London sips on Irani chai and savours Jhal Muri

Aug 07, 2013, 10:47 IST | Anjana Vaswani

Two Indian and a British culinary pioneer introduced the English Capital to two Indian gastronomic experiences: Mumbai's iconic Irani caf �s and Kolkata's spicy Jhal Muri. These entrepreneurs tell Anjana Vaswani of The GUIDE how they were able to dish out these slices of desi food in UK

Dishoom > /dishu:m/ n.
1. The old Bollywood sound effect produced when a cine hero lands a good punch to the villain
2. Similar to popular slang usage of the expression “Mojo”; e.g. “He’s got that Dishoom”

Notwithstanding the citation from their company's website, self-proclaimed “Dishoomwallahs,” Shamil and Kavi Thakrar admit that their title is a reference to their having conceptualised Dishoom, a snazzier version of Mumbai’s quintessential Irani café for London. The idea has been so appreciated that in less than three years the team has not only bagged several awards, but they’ve opened a second outlet as well.

The Covent Garden outlet

Bring back the café
The irony of this expansion wouldn’t be lost on Mumbai residents like city-researcher Rafique Baghdadi, who has conducted Irani café trails for years now. Baghdadi has long lamented the disappearance of these quirky little diners, each of which, he believes has a distinctive style and character. Reports reveal how Mumbai was home to at least 350 such cafés in the 1950s; today, the number doesn’t even cross 25.

Dishoom’s Shoreditch outlet has a blackboard with remarks as were scrawled on Bastani’s blackboard

This Gujarati cousins were keen to preserve this fading legacy. Shamil explains, “As a boy, I spent many holidays with my grandmother in our King’s Circle flat, opposite which is Café Koolar. With every trip, we noticed another neighbourhood Irani café had shut. The sadness at each café’s loss was the reason to start Dishoom. We wanted to pay homage to the Irani café and share our love for them with people who might never have the chance to visit one.”

Kavi Thakrar, Boman Kohinoor proprietor of Mumbai’s Britannia Café , Shamil Thakrar and Naved Nasir

Recreate... rewind...
Plates inscribed with memories of these cafés were originally intended to adorn the walls of Dishoom alongside antique family portraits (and pictures of Zoroastrian families, sourced from bazaars), but the team has been inundated with requests to sell these. Baghdadi’s description of family rooms at cafés -- often patronised by courting couples -- is on one such plate and accounts from friends, diners and food bloggers adorn others.

First-hand research played a huge role with the decor. “We visited every Irani café in Mumbai and spent time soaking up the atmosphere, like brun soaks up chai,” shares Shami, adding, “Chef Naved who was earlier with ITC Maratha, helped work out the menu with his wealth of culinary knowledge and passion for the city’s food and heritage.”

A plate with a customer account of their visit to an Irani café

Originally from Meerut, Chef Nasir admits to being a fan of Britannia’s Berry Pulao and the Kheema-Pav at Olympia Café. His menu now includes authentic Irani dishes such as Akuri, Kheema Pav, Bun Maska, Jeera biscuits, Kheema Puff Veg Puff, and a few anglicised recipes like the popular Bacon Naan Roll.

Set the mood
A team of interior designers stayed in Mumbai to experience and interpret the Irani café culture. “We’ve lovingly borrowed a great deal from these cafés -- the floor tiles, the ceiling fans...even the peeling paint and slightly-uncomfortable bentwood chairs,” says Shamil admitting that their outlet at Shoreditch rather than at Covent Garden -- is closer to the original, in terms of design. There’s a blackboard with remarks as were once scrawled on Bastani’s blackboard. “

All that’s left,” he says with a chuckle, “is to find a blunt yet affable senior to run the place.”

Jhal Muri Express >
Angus Denoon Duncan was holidaying in Kolkata in 2005 when, charmed by the city’s incredible street-food culture, he decided to make a film to capture, “the beautiful ways of their (the vendors’) hands.” Jhal Muri, Kolkata’s version of bhel that’s traditionally prepared with puffed rice inspired Denoon’s imagination because it was both, easy to prepare and delicious. “There was particularly this one guy who was so fluid and graceful in his movements,” he recalls, describing a Jhal Muri vendor. “Then, the more I looked around the more Jhal Muri-wallahs I saw; each had his own style, so I was fascinated by the dish with all its variations,” he shares.

Angus Denoon Duncan offers a slice of Kolkata to Londoners

Duncan started selling the snack at supermarkets in London upon his return -- he would cook on the road at events and weddings, he tells us. Duncan explains that while he had worked in the kitchens of restaurants before, now, he appreciates how incredible it is to see his satisfied customers and to make food under the open sky. He charges £3 for a cone of Jhal Muri and has also added Ghugni Chaat, Phulchas, Lassi and Dhoklas to his menu.

A couple of trips back to India and Duncan was equipped not just with all these recipes, but also Indian signs “hand-painted by Ganga, an artist from Dasghara, West Bengal,” he reveals. He fit these into the van he lives in and thus was born the Jhal Muri Express. It’s now a big attraction whenever it parks on London’s high streets and even in more demand when it’s booked for special events.

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