To enter an Irani cafe in Mumbai is to enter a bygone era. They may not be as popular as they were in their heyday in mid-20th century. Their numbers may have declined dramatically from around 350 in the 1960s to scarcely 30. But they still remain spaces of geniality. You can still visit them for a cutting chai with snacks like khari biscuits and buttered buns without ripping a big hole in the wallet.
Interest in Irani cafes has grown in the British South Asian diaspora because of the outrageously popular restaurant Dishoom. The first Dishoom was opened in London’s Covent Garden in 2010, and is currently being refurbished for its tenth birthday. Its popularity in the past decade led to the setting up of four more establishments in various districts of London, each with its own style and imagined backstory, but all paying homage to the Irani cafe. It also prompted a migration to other British cities, such as Edinburgh, Manchester, and now Birmingham.
Dishoom opened its “godown” in a cavernous former railway building at King’s Cross in 2014. I discovered it as a place to while away a few hours as I waited for the train back to my home in the north of England. However, it quickly became my happy place.
Why do I find Dishoom so pleasing? It starts with the name, an onomatopoeic word for a punch or smack. Then there is the food, always flavourful and well-presented. Bringing the idea together is the decor: tiled floors, an imposing station clock, vintage luggage scales, and references to Indian cinema on the walls. Lounging on Dishoom’s rattan chairs recalls languorous punkahs turning in subcontinental homes, and an icy glass of Rooh Afza with lemon on sweltering afternoons.
The nostalgia for the Bombay Irani cafe of the 1960s in these British establishments is at once poignant and humorous. Signs speak to the restaurants’ clientele in broken English or exuberant Devanagari script. The King’s Cross establishment is lined with dark wood and warm “Chilli-man-green” walls, making it easy to forget the all too British wind and rain outside. Hole-in-the-wood toilets are another reminder of the subcontinent.
The team behind Dishoom – cousins and co-CEOs Shamil Thakrar and Kavi Thakrar, alongside their head chef Naved Nasir – published a book in 2019 entitled Dishoom: From Bombay with Love. As a recipe book, this would have been exciting enough, for it presents Dishoom signatures from akuri to their cocktail the East India Gimlet. Yet, as its title suggests, the volume is also a love letter to the western metropolis of Mumbai or Bombay.
In an interview, Uttar Pradesh native Nasir told me his story. He had been making a name for himself as a chef in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, when in 2009, a colleague introduced him to the Thakrars. He made the life-changing decision to move to London to work in the new Indian restaurant they were setting up because as an ambitious chef, he “wanted to perform on the world stage”.
An anecdote is recounted early in the book about Nasir’s reservations about the restaurant’s name. When I ask why he wasn’t persuaded at first, he tells me that he and his friends had laughed about it and thought Dishoom didn’t make sense. The trend at the time was to name restaurants after spices: saffron (kesar), cumin (jeera), cinnamon (dalchini), and so on. But now he believes the place lives up to its brand name, given its palpable affection for Bombay and the golden age of Hindi cinema.
Nasir never meant to be a chef. His father was a doctor and wanted his son to continue in the family profession. The young man dutifully enrolled in medicine and, failing that, went to college to become a pharmacist. Unfortunately, he soon found he couldn’t progress in the world of healthcare. His mother made her peace with his subsequent decision to go to a catering school in Delhi. Yet the father was so upset that he never shared another meal with Nasir in the years before his death in 2012. Despite the chef’s successes – the awards, magazine articles and interviews – he felt a failure as a son. Even today, Nasir laments, “I let my father down big-time.”
His mother comes from an aristocratic family with roots in a village near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. When they would go back to the ancestral home for holidays, his maternal relatives had three cooks who between them were experts in most Indian cuisines. One of them was a ninja at making shami kababs and koftas. From a young age, Nasir would watch him and help for hours with pounding meat and mixing it with spices and other ingredients.
He finds it impossible to identify a favourite recipe from the book, declaring that to do so would be like choosing between your children. However, he acknowledges that Dishoom’s slow-cooked and creamy black dal (the restaurant’s name for dal makhani) is close to his heart. Whenever he visits one of the restaurants’ kitchens, he has to check this pan first, since the dal is his barometer of everything being in order.
When the conversation veers to his preferred regional cuisine, Nasir tells me that north Indian food is underrated, unrecognised and often misunderstood. Its gustatory culture is more complex and, for want of a better word, cooler than the grand, meat-heavy “Mughlai cuisine” most people automatically associate with it. He points to the wedding feast in north India as an example, describing with relish the savoury biryani mixed with sweet zarda rice, and the elaborate kormas guests are routinely served at these celebrations.
In some of the closing lines to Dishoom: From Bombay with Love, the authors write:
We can offer no guarantee that this highly subjective and personal guide has covered the important bits of Bombay, or the most important parts of its history. Some will point out things that we’ve missed, dishes that we just had to eat but didn’t. Others may tell us that it’s all a bit incoherent, a mish-mash of stories, foods and cuisines; still others will say that it is all too rose-tinted a view of a challenging city. Perhaps it is.
While the British-Asian Thakrars look at Bombay through the rose-tinted spectacles of visits to their grandmother’s home during childhood holidays, Nasir’s memories are more current and reflect the city’s challenging side.
After catering college, he worked in one of Delhi’s (and India’s) most famous restaurants, Bukhara in ITC Hotel. From there, he moved to Bombay, maturing and growing as a chef. At first, he hated the Maharashtrian conurbation, missing home and the north of India, which he could only afford to visit once or twice a year. He recalls the tribulations of travelling in Mumbai, and out of frustration, attempting the long commute on foot.
However, in the second half of his time in Mumbai, he got bitten by the bug described in the book, “begin[ning] to see past [his] first impressions”. After finishing his shift at 2 am, he would ride together with a friend on motorbike, revelling in the empty roads, to go and sit in front of the Hilton. He would give fifty rupees to some chai wallahs and ask them to keep refilling his glass till sunrise. Then he would head for home and a few hours of sleep before the next cooking period began. “Those were the most beautiful memories of the city.” He confesses that he cried when he moved away.
Now he happily finds himself back there at least twice a year. Dishoom takes everyone who has been promoted or worked in the restaurant for five years for Bombay Bootcamp. This is a five-day foodie’s tour of the megalopolis led by Kavi Thakrar and Nasir himself. Initiates discover that Mumbai is a city of contradictions. It is where the rooftop terraces of five-star hotels and fine dining restaurants frequently overlook slums.
Nasir never thought much of Irani cafes when they were plentiful. But with time, things look sweeter. He remembers a place in Malabar Hill that served superb food and afforded a spectacular view of the Queen’s Necklace or Marine Drive, that road tracing part of the Arabian Sea coastline. This cafe may be gone today, “but we have our memories”.
The loss of India’s rich food heritage is painful. The Dishoom team was left bereft in 2019 at the death of Boman Kohinoor, the founder of Britannia & Co., at the age of 97. For them, the main focus of any visit to the Ballard Estate restaurant was a conversation with its proprietor. It is uncertain what will happen to the restaurant now. Such places sit on prime real estate, so often younger generations have no financial incentive to continue their legacy.
There exists nothing like the very organised French cooking schools when it comes to Indian food. As a result, a wealth of knowledge is lost when each senior khansama dies. Nasir himself learned under the tutelage of master chef Imitiaz Qureshi (born 1931). Once he is gone, Nasir worries, the octogenarian’s knowledge will die with him, especially his encyclopaedic understanding of north Indian food from the days of the British Raj. Younger chefs don’t have the patience for traditional epicurean rigours, preferring instead the safety of fusion and fast food.
In the book’s introduction, there is a discussion of celebrating Ramzan and Janmashtami together at Dishoom. Nasir insists that food helps people to get past religious and cultural divisions. Sharing a meal with others is a superb way of breaking down barriers and bringing people together, especially in contexts where caste and religious scruples prevent such exchanges. Nasir drew this valuable lesson from Olympia Coffee House, one of his favourite Mumbai Irani cafes, whose four-chair arrangements at round tables are often occupied by strangers from different religions.
Back in London, when Dishoom puts on its Eid celebrations, half the people who turn up are non-Muslims. Similarly, for Diwali, a majority of attendees are not Hindu. The world, especially India and Britain, needs this kind of culinary conviviality now more than ever.
Claire Chambers is a Senior Lecturer in Global Literature, Convenor of the MA in Global Literature and Culture, and Graduate Chair for the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York.
This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.