These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it? I’d like to make peace with ’19, to be humbly grateful for all its various shades and moods.
Truth be told, I was a very sober person over the last twelve months. That makes me sound either very serious or like a reformed drunk, when in truth I believe I am neither. Even so, I think that ‘19’s relative sobriety demands a good single malt as its final punctuation mark. Something peaty and salty and challenging. None of your sweet and comforting Old Fashioneds for me! There is a kindly and smiling bartender here who seems to be leaving me to my own devices. I have a suspicion, though, that each time I look away, she is cheerfully holding steady the distance between me and the bottom of the glass. I will not fight her, at least not for now.
Here, beside me on the bar, is a book. It is the Dishoom Cookery Book and Highly Subjective Guide to Bombay with Map, no less. Years passed during its emotional journey from excited twinkle in our eyes through the arduous terrain of daily writing and researching, making recipes work in a home kitchen, and eventually up to the higher ground of materialising a physical object (with actual pages, and recipes, and writing, and photos!) At first all I could see in it were blemishes, typos, the turns of phrase that could have been elegant. But eventually, the book and I began nervously to make friends with each other. Our friendship is allowing me to see that we really were writing a sincere love letter to Bombay.
The book is a tour of the Bombay that we have fallen in love with over the years – the places that give us comfort and that have inspired our recipes, as well as the stories, the histories, the people we have come to know, the little institutions, and the oddities in between that have helped us create our restaurants. The recipes themselves are not just of Dishoom, but of a city to which we are most deeply indebted. The book feels substantial in my hands and I’m grateful to have it here at the bar as my quiet companion. It is us, truthfully expressing who we are.
Social and cultural context are surely such an important part of how we experience food. Consider that much loved and most humble Bombay street food staple, the vada pau. It’s a sort of spicy Indian version of a chip butty. On street corners you’ll find hawkers serving their vadas. These are deep fried potato patties, spicy and hot, lifted straight out of scalding oil and placed in a pau – a bun – with more spices. There is something very specific and special about standing, waiting for your vada to come out of the fryer. As Suketu Mehta tells us in his great spicy book, Maximum City, Bombay is in fact the Vada Pau eater’s city. Everyone waits patiently in the heat for a vada pau – the exhausted taxi-walla, the stressed lawyer in a gown looking at her watch, the smiling urchin who has come upon a few rupees, the irritable khaki-clad policeman. It is here that you experience Bombay. The traffic, hooting so constantly that it almost becomes soothing. The other hawkers selling their wares. The imposing Bombay gothic buildings that may be your backdrop. Then, holding paper plate in one hand you crush the vada gently within the pau with the other hand and take the first bite. It burns your mouth and gives you that instant and addictive hit of heat and chilli and potato and fat. Wow.
A large part of the joy of writing our book has been to articulate this context – which we just cannot do in such detail on our menus and in restaurants. Our book is a way for us to share our experience of the city. The way that places and people and buildings and history combine with the taste of food to evoke such very strong feelings in us. Of course, our version of this context is subjective. I’ve loved recounting the stories I love: the stories of the Irani cafés and their owners, the heritage of various dishes, of course, but also the emergence of jazz in Bombay in the 1930s and the great cotton boom of the 1860s. For me, the stories and food of Bombay belong together. They lend each other essential resonance and cannot be prised apart. And it must be true that the taste of the food from Bombay that we might experience in a London restaurant is only the very top layer, the culmination of generations of cooking, of recipes handed down, of centuries of human experience and history on the other side of the globe.
Our need for food is clearly the most visceral need that we have. However, I think our need for stories in the way we relate to the world is also a deep – and almost visceral – need. Like many, I recently read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari makes the argument that without stories we could not coalesce into communities, that cooperation with people whom we don’t directly know depends on the stories we create and tell ourselves. He argues convincingly that stories – narratives of the past, hope for the future, are a critical basis for any evolution and cooperation beyond the smallest groups.
If this is the case, it must also be true that better understanding each other’s different stories is key to the good functioning of our world. If our societies seem to become more fractious, this becomes more and more important. If stories are who we are, then the very act of really listening to them is to engage with each other’s essential humanity. We all surely have a deep human need to be understood. Labelling and judging people is easy, but I would venture that a much better way is to listen. To really listen – without preconception and with an intent to learn. This year I’ve also been reading from Suzuki Roshi, the Zen Buddhist teacher, who talks about ‘beginner’s mind’. He explains that ‘in the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities but in the expert’s mind, there are few.’ To be a beginner is to be curious, open and empty, ready to receive with wonder. I think that this is also a brave way to listen, since the listener runs the very serious risk of being somehow changed themselves. And listening in this way is also necessarily more compassionate and humble.
I walked through Spitalfields, in the east end of London, recently on a wet dark evening, thinking about this. As I wandered between the empty market stalls, I was suddenly conscious of my own stories: my ancestors in Gujarat in India, my family being thrown out of home on another continent, my arrival as a baby in this country and my growing up here in London and then Leicester, British. I stopped and peered through the windows of a shop, then a bar. Looking at the people, wondering who they were, where they came from, what they cared about. How their own idiosyncrasies would be explained by their stories, just as mine would be. If I knew them, understood them, listened to their stories, then I felt sure that I would somehow like them and respect them, for I would understand their humanity. I might even learn something that would change my perspective. It must be true that to try to see the world through each other’s eyes is one of the best things we can do.
There is a quote from Rumi, the great Persian Sufi poet: ‘Out beyond the ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.’ Some months ago, I think I actually saw this field. A few of us from Dishoom had the good fortune to visit the Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine in the USA, which we support every year from the money we donate for our Raksha Bandhan celebrations. Seeds of Peace is a truly inspiring charity that takes teenagers from opposing sides in conflict zones and brings them into summer camp together for four weeks. Many of the attendees come from Palestine and Israel. Here, I witnessed teenagers, raised with generations-old hatreds, listen intently to each other. Over the course of four weeks, they begin to see past identity into each other’s humanity, and many become life long friends. By relating their stories to each other, their harsh and painful experience of the conflict, something melts and they begin to see what they share. I was moved (sometimes to tears), humbled by the courage of these teenagers – listening, speaking of their (sometimes unspeakable) experiences, making themselves vulnerable and open to the other perspective. These teenagers do hard and painful work, at times hot with rage, other times exhaustingly sad. The words on this page just don’t do justice to the intensity of what these teenagers were doing. But somewhere beyond the hard entrenched positions of the conflict, there is real understanding and humanity.
I don’t think that this means we can or should discard our notions of right or wrong. However, I do believe that for so many of us (and certainly for me), morality and prejudice can become become tightly bound together into judgement. This judgement – with its quick sure conviction – can prevent us from seeing and hearing. Like dark glasses and ear plugs. When this tight bind is gently relaxed we might begin to see our prejudices for what they are. They just don’t serve us – or anyone – well. There in that field in Maine, there was a magic. A flourishing. The beginnings of something that looks like peace.
In a smaller way and less ambitious way the sharing of stories, the building of common humanity are some of the reasons that at Dishoom we love celebrating Raksha Bandhan, Diwali and Eid, holding Iftaar (the breaking of fast during Ramadan) and doing Christmas Carols. It is our way of helping to understand and to celebrate each other’s traditions. This year, as we celebrated Eid at Dinerama in Shoreditch, at least half of the thousand people who were there were not Muslim. At Iftaar in the forecourt of the British Library, as Chef (who is Muslim) and I (a Hindu) broke fast together, ate biryani together and spoke to the crowd, we were all celebrating each other’s humanity. We also plotted together – that in 2020, we would together all find a way for the Hindu community to feed Muslims and others during Ramadan and for the Muslim community to feed Hindus and others at Diwali, and that we would try and make this part of culture. (The Dishoom kitchens, of course, can provide much biryani!) That by listening and coming together we could even create new stories that would create trust and understanding and the space to listen. What if this became tradition? That we all fed each other – that we all celebrated each other’s humanity?
I’m suddenly conscious that it’s getting late, and that you’re still with me here in the bar and that I’m getting drowsy. I’m grateful that you’ve indulged my idealism so generously. I have drunk deeply and well, but the distance to the bottom of the glass remains the same. I’m suddenly feeling gratitude, and not just because of the strength of my single malt. I will ask the kindly bartender to refrain now from charging my glass.
Before I say goodbye to ’19, I must dwell on it for a few more moments. First, thank you so so much to all of you who parted with your hard earned cash and risked spraining your wrists by picking up our cumbersome book. I am also grateful, deeply so, to all of you, our patrons, who visited Dishoom this year. We know we don’t always get it right, but we try hard to give you the warmest of welcomes, to serve you the best food and drink that we can muster. We are just grateful that you keep coming back and provide us with livelihoods. To each and every person on the Dishoom team – you who all work so hard and so conscientiously to serve our guests – we give profuse and humble thanks. I’m incredibly proud that between us all, guests and Dishoom team, we have now managed to feed eight million hungry schoolchildren in the UK and India, a meal donated for each meal served. Finally, I must give thanks and thanks again to our families, who put up with so very much from us and give us so much love.
And what will ’20 bring? On our part, we’ll keep doing our best to bring people together over food and we’ll keep telling you stories of Bombay. We’ll keep being inspired by Seeds of Peace and supporting the important work they do. We’ll keep trying to listen, too, and keep trying to help everyone to celebrate each other’s stories. We’ll keep feeding schoolchildren in the UK and India and we’ll keep trying to make Dishoom a great place to work.
This is the time when I invoke Ganesh-ji, who is the Hindu deity who makes new beginnings better and obstacles smaller. May your ’20 be filled with love and light and joy and laughter and learning. May you both understand and be understood. May you tell your own story and listen to the stories of others, for surely that will make your life richer. May you perhaps even break down barriers where you find them! From the bottom of my heart, all of us at Dishoom wish much, much love to you all.
Goodnight, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
Crisp and organised, Roda Irani leads her daughter through the narrow gullies of Swadeshi Market. “Come, let us get to the café.”
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