From Bombay to London: Irani Cafes & “Dishoom”

12 Mar

On the several walks from my apartment to the hustle bustle of Soho and Leicester Square I had frequently walked past  the restaurant “Dishoom” – somewhat intrigued by the 1970s ‘Bollywoodish’ title. On the recommendation of my cousin, I finally paid a visit last month and wondered why it had taken me so long to make this first move. There are countless reviews on the blogosphere that have discovered “Dishoom” much before I did  so I am, clearly, tardy to that party and hence don’t intend on simply “reviewing” the restaurant.

What struck me as the most charming and defining feature of Dishoom” was the concept that it pays homage to, that of, Irani cafes in mid-20th century Bombay. Irani cafes appeared in Bombay and Karachi after their Zoroastrian-Iranian owners came to India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries following earlier settlers from Persia.

An Irani Cafe in Bombay - Photo Credit: Expressindia.com

In the last few years, such cafes have either been converted into pubs and restaurants or are simply closing down mainly due to fierce competition from other market players and the economic migration of younger generation of Parsis outside of India. Poignantly, the dwindling number of Irani cafes in Bombay and Karachi mirrors the shrinking of the Parsi community itself that has barely 70,000 members living in Bombay and only 2,000 in Karachi.

A fringe religious community in both India and Pakistan, Parsis  have made immense contributions in various spheres of life in both countries. The Irani cafes or restaurants were set up predominantly by Irani Zoroastrians who fled persecution from the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Kerman. Since they lacked the capital to establish themselves in shipping, banking and industry as had the earlier Zoroastrian settlers, the Irani Zoroastrians established modest cafes.

Irani cafes gradually became iconic institutions in themselves attracting clientele from students, struggling artists, tourists and Parsi families. They were also seen as very welcoming and were touted as being a microcosm that was “classless and casteless” where religious boundaries and societal divisions were blurred.

While there is ample material to be found on Irani cafes in Bombay, I was also curious to explore their roots in my birthplace, Karachi.

My father who was has spent 4 decades in the city recollects his experience of these cafes:

Irani cafes were dotted all over Karachi in yesteryears and were known for providing quality food on a budget. The cafes were owned by Bahai community people who were living in mostly coastal cities like Bombay and Karachi but somehow in local parlance they were called “Iran Kay Hotel”. The bun muska (crusty bun with butter) and ovaltine chai (milky tea with sprinkled ovaltine) was the meal for many office goers and students. These cafes also used to be political centres of Karachi where student and political activist used to rendezvous for hours. They used to bring a full glass of water before any serving while the fingers were dipped inside the glass. Some of them were centrally located  like one at Regal Cinema in Saddar and Khairabad on I .I.Chundrigar Road which was in those days the Fleet Street of Karachi where all newspapers offices were located. Outside these cafes were paan shops where people used to buy one cigarette of Wills or Capstan and lit their cigarette after a hearty meal by rope made of jute (jute used to come from East Pakistan). Irani cafes were institutions which have unfortunately faded out from the cultural scene of Karachi and more synthetic and fast food chains have replaced them. Anybody who has lived in Karachi in the 50s, 60s, 70s can recall all such cafes.

Now on to “Dishoom”

“Dishoom” opened its doors to Londoners last July. Adorned with sepia toned portraiture and popular imagery from the 50s and 60s against the backdrop of powder blue walls, it is obvious that much thought and effort has gone into the decor and cultural referencing. The attention to detail in the interior was for me a highlight since eating out is equally about the experience as it is about the food itself.

I admit to this bias but given the plethora of Pakistani restaurants in London that serve food exactly how I would enjoy it back home, I rarely venture to Indian restaurants. However, Dishoom has changed that for me. During multiple visits I have enjoyed the simple, clean flavours and moderately spiced food. The stellar item on the menu is, undoubtedly, the chai. Sacrilegious as this may sound, I’m not at all a chai drinker but this has me hooked. It’s traditional milky tea with a lingering aftertaste of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and a hint of ginger. The pau bhaji and dishoom calamari are excellent as starters as is the accompaniment of velvety roomali roti, which I had the last time at the iconic Karim’s in Delhi (that was a meal not to be forgotten).

Pau Bhaji

I always order the grilled items, which are amongst the best I have had in London. In particular, the spicy lamb chops and dishoom chicken tikka are perfectly seasoned and flavoured. The lamb biryani is also worth mentioning. They also serve a chicken berry biryani, which I have not tried as yet but it’s a signature Parsi dish. The rose and cardamom lassi is delicious and refreshing. The samosas and fish fingers were standard and not particular stand-outs. The chilli omelette and the breakfast bake are worth getting up early on a Saturday morning for.

While, I would not term this as a meal on a budget, the items are fairly priced. They have a no reservation policy so expect a long wait for tables during peak meal times on weekends.

Recently, Dishoom has started hosting events such as book readings and musical performances, which one can follow on their social media outlets (Twitter and Facebook).

Oh, and they also serve Thums Up 🙂

Dishoom

12 Upper St Martins Lane
WC2H 9FB, London
020 7420 9320

Sources:

Naomi Lobo (May 20 2007). “Irani cafés: Inheritance of loss”. India Express.

http://heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/irani/cafe.htm

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/JK27Df01.html

Advertisements

7 Responses to “From Bombay to London: Irani Cafes & “Dishoom””

  1. Shivani March 12, 2011 at 11:54 AM #

    Ah Thums up! Well written article Rids, this really was my first time hearing of Iranian cafes in South Asia and them having an associated culture. Did you meet any interesting people in Dishoom?

    • Food Across Borders March 13, 2011 at 4:18 PM #

      Thanks Shivani! Another place for you to visit when you next come to London.

      I’ve met several interesting people at the events they host on weekends who are all foodies but we also share other common interests.

  2. reina morton-kenaya May 31, 2014 at 10:18 AM #

    see
    http://www.iranichaimumbai.com
    for the stories of Mumbai’s Irani cafe families

    • Nikki May 17, 2017 at 12:44 AM #

      “Én magam nem vagyok viking, meg nem is éltem magam bele ilyen szinten a dologba, mert a kritika ezt állítja. […] vaskos irónia van benne, nem tudom ez mennyire jön áy;8#&221.Milten cukipofa ❤

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Dishoom Chowpatty Beach Bar « Food Across Borders~~ - May 14, 2011

    […] – one of my favourite restaurants in London that I blogged about here has decided to go on a trippy summer holiday. As part of the South Bank’s 60th anniversary […]

  2. Dishoom Beach Bar « Food Across Borders~~ - February 11, 2012

    […] – one of my favourite restaurants in London that I blogged about here has decided to go on a trippy summer holiday. As part of the Festival of Britain 60th anniversary […]

  3. Fasting and Feasting – Ramadan and Eid « Food Across Borders~~ - August 12, 2012

    […] was humbled and excited that the lovely team at Dishoom asked me to write a guest post on Ramadan and Eid for their blog. Here is the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: