Shamil Thakrar shares his memories of café life in Bombay, which inspired him, along with his cousin Kavi, to set up the first restaurant in the Dishoom chain
For me, the Irani cafés are a significant part of Bombay’s seduction. Once liberally sprinkled across the city, only twenty-five or so remain, all of them old, comfortable and worn. All who know them well seem to harbour treasured memories of them – as places for bunking off school, or debating politics and philosophy with the idealistic energy of youth, or for escaping – deeply – into a book, all accompanied by chai. The Irani cafés were lovely places for growing up, and for growing old, whoever you were.
In the course of your time in Bombay, you’ll get to know these cafés and their ramshackle charm. You’ll become familiar with their proprietors (invariably kindly and eccentric uncles or aunties), their food and, of course, their sweet milky chai. Might I suggest that you start in Koolar & Co.? This little café occupies a narrow wedge of a street corner on King’s Circle up in Matunga, which is on the way to South Bombay. Amir-bhai is the owner and his family have had the café since 1932. He is genial and quirky, like his café. He is also generous in sharing his reminiscences over a plate of tasty but slightly odd “honey half-fry” eggs (eggs only slightly fried and drizzled with honey), which I’ve never eaten anywhere but here.
Koolar & Co. has a specific importance for me. Not far away is a small ground floor flat in an unremarkable building, where my mother and I spent a few months of my very early life. My family had been thrown out of our home in Africa, and Bombay was our refuge when we had nowhere else to go. We actually celebrated my first birthday here in Koolar & Co. and apparently we had a little cake. This would certainly be a memory I would lovingly treasure if I had it.
Meanwhile my father was getting our papers in order so that we could join him in England. Although we eventually settled there, I often returned to Bombay, and to that little flat. I used to stay with my grandmother (“Baa”), who had an enormous love for the city. My memories of that flat are vivid. I can still see our little blue Formicatopped dining table, with the crackling boxy Grundig radio that my grandfather (“Dada”) used to listen to intently, next to the little toaster that toasted one side at a time.
Without Baa’s influence, my cousin Kavi (also her grandson) and I literally wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing at Dishoom. We both have distinct memories of being in Bombay with her. At Chowpatty or Crawford Market, or strolling up to Nariman Point at sunset with my grandfather, who could walk endlessly. Sadly, Baa and Dada are both no more, but a memory that I have and that I treasure lovingly is the utterly unselfconscious, wide grin on Baa’s face when she ate a kala khatta gola ice at our pop-up on London’s South Bank back in 2011. Even as she was in her eighties, she used to love showing off Dishoom to her old friends from Bombay.
Chef Naved has been with us since the very beginning. He already had a successful career in some of India’s finest hotels. We were lucky indeed that he agreed to move from Bombay to London in 2010 to dream up a menu for a restaurant that didn’t yet even exist, and furthermore had a silly name. In fact, he nearly refused the interview because of this name. “Dishoom” is the word for a sound effect used in an old Hindi movie when a hero lands a convincing punch. If we’re candid, it is an odd choice of name for our restaurants. It was our good fortune that this normally levelheaded man threw all caution to the wind and gave us a chance. Thus, Naved’s delicious recipes first filled our restaurants, and now fill our book.