By Satarupa Mitra
Have you ever spent time exploring Parsi cafes in Mumbai, India?
As India’s financial hub, Mumbai showcases skyscrapers, lively markets, and the country’s best hotels and restaurants — which are now as much a draw as popular sites like the Taj Mahal Palace and the Gateway of India.
The gripping frenzy fades away, however, as you enter the old quarters of the city; a place known to all as South Bombay.
Exploring Delicious Parsi Cafes In Mumbai
Most people have a soft spot for South Bombay, which showcases colonial architecture, lovely boulevards, and walkable neighborhoods.
Back in 2012, I’d been a newbie to the city. And just like any newcomer, I’d walked into Britannia & Co., a historic eatery that continues to be a lovely piece of vintage Bombay.
It’s also one of the city’s most famous Irani cafes, where for $1USD you can find yourself dunking a bun maska — Bombay’s favorite sweet bread bun slathered in butter — into a hot cup of sweet milky chai tea for the perfect morning breakfast.
Since then, it’s my go-to-place on days I want to enjoy a meal outside of the house.
And it’s not just the food, but the ambience, too.
The paneled walls hang with sepia-toned family portraits while checkered linen tables, rickety bentwood chairs, and antique hanging ceiling fans remind patrons of an era bygone when this cafe was the first of its kind.
And by this I mean an Irani cafe, or Parsi cafe, in Mumbai.
Come any time of the day to Britannia & Co. — located in Mumbai’s business and art district of Fort — and you’ll undoubtedly find it swarming with office goers, students, travelers, and patrons happy to idle awhile to get away from hectic city life.
What many of these people don’t know, though, is that this place isn’t only tasty and beautiful, but that it tells an important story, one that peels back a layer of Mumbai to better understand a part of local culture.
The History Of Britannia & Co.
The cafe’s story dates back to 1920.
History has it that like many Iranians, a family from the Yazd province of Iran fled to India to avoid persecution at the hands of Iran’s Muslim majority. They were the Zoroastrians, a religious community of Iran that came to be known as Parsis in India.
The Iranian migration started in the 18th century, and the early 1900s saw many Irani cafes popping up in and around South Bombay.
While many traveled by land through the high mountains of Sindh and Baluchistan to enter Gujarat on India’s west coast, others sailed across the Arabian Sea and settled in Mumbai, hoping for a better life.
A significant lot that came from the cities of Yazd and Kerman in Central Iran were born bakers and confectioners. Their skills brought them success — seemingly overnight — in Mumbai’s cafe business.
One of them was one of the lucky owners of Britannia & Co, which continued to thrive under the leadership of Boman Kohinoor, a Parsi who came as a migrant with his father to make a living.
Today, Britannia has become one of Mumbai’s most sought-after eateries, and with that, it helped to create a distinct cafe culture in Mumbai.
What Makes Parsi Cafes Unique
So, what makes Parsi cafes unique?
Well, on the other hand, European-influenced Indian cafes — a very recent addition to Mumbai — tend to have high prices and chic interiors inspired by the west.
However, Parsi cafes focus on the food, which interestingly combines Iranian and Indian cuisine.
From Iran, the use of meat and dry fruits is infused, while from India the inspiration is the generous use of spices.
Additionally, Parsi cuisine borrows the use of potatoes to enhance the dish from Portuguese colonizers.
And no Parsi meal would be complete without some Lagaan Nu Custard — a traditional Irani wedding custard that’s also eaten at restaurants and is inspired by British culinary culture.
This sweet treat tastes just like crème brûlée except for the hard crunch on the top!
When it comes to Parsi cafes in Mumbai, it’s truly the flavors and the unique menu of mainly sharable plates that keep people coming back for more.
At Brittania & Co., Saturdays mean long lunches — and in pursuit of that happiness, a few minutes of standing in the queue to get in.
Knowing they’re closed on Sundays and waiting under the heat of the day is never irritating, especially as you picture what awaits you.
Once inside, a bottle of Pallonji Parsi raspberry or a can or fiery ginger soda cools you off almost instantly.
Interestingly, they bottle these refreshing coolers and carbonated beverages only to serve at Irani cafes.
There is an intriguing anecdote about how Parsis shaped Indians’ love for fizzy drinks. Seeing their colonial masters’ (the British) love for soda, the Parsis sensed an opportunity.
Soon, several factories sprouted under Parsi ownership. This is how Pallonji soda entered the market with flavored variants — and today they’re only served at Irani cafes.
What To Order Off A Parsi Cafe Menu
Personally, I have my own Parsi menu favorites that I order each time I enter one of these eateries.
One of these items is the succulent mutton cutlets — minced mutton marinated in aromatic spices and fried as schnitzel.
On the other hand, a fish lover should never miss the bombil fry, thinly sliced fish shallow fried in semolina and rice flour.
Lunch would be incomplete without the famous berry pulao – a plate of saffron rice and meat slow-cooked in spices and topped with ghee-tossed barberries.
The now-deceased owner once narrated to me that this was a family recipe that showed up on the menu.
A must-try with the pulao is Salli Boti, a semi-dry slow-cooked mutton in spicy masala topped with golden potato shreds.
Unlike most Parsis, if you’re not a red meat lover, you can opt for patrani machchi. This meal features a fish fillet coated in tangy spiced coconut chutney that’s wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.
The dish is a Parsi rendition of macher paturi — mustard paste-coated fish fillets in banana leaf parcels beloved by the Bengali community of India.
Dessert must be a caramel custard; a mash-up of egg pudding and crème brûlée.
Surprisingly, none of these dishes are Iranian.
As a community of immigrants, they became part of the city and, as mentioned above, took inspiration from other local food cultures.
With time, a cuisine inspired by locally-sourced ingredients and techniques of Indian cooking — with an Iranian twist– became popular in the name of Parsi food.
And it is they who established the cafes and served Parsi food from the late 19th century onwards.
Why Kyani & Co. Is An Irani Cafe Not To Be Missed
Another historic place that I have grown fond of is Kyani & Co.
Known as Mumbai’s oldest cafe dating back to 1904, today it’s frequented by those in love with everything old and authentic.
Taking a seat on one of the black polished wooden chairs might give out a creaking sound, which soon feels like home as you sip your chai. By the way, every table will have several small glasses of chai — all ordered for one person.
Here, the regulars mostly know what to order and the paper menu tucked under the glass-table top adds to the establishment’s charm.
As you eat and sip, it’s hard to avoid running your eyes over the graffitied wall, the entire facade covered in Iranian newspapers, old family photos, and a vintage frame of Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia.
It’s a reminder of the Iranian roots of the Parsi cafe.
When I was a student, I holed up with a book in Kyani’s, slurping Irani chai and eating plates of akuri, a sort of scrambled egg dish cooked in tomato, coriander, and green chilies, the entire meal resting on slices of hot toast.
Another tea-time winner remains their keema puff, a flaky pastry stuffed with spiced minced lamb, chicken, or a vegetable filling.
At the break of dawn until evening, students, office goers, and travelers come for their fill of the Parsi delicacies. If lucky, one might chance upon a celebrity chef within earshot.
The happy patrons know that most Parsi cafes have their own in-house bakeries since these establishments started out as small tea stalls serving bakery items.
For instance, jeera biscuits — which are both sweet and savory, flecked with jeera (cumin) — come as an Indian version of shortbread that you must sample when here.
Or you can opt for the buttery nankhatai, another crumbly sweet cookie that goes best with chai or even English tea.
The Old World Charm Of Parsi Cafes In Mumbai
The Parsis have curated a cuisine that satisfies all taste buds, from kebab-loving stomachs to a refined European palate.
Sitting here, you might notice there is a mixed crowd.
And that leads me to believe that Irani cafes are a microcosm of cosmopolitan Mumbai.
With a host of Michelin-starred as well as quirky-themed restaurants serving casual-cool global fare in Mumbai, these no-frills, wallet-friendly Irani cafes continue to call out to foodies.
Someone who has never enjoyed the charm of an authentic Parsi cafe may wonder what is keeping them alive in our modern times.
If I were asked this question, I would say without a doubt that it’s their old-world charm and the food that strikes a perfect balance between simple yet exotic.
Also to thank is the fresh waves of tourists seeking culinary experiences beyond the usual keep them bustling.
Though what’s striking to me about these historic eateries is that for many locals, Parsi cafes remain both our first memories of Mumbai as well as some of our favorite current ones.
What are your favorite Parsi cafes in Mumbai, India?
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