Fall in love with Bombay café culture
I am very much in the way.
This is instantly clear, confesses PA’s Ella Walker as she meets Dishoom’s executive chef Naved Nasir, who lets her into the kitchen as the restaurant celebrates its debut cookbook.
The chefs at Dishoom Kensington – their whites pristine as they to and fro with huge trays of buns to be stuffed with keema and paneer – dance skilfully between charcoal grills and sturdy metal pots the size of car tyres.
But now they also have to contend with me, attuned only to the prawn moilee (a south Indian-style curry) under my nose, and not the intricacies of a frenetic open kitchen.
I’m here with Dishoom executive chef Naved Nasir, one-third of the team behind the restaurant chain and its debut cookbook, Dishoom: From Bombay With Love.
The other two-thirds are co-founders Shamil Thakrar and Kavi Thakrar, who launched Dishoom in 2010.
They opened first in Covent Garden and now have five restaurants in London as well as joints in Edinburgh and Manchester.
Inspiration initially sprung from Bombay’s beloved Irani cafés, and “each Dishoom is a small love letter to these cafés in Bombay”, as Nasir explains over bowls of crisp, rust-coloured okra fries and knubbly bites of chilli chicken.
The cafés are the legacy of Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran, who set up these cosmopolitan nooks in the early 20th century, which, as a by-product of savvy business acumen (communal tables designed to optimise space) made India’s caste and class systems inconsequential – or at least suspended them for a meal and a drink or two.
“[You’d] share a table – the chair is yours,” says Nasir. “These cafés broke down those barriers. That for me was the biggest contribution these cafés had, that you could have a Muslim sitting next to a Hindu or a Sikh, and a Christian next to them.”
From 400 or so scattered across Bombay, there are now barely 30 of these opulent, nostalgically tattered Irani cafés left.
While Dishoom is a love letter, it’s not an exact replica. And neither are the dishes you’ll find on its menu or in the cookbook.
Instead, Nasir’s ethos is to ask: “If you tell someone in Bombay about a bacon sandwich, how would he go about it?” The answer is Dishoom’s famed tomato-chilli jam and cream cheese-slicked bacon naan roll.
Sharing recipes is important though, he notes: “If you’re too secretive, recipes will die.”
And so he’s quite happy to share the secrets to his perfect, fragrant prawn moilee – a dish that was a special at Dishoom Covent Garden. “Browning up onions is a very critical stage,” Nasir reminds me.
We eat it with steamed rice and wedges of lemon, and feel a little more like we’re in Bombay than we did before.