When it comes to Parsi food, old Bombay is a gold mine. There are numerous establishments – some well known, others not so famous – that offer the various culinary delights of the community to all and sundry. To be in South Bombay, and not sample Parsi food therefore is nothing short of sacrilege. Having sinned enough already, I am in no mood for another act of impiety, so off I go on a hot, humid afternoon for my pilgrimage.
My first stop is Britannia and Company; housed in a heritage building of the iconic Ballard estate, right behind the Bombay Stock Exchange; the café-cum-restaurant has been around for close to ninety years and is easily one of the most famous symbols of Parsi – Iranian food in Bombay. Set up in the early nineteenth century by a family that migrated from Iran, the restaurant started off by selling Iranian delicacies to the British officers working in the area. The owner’s subsequent marriage to a Parsi lady ensured introduction of famous Parsi dishes in the menu. Today the place is as famous for its salli boti as it is for the berry pulav, and its crème caramel as authentic, as Pallonji’s raspberry (a Bombay staple drink served in cola style glass bottles).
Run by an identical looking father-son duo, the cafe is delightfully personal – the elderly father insists on taking orders himself, making small talk, and even offering you his signature drink in his signature style, “To beat the Mumbai heat, have fresh lime soda sweet”, he tells me. I am totally floored by his charm and ready to order everything he recommends when my pragmatic husband intervenes and we end up ordering only two items – Berry Pulav and Salli Boti. Dejected, I look around. The place looks every bit of the Parsi-Iranian cafés I have only seen in movies until now. The bentwood tables and chairs, imported from Poland shortly after the café opened are still intact, as is the grandfather clock and the three mounted flags on the wall (Indian, British and Iranian). Along the service windows rest sacks full of raw material and crates of Pallonji’s drinks. The other items that adorn the place are: a huge fridge, plastic containers (used for takeaways) and signboards warning us against arguing with the staff.
Our food arrives in no time and I promptly dig in to the aromatic pulav. The mild rice of the pulav is contrasted perfectly by the flavourful gravy on which the rice sits; the tiny tart berries sprinkled over the rice add another layer of flavour to the dish. The berries, incidentally, are still imported from Iran. While I am enjoying every bite of the mild Iranian pulav, my mutton-loving husband is busy tucking into the food of his dream – salli boti, a dish made out of chunky pieces of mutton topped with a generous dose of fried potato juliennes, accompanied with the thinnest and softest rotis I have ever seen. We eat in silence and wipe the plates clean in less than ten minutes. I am now dreaming of the wobbly crème caramel but husband has other plans to fulfill my sweet craving. I bid a reluctant adieu to one love of my life, to follow another.
By the time we leave Britannia, the gentle sea breeze has started to flow into the Victorian Bombay and we walk along the fort to reach a nondescript building at Churchgate where our dessert awaits us.
It is easy to miss K Rustomji, one of the most popular ice-cream joints in south-Bombay, if you have not been there before. Situated in a corner of a nondescript, vacant building, the shop is not marked by a fancy board or an illuminated hoarding but by the large number of people awaiting their turns to pick up their favourite flavour. The place looks far from inviting but boasts of a mind-boggling variety of ice cream, ranging from the regular vanilla and strawberry to muskmelon and kokum (over 45 in all). I settle for nescafe while husband, a true connoisseur of sour and tart flavours, chooses kokum.
Unlike the gentleman at Britannia, the man at the counter here looks bored and disinterested. The look on his face kills my curiosity about the history of the place and I promptly retreat into my shell. The ice cream, thick slabs contained only by paper-thin wafer sheets, however makes up for his disinterest. It is luscious, flavourful and really, really creamy. We soon join the crowd laughing and licking the sweet liquid flowing down our hands, totally in love with the bawas and their food.