a lemon soda - but perhaps the most memorable part of my visit was meeting Boman Kohinoor. He took my order, asked me where I am from and said I'll be back. A few minutes later he returned to the table saying I am back before proceeding to show me a number of laminated press clippings picturing him with Prince William and Kate Middleton as well as other articles about the cafe.  He is a devoted royalist and recently made the press when he was invited to meet the Royal couple when they visited the city. The invitation came as a result of a video appeal he made explaining how thrilled he would be at the opportunity to meet them in Mumbai. He continued to come and go from the table to speak to other customers, but always saying I'll be back and I'm back at the appropriate point before telling me a little more or even teasing me a little about where I come from. So are you from England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles or the United Kingdom he asked me. I told him London and he agreed that this was a good answer. Before I left he asked me for three favours - to ask the Queen to visit Mumbai, to kiss the children of William and Kate when I see them (!) and to come back and eat there again. I will definitely deliver on the third request, the first two will be more difficult.

Cafe Britannia can be found at Wakefield House, 11 Sport Road, 16 Ballard Estate, Mumbai 400038. Note - the cafe opens only between 12 and 4 and payment must be made in cash.

1 comment:

  1. I imagine that Cafe Britannia is not just an authentic Parsi cafe, but a place of great nostalgia for a portion of the population. I am picturing 1923, crowded with ex-pats, serving continental dishes to British colonials. Living far away from home can be very lonely.