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.
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 love to truly understand and appreciate the origins of a dish, and learn how communities have adapted a recipe over time to make that dish unique to them.
We have arrived at a very sad, but inevitable and clear choice. As of now, all Dishooms are now closed to diners.
BOMBAY, 1949. A sultry June evening. Lights glow golden. Candles flicker in the warm breeze that arrives gently through the large open windows of the café.