Great Britannia – the Irani cafes of Mumbai

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Mumbai, the Indian metropolis perched on the Arabian Sea is full of mind-boggling extremes. Over 50% of Bombay’s population live in slums in the same city where some buy $100 pizzas. The city is grim with dirt but glistens with the light of the high rise hotels at night. This melting pot has so many stories of the many visitors who have come, stayed and made the city their own, it’s hard to find a true Mumbaiker or the original food of Mumbai.

The story that i’m most interested in telling you is about the Parsi’s of Mumbai and their beautiful Irani Cafes, which are now, sadly on the brink of extinction as the Parsi community dwindles in the city. The cafes were set up by Iranian Zoastrians who fled Iran by boat to escape persecution thousands of years ago and landed on Gujarat’s shores.

Many of their cafe’s remain unchanged, such as Cafe Britannia, and have retained a particular charm. A hand painted sign outside touts ‘exotic Parsi and Iranian cuisine’ and a big open front throws sunlight onto wooden tables. The ceilings are high and decorated with large old antique ceiling fans. There’s a sign which simply reads ‘no argument with management’. I glance over to ‘management’, where another elderly man is standing behind a museum-like wooden counter variably counting notes into a drawer or stroking a cat.

Within minutes of sitting down, Mr Kohinoor, a 93 year old waiter (and the owner of the cafe, who can be seen tending to a table top right in the photo below) ambles towards us, beaming. Can I get you a ‘fresh lime and soda nice and sweet to beat the Mumbai heat?’ he asks? How could I refuse..

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The dishes he recommends, which he tastes every single day, are the sali boti, a sort of slow cooked mutton with thinly sliced fried chips, chicken berry pulao; a rice complete with Iranian barberries and fish ni patra, a delicate white fish steamed in green chutney made with mint and parsley.

After we order, he bows and asks us very firmly to ask us to ask the Queen to come back to India, ‘tell her we miss her’ he says. The mutton is tender and beautifully spiced, the chicken berry pulao (below) is tart with berries, crunchy with cashews and the chicken is perfectly tender. The fish is juicy, light, sweet with the mint.

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He returns at the end of the meal and we chat briefly about his religion, Zoastrianism. ‘We believe in ‘good words, good thoughts and good deeds’. Good food as well? I ask. Yes, he says, and good food’. With that he moved on to sing his song to another table.

Our trips to the other traditional Iranian cafes, Kyani and Co and Yazdani Bakery weren’t as eventful but Kyani and Co is beautiful (see below). People sit and read the papers inside, as if suspended in time. We ordered Akuri, some spicy scambled eggs, brun maska (bread and butter) and Iranian tea. The food was perfectly spiced, the tea, sweet and minty.

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There are other Iranian cafes in the city too but many of them have turned into bars thick with tourists like Cafe Leopold and Cafe Mondegar, while Churchill’s serves up it’s own brand of Indo- Italian food – adapting to the modern tastes of Mumbaikers.

The times are changing with the wind in Mumbai, new restaurants open up almost every day serving up world class food from all continents. I just hope that the next time I’m back, there is still someone flying the flag for Parsi culture, keeping these spaces and dishes alive.

Addresses:

– Cafe Britannia – Wakefield House, Sprott Road, 16 Ballard Estate, 11, SS Ram Gulam Marg, Fort, Mumbai. Tel: +91 22 2261 5264. Mains around £5. (450 rupees) Only open at lunchtime.
– Kyani and Co – 657, Jer Mahal Estate, Opp Metro J.S.S Road, Dhobi Talao, Kalbadevi, Mumbai. Under £2 for breakfast and tea.
– Yazdani Bakery – 11/11-A, Cawasji Patel Street, Fort; +91 (0) 22 2287 0739.

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