Uncool in Mumbai, revived in London: Irani Cafe

Once something is out of fashion in India, the West recycles it and makes it trendy again. Newly-opened Bombay Irani Café, Dishoom, in Britain’s capital, shows us how.

Article by Naomi Canton | Millenium Post

image Shoreditch is a cutting-edge part of London where art, experimentation, creativity, freelancers, hot-desking, designers and a breed of Londoners known as hipsters can be found.
So, I was curious to hear that a Bombay Irani Café had opened up there.

When I had lived in Mumbai, I had hung out in the likes of Café Coffee Day, Gloria Jeans and Barista. I had barely ever ventured to the Bombay Irani Cafes. Of course I went to Leopold but it was always so packed with tourists, I hardly got the Irani café vibe and after the 2008 terror attacks, it took on a new celeb status for the bullet holes.

But now in London a Bombay Irani Café called Dishoom is the latest place.

Once something is out of fashion in India, London recycles it and makes it cool. For example, you cannot find a cycle rickshaw in Mumbai anymore, but they are two-a-penny, ultra-cool (and expensive) in Soho.

I ventured to Dishoom for breakfast. The menu included Bombay Omelette, Akuri on Fire toast and Egg Naan Roll. I ordered a brun maska and jaggery-laden chai.

Black fans slowly clanked around the ceiling, even though it was not hot and stainless steel cups for tap water lay stacked on top of each other on my table, which had a green and white checked surface with glass covering. In India that was a sign you were in a lower-class place that your maid might frequent. Here it was part of the uber-coolness.

Even the wall paint was deliberately off-white and chipped. It seemed to have monsoon water marks and spat-out paan stains wilfully added to it, enhancing the trendy ambiance.

The walls were decked with old black and white framed photos, as if taken from an Indian family album. They included a family standing rigidly in a line facing the camera, a couple in a Bollywood pose near a tree, men in military uniform with greased-back hair and grandparents staring blankly at the camera not smiling.

Red Devanagari script was painted on the wall, yet on one wall it said in English: ‘No spitting, No combing hair, No petting, No outside food, No stealing newspaper, No sleeping in toilet, All castes welcome.’

‘The idea is that both the bankers and hipsters will come in here,’ a waiter told me as the music randomly switched between classical Bollywood, American Exotica, and jazz. On the bar a ‘sterilised towel machine’ stood next to the bakery. A random blackboard said ‘All chai is coming strictly without opium.’

After finishing my brun maska, thickly laden with butter, I took a walk around. I passed some huge yellow weighing scales machine which I was told didn’t work because a customer had stood on them and they broke, but that these still existed at railway stations in India. There were ancient massive Ferguson radios holding up long zinc tables at the bar. Downstairs sacks of flour and huge plastic cartons of cooking oil lay around – also part of the ‘effect.’

At the beginning of the 20th century Persian immigrants opened the first Bombay Irani cafes in Mumbai. In their heyday there were 400, now there are less than 30.

This 5,500 square feet replica opened in London in October 2012.  The four British Indian partners behind it sent a team of designers to India to hang out in Irani cafes to get inspired. They bought the stuff from India, antiques shops and reclamation yards in the UK.

A friend arrived for lunch and we moved to one of the mustard-coloured leather booths near the window which had ‘Do not sit more …pay promptly time is invaluable… ’ etched on it.  An old deco lamp that weirdly had a tiny fan on it stood on the retro marble table.

I had a Nimbu Pani. She had a Bhang lassi with rum instead of bhang Bottles of Thums Up and Limca (Rs250 each) imported from India served in old worn glass bottles were on offer. No cans of coke on sale here. The menu described Thums Up as the ‘the cola of Bombay in botals nicely worn from recycling.’

We opted for Vada Pau or ‘Bombay’s version of London’s chip butty’, and Pau Bhaji. Despite having lived in Mumbai 3.5 years I had never tried either.

The reason was I never understood Mumbai street food and the places selling it never had menus or if they did they were in Devanagari script. The men serving it didn’t speak English and I was always worried about hygiene and that I would fall sick.

My friend and I found them to be delicious. Having both been to India, we appreciated the difference between authentic Indian food and British Asian invented concoctions such as Chicken Vindaloo, typically served up in UK curry houses.

The Dishoom menu had everything from Bhel Keema Pau and Chilli Cheese Toast to Mahi Tikka, Chole-Chawal and Chicken Berry Britannia – dishes I had heard my Indian friends speak about but never tasted and never seen on a menu here till now.

We asked for Kala Khatta Gola Ice but the waiter advised us against it, saying only 10 people had ever finished it. ‘Someone said it tasted like old socks,’ he said. Unperturbed, we ordered it. It reminded me of the desserts they serve up at Juhu beach. Foreigners are warned off eating ice in India so I had never tried it. I had two spoons and swiftly returned to my Monsooned Malabar coffee, wishing I had ordered the Malai Kulfi.

Upon leaving, I asked the barman if the ceiling fans were on during the freezing British winter. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘So they put the heating on and blast the fans at the same time?’ Yes,’ he said.’

I mulled over how ironic it was that this café opened in London at exactly the same time that Starbucks opened its first branch in India. Both continue to attract long queues. I wonder how Mumbaiites will feel if the last Bombay Irani Café closes and all they have left is Starbucks? The grass is always greener.

Naomi Canton is a British journalist who lived and worked in Mumbai between 2007 and 2010.