Dishoom is one of London’s most unique restaurants, with its elegant beauty and retro charm.
What sets the restaurant apart from the glut of Indian eateries in the country is that Dishoom offers something which feels fresh and new, yet steeped in history and tradition.
This is because Dishoom was inspired by a very specific culinary and cultural curiosity – the Bombay café – a fascinating slice of history which the average Briton is unaware of.
During the early years of the 20th century, Iran's long persecuted Zoroastrian community, uprooted and moved to India, following in the footsteps of their Parsi brethren who had migrated centuries earlier.
Unlike the Parsis who settled in Sindh, Gujarat and Maharashtra however, this new wave of Zoroastrian immigrants, known as Irani’s, headed straight for Bombay.
The Irani’s brought with them a unique culinary culture which, when quickly melded with Indian cuisine, resulted in a glorious mixture of taste sensations.
The Indian public would soon be familiar with this cuisine through the Bombay Café, which came to be a fixture of the city for well over a hundred years.
The cafés were inviting places, with their simple decor and outstanding cuisine.
The Bombay cafés would also prove a source of creative inspiration, particularly for the Jewish Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel, who in 1972 penned ‘Irani Restaurant Instructions’; simple, poetic billet-doux to the often comical signs on the doors of the cafe’s, which welcome customers yet warn them, in no uncertain terms, how not to behave – “Please do not spit, Do not sit more, Pay promptly, Time is invaluable, Do not write letter, Without order refreshment, Do not comb, Hair is spoiling floor, Do not make mischief’s in cabin, Our waiter is reporting, Come again, All are welcome, Whatever caste, If not satisfied tell us, Otherwise tell others, GOD IS GREAT.”
The idea to create a London restaurant in honour of the Bombay café was conceived by a small group of food enthusiasts; among them Shamil Thakrar, who explained to me how Dishoom came into being: “We started talking about this idea many years ago. Over numerous trips to Bombay we found ourselves very inspired by the old Irani Cafés and the different kinds of food that can be found in Bombay.”
He adds: "We really wanted to bring a slice of this city back to London. We think of each Dishoom as a love letter to Bombay. Of course, India is familiar to many Brits, but we’re not a traditional “Indian restaurant” as most British people would understand it. We felt there was a vibrancy, a heritage of food and culture, and a real sense of fun that needed to be introduced to Londoners.”
Proving extremely popular amongst Londoners, like any great restaurant, Dishoom does not place style over substance.
While its aesthetic beauty is outstanding, the food is what makes Dishoom exceptional, with surprising twists on traditional Indian dishes like curry and of course delicious Irani food.
Shamil revealed Dishoom’s most popular meals: “At breakfast, the Bacon Naan Roll is our best-selling dish. We think it might be the best bacon sandwich in London.
The House Black Daal is always very popular (and deservedly so) – it just goes beautifully with everything on our menu. We also serve a lot of our Shoreditch specials – Lamb Raan and the Lamb Raan Bun – at that Dishoom. Our freshly baked breads also sell really well alongside the Grills, Biryanis and Rubies (Curries) – in fact, Black Daal mopped up with a Roomali Roti can be a fabulously simple and comforting meal in itself.”
Shamil is also keen to make sure customers take away something special with them.
“Of course, we’d like all our customers to leave Dishoom replete with food (and just the right side of tipsy), and overwhelmed by the warm welcome they’ve received. But perhaps they might also feel pleasantly surprised to have discovered something new about Indian culture, or nostalgic for some past memory that we’ve helped them recall.”
With the original Bombay cafés slowly slipping into the recesses of history, their decline is the cause of much sadness.
However, thanks to Dishoom, the Bombay cafés swan song will not be playing any time soon.
- Ben Mirza (www.benmirza.com)