Catch a memory, bake it on a plate

Catch a memory

From the moment we arrive, we accumulate our own layers of stories and experiences, remembered events and remembered emotions. Together, they become our own personal narratives.

But for something so integral, so basic to who we are, memory feels so fleetingly ethereal. The fragrance of a little sponge cake (perhaps Madeleine, perhaps Mawa), the rich salty taste of butter melting on a bun dipped in hot chai, the sounds of a particular street, the soft touch of a companion’s hand, the wistful sweetness of a moment. The utterly unique moment is here, and then it’s gone. And the only trace left behind of its existence is an imperfect imprint on our minds.

How can we preserve this memory? How can we capture a feeling or a sensation, a poignant moment, before it fades like the morning mist?

Bombay’s beautiful Irani Cafés have been fading into memory for years. They once numbered a few hundred. Now only twenty-five or so remain and more seem to close with each year. These cafés which were once part of the fabric of Bombay life are fading away steadily from the collective memory of the city.

All who know the Irani cafés nurture treasured stories of them. They were places for bunking off school, for bashful teenage trysts, for debating politics and cinema with the idealistic bravery of youth, for escaping – deeply – into a book, accompanied by endless chai. The Irani Cafés were lovely places for growing up – and for growing old.

And they were important places too. In a city all too busy making harsh social judgments, the Irani Cafés were truly shared spaces. Anyone could find refuge here for the few paise it took to buy a cup of chai – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Parsi. The poor student, the famous artist, the tired taxi-wallah, even the hooker, shunned elsewhere. Differences leveled, tolerance a given. A city without these shared social spaces collapses into prejudice, dystopia and even violence.

But sooner or later, for all the love that people have for them, the Irani Cafés may all be gone. Faded away, unnoticed, in the rush.

In our own small way, we thought we could contribute to the capture of memory. We already pay homage to the Irani Cafés through design and food, but we thought we could go further and document and preserve actual recollections.

We gathered stories from those who know and love the Irani Cafés – guests at Dishoom, the owners of the remaining cafés, others in Bombay and London.

We then literally baked these stories onto eighty of our plates (at 850C).

Now – if you come to Dishoom in Shoreditch, you’ll notice stories on the plates. You can read about marriage proposals, about cantankerous owners, about rotis so good they had to be flown across continents, about double omelets and sweet chai. If you pause briefly, you may even feel a sense of how those moments – now passed forever – actually felt.

It’s truly our honour and privilege to be doing the important work of preserving the memory and telling the stories of the Irani Cafés of 20th century Bombay.

Read the café stories

Suggested Reading

See the journal

Dishoom's Bacon Naan Roll Recipe

The Bacon Naan Roll has something of a cult following; it must surely be our signature breakfast dish. The freshly cooked naan is graced with a little cream cheese, tomato-chilli jam and fresh coriander, and wrapped around a few rashers of smoked streaked bacon from top supplier Ramsay of Carluke.

How to make Dishoom Chai with your Naan Roll 'at-home' cookery kit

There are many varieties of Chai. The kind we make at Dishoom is the sort of spicy, sweet chai you will find at Bombay's innumerable tapris (street stalls), normally poured with great dexterity and skill from arm's length into a small, stout glass. The powerful concoction of milk, sugar and caffeine is what keeps the city running.

Reflections from Bhawani Singh Shekhawat, CEO at Akshaya Patra UK

We began working with the Akshaya Patra Foundation in 2015, supporting them in their goal of ending hunger as a barrier to education in India. Over the years, we’ve developed lasting friendships with the incredible team and had the sincere privilege of visiting many of the schools and communities they serve in India. Last month, we celebrated reaching the milestone of donating 10 million meals to hungry children with Magic Breakfast and Akshaya Patra through our meal for a meal partnership. Akshaya Patra’s CEO and Trustee, Bhawani Singh Shekhawat, kindly took the time to reflect on the impact of the foundation’s life-changing work.

Thoughts from Rachael Anderson, Head of Schools at Magic Breakfast

We began working with Magic Breakfast in 2015, supporting them in their goal of ending hunger as a barrier to education in the UK. Over the years, we’ve developed lasting and loyal friendships with the incredible team and their partner schools. This month, we celebrate reaching the milestone of donating 10 million meals to hungry children in partnership with Magic Breakfast and Akshaya Patra. Magic Breakfast’s Head of Schools, Rachael Anderson, has kindly taken the time to reflect on the last six years of our work together, as well as sharing her thoughts on the profound impact the past twelve months have had.