He Brought Indian Food to Britain

Way earlier than many would guess

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Here’s something I learned last night: don’t put TOO many carrot tops in your stock. Yeesh. Gonna be eating green soup for months.

I’ve been eating a lot of tuna sandwiches* lately. Besides it being pantry food, I think it’s also sort of comforting and, for me, familiar. I’m also eating a ton of bok choy. It’s always available right now, and I get to cook it with my beloved black vinegar. What food are you eating a lot These Days? Let’s talk about it here.

*I’m trying to sound adult here. I call them tuna fish sandwiches.

Please forward to your most culture-hungry friend!

Image: Thomas Mann Baynes (1794–1876)/Public domain

The First Indian Restaurant in Britain

By Radhika Iyengar

In 2018, a hand-written menu re-surfaced from obscurity and made headlines. Auctioned for $11,344, the 200-year-old leaflet bearing cursive script belonged to the first Indian restaurant owned by an Indian immigrant in Britain.

Sake Dean Mahomed opened the Hindoostane Coffee House in 1810, offering authentic Indian cuisine. It was located on George Street in London, a prime spot at the time. Rather than serving hot beverages, as its name suggests, the restaurant offered delicacies such as lobster curry, chicken curry, “pineapple pullaoo” (a rice dish made with spices, herbs, and vegetables) and an assortment of Indian breads and chutneys. As a man of color in early 19th century Britain, establishing a restaurant in the Imperial Empire was an ambitious dream. But Mahomed used his eastern identity to his advantage to build a multi-faceted career.

Born to a Muslim family in the Bengal Presidency in British India, Mahomed began his career as a subaltern officer in East India Company’s Bengal Army. In 1784, he followed his patron, Colonel Godfrey Evans Baker (an Anglo-Irish Protestant officer in the Company) to Cork, Ireland, when the latter resigned. It was there that Mahomed learned English and married an Irish woman.

Image: WikiCommons

In 1794, he published his memoir, The Travels of Dean Mahomet, which offered a foreign readership insights into the Indian culture, history, and food from an insider’s perspective. It was a strategic move by Mahomed towards popularizing himself as a credible name among potential British patrons. As a result, he became the first Indian to author a book in English.

In 1807, Mahomed moved to London[1] with his wife to start a culinary business. He established the Hindoostane Coffee House, a fine-dining restaurant that exclusively served the gentry and the “nabobs” (an English corruption of the Indian word, nawab) of Britain. Historian Michael H. Fisher, in his introduction to the 1997 edition of The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey through India, writes, “In the location, furnishing, and advertising of this public eating house, [Mahomed] clearly sought to appeal and cater to the same type of men who had been his patrons in the past: Europeans who had worked or lived in India, men they called ‘Indian gentlemen’.”

Mahomed used his Indian identity to market himself as the “manufacturer of the real currie powder.” To offer an “exotic” experience at his restaurant, he populated it with bespoke bamboo-cane furniture and hung a careful selection of paintings which depicted scenes from the far-off, mystic East. The restaurant also included a smoking room, where guests could use “ornate hookas (water pipes)” with special tobacco craftily “blended with Indian herbs.”[2]

To publicise the Hindoostane, Mahomed released an advertisement in The Times (London) onMarch 27, 1811. He described his restaurant as a place “for the entertainment of Indian gentlemen, where they may enjoy the Hoakha, with real Chilm tobacco, and Indian dishes, in the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England with choice of wines, and every accommodation.”[3]

Photo: Simon Harriyott/Flickr

Unfortunately, owing to severe rivalry from hundreds of other coffee houses in London, Mahomed’s business found itself flailing. A pioneer and an entrepreneur, Mahomed decided to move to Brighton, and in 1821, went on to establish a luxury bathhouse called Mahomed Bathhouse, which catered to British aristocracy, including patrons such as King George IV and King William IV.[4]

In memory of the Hindoostane Coffee House, the City of Westminster revealed a plaque in 2005 that commemorated the site on George Street.

Author’s note: Sake Dean Mahomed’s name has been spelled differently in various papers and sources. I have decided to use the spelling used on the plaque.

[1] Peers, D. (1997). The First Indian Author in English: Dean Mahomed (1759–1851) in India, Ireland, and England. By Michael H. Fisher. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996. xviii, 368 pp. The Journal of Asian Studies.
[2] Michael H. Fisher, The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey Through India, 149pp
[3] Ibid.
[4] The Benefits of Shampooing by Sake Dean Mahomed, The British Library: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-benefits-of-shampooing-by-sake-dean-mahomed

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