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.
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.
Since 2015, for every Dishoom meal you’ve enjoyed (whether in the cafés, via delivery, or as a meal kit), we’ve donated a meal to a child that might otherwise go hungry. A meal for a meal. This month, as we reached the milestone of donating 10 million meals, we had occasion to catch up with our dear friends and long-term charity partners, Magic Breakfast and Akshaya Patra. The work both charities do to end hunger as a barrier to education is simply incredible and we’re extremely proud to be able to support them and the communities they serve in the UK and India, respectively. We kindly invite you to take a moment to hear their reflections on our partnership and on the impact of the very important work they do.
Uttapam are a fluffy savoury dosa, made with rice. They're usually enjoyed with savoury toppings but we particularly like ours with lashings of jaggery syrup and a thick, strained yoghurt. Chef Naved has shared his recipe for making an extra fluffy stack at home.
Our Old-Fashioned bottled cocktail takes its name from the Permit Room bar, found in every Dishoom and so named after the official term for all Bombay drinking establishments, in which, according to the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, only permit-holders may consume alcohol. Herein, liquor can be sold and imbibed, but only for the goodness of one’s health.
Though the doors of the Permit Room are closed for now, you can still enjoy our tipples in bottled form at home. Follow our lead to achieve the perfect pour, and transport yourself back to a cosy corner of the bar.