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

The Dishoom Canary Wharf story – Chapter Three

The phone keeps ringing shrilly through the flat. Nauzer holds his head in his hands, palms clamped over his ears. “Beta, the phone!” He forgot his mother would still be here. He can’t have her answering in case it is Devia. He runs into the corridor to pick it up. It stops just before he can reach it. Breathless, he looks up and sees his mother in the kitchen. 

Dishoom Canary Wharf – now officially OPEN!

Tucked away in a lovely corner of Wood Wharf, Dishoom Canary Wharf is now officially open and ready to welcome you all. The marble-top bar is ready to hold your drink, the textured, patterned (and extremely comforting) chairs are waiting to be kept warm and the hand-painted mural and carefully curated art – from Bombay and beyond – are waiting to be part of your conversations. 

Dishoom's Chicken Berry Britannia Biryani Recipe

This chicken biryani is our homage to Britannia’s chicken berry pulao, using cranberries in place of the more authentic Persian barberries, which are tricky to find. (Despite much cajoling, Mr Kohinoor has never shared his wife’s famous recipe.) It is prepared in the kacchi style, originating from Hyderabad, in which marinated raw meat goes into the pot, to be cooked at the same time as the rice.

Dishoom's Taj Ballroom Toddy Recipe

No party is complete without some delectable pours to toast the host with the most. For the crafty amongst us, bring out the shakers and strainers and the channel knife and pour your energy into building our festive concoction – The Taj Ballroom Toddy. A warming tipple inspired by The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, where Bombay’s jazz age was born.