When the Parsis first came from Kerman and other parts of Iran, they promised to dissolve into the already (and even then) bursting the seams of the city’s populace like sugar in a glass of milk – without overflowing. The Parsi amicability and generosity of spirit reflects even in a cup of Irani Tea which not only lets ample sugar mingle in its milkiness but also lets itself be laced with cinnamon. Where the Cutting-Chai (and Bananas) seem to fuel and energise the denizens of the city that never sleeps and form a ubiquitous sight, the cinnamony goodness of Irani Chai is a pleasure experienced only in the sadly, dwindling, Irani Cafes of the city.
We partook in this tradition of Irani chaikhanas (teahouses) at Kyani & Co. cafe on the JSS Road, opposite Metro Cinema (the original establishment shut in 2008 and in its heyday not only hosted the first Filmfare Awards night but also the Hollywood star, Gregory Peck). The present establishment is housed in a more than a century old building and the original cafe even predates it, starting in 1904. The ceiling fans here are high and the flooring is a black and white mosaic. The walls, like most Parsi joints, are lined with paintings of the prophet and other religious symbolisms. However, the most striking image that a glance at the menu leaves one with are those of eggs! With eggs done hard, eggs done soft, eggs served with cheese, chicken, mutton, and the good ol’ baked beans, this Irani cafe boasts of an impressive egg-repertoire. And it is all accompanied with sweet, light buns popular in the region (the same that hold the spicy, soul-enlivening vada and garlic chutney of the gastronomic heaven that is the vada-pav). These make for a cheap and hearty breakfast that could energise you to match the pace and drive of this city or if you are a servant of the erstwhile British Empire, play an instrumental role in the separation of nations; Lord Curzon who played a significant part in the independence of Bangladesh is reported to have visited here.
The British did shower a special patronage on the Parsi community and made accessible their educational successes and financial prosperity. This, they did in the obvious exchange for political validation and support or as in some cases, simply the naming of a restaurant in a British fashion. The latter condition was what enabled Rashid Kohinoor to procure his food and beverage licence in just 24 hours! No wonder he had named his restaurant that would carry forward the legacy of this patronage over centuries and house the cutouts of Kate Middleton and Prince William along with the portrait of the Queen and the Union Jack, Britannia, the national allegory of the British Isles. Along with the present British aristocracy, Britannia and Co. also boasts of a much humbler although larger patronage of the city locals and visitors who all come craving for the whole range of Parsi delicacies between the restaurant’s renowned berry pulao and caramel custard. The berry pulao which comes with rice, choice of meat (or vegetables), caramelised onions, cashews and (quite obviously), berries comes in a serving so generous that you might, like ourselves, almost unbutton your trousers right there. However, be warned that they wouldn’t take too kindly to this behaviour even if it is a rather remarkable and honest gesture of appreciation for their food. You could definitely be expected to be told off by one of the bow-tied servers for tarrying too long in clicking the most instagrammable photo of your berry pulao that it may get cold. The sour berries and the recipe of this berry pulao both hail from Iran. The present proprietor, Boman Kohinoor, will cheerfully chat with the customers about all things under the sun but will hold in strict secrecy his beloved Iranian wife, Bachan’s, recipe of the berry pulao. Instead, quintessential to his genial disposition, he would invite you to feast on it on all days except Sunday when the restaurant with its fading and peeling-off-the-walls colonial charm stays closed for business.
It is in a way relieving to note that the business of Britannia allows it to take a day off. For this city of rapid commerce and all new trends that seeks to move time, has not been very kind to establishments that prefer to remain stuck in a certain time. During the 1950s the sea-port megacity boasted of over 350 Irani cafes. Sadly, however, only 25 or so of them remain today.
Thus, as perhaps poet Robert Herrick would have said
Tickle ye tastebuds while ye may,
For commerce is fast changing
And this renaissance building with an Irani cafe today,
Will have instead a Starbucks booming.