Monday, April 15, 2013

Brun-maska in Britain

Dishoom recreates the charm of Mumbai's Irani cafês in London - the quaintly worded rules, the berry pulaos and the many stories of their quirky clients
A few months after 26/11, a couple injured in the attacks on Leopold Cafê in Mumbai

returned to the well-known Irani restaurant. "I have come back to finish my beer, " the husband said. For two weeks now, such anecdotes have been making patrons at London's Dishoom restaurant stare into their plates a tad longer than an Irani cafê owner might appreciate. After polishing off their keema puffs and brun maska, these Londoners start reading the curious text on their plates. In it, they find a man comparing the soft bread slices of Cafê Excelsior to Cupid's cheeks and also imagine another man smirking as he recalls that some cafês came with small wooden family cabins which were mainly used by courting couples. There's even the story of a gentleman who fell in love with a waitress at a cafê and the amusing one of a man who would shout, "cuckoo" so that the young waiter, who only spoke Farsi, would figure out that he wanted an egg. 

All of these are real stories contributed by a bunch of nostalgic Irani cafê lovers from Mumbai. As part of Dishoom Plates, a campaign by Ogilvy One UK along with Dishoom restaurant, the agency gathered stories from the older generation in Mumbai and the UK, from oral accounts as well the internet. Of these, 80 were chosen and baked onto plates in various shapes - a chilli, a slice of bread or even a beer bottle. Reading them after a meal has the same effect as ingesting sweet caramel custard;a smile is sure to follow. "Everyone asks about Irani cafês after reading these, " says Shamil Thakrar, who calls himself the 'founder-wallah' of Dishoom, which has outlets in both Shoreditch and in Cotton Garden, London. Thakrar is not a Parsi - he's of Indian origin but was born in Uganda and then moved to the UK - but his idea is to introduce Londoners to this quaint, thinning slice of mid-century Mumbai. And everything about his two-year-old restaurant pays homage to these eateries that came with the faded elegance of high ceilings and chequered tablecloth. Thakrar grew up in King's Circle and has fond memories of Irani cafês. Often, outings involved a horse ride at Chowpatty beach (which Thakrar pronounces as 'chapati' ) and a quick meal at a cafê or two nearby. "It was the most democratic place where the taxiwallah could rub shoulders with rich lawyers, " recalls Thakrar, who moved to London a few years ago. But on each of his subsequent to Mumbai, he saw these paragons of social democracy slowly disappearing. Frothy coffee was fast nudging out the comfort of Irani 'cutting chai'. The city was running out of "social spaces that forced the rich and the poor to mix". Cafê Naaz and the quirky Bastaani, which had a long list of don'ts, including "No leg on chair", were gone.

 Where there were once more than 400 Irani cafês, fewer than 20 remained. Clearly pining for this quaint bit of Mumbai, he decided to recreate a part of it in London by opening a restaurant chain inspired by Irani cafê elements. This, decided Thakrar, would also force Londoners to think of a Mumbai beyond clichês such as "Bollywood, cricket, the days of the Raj and curry". South Mumbai, with its gothic architecture and decor so redolent of England, provided a fair bit of design inspiration. Thakrar also scoured the city's Chor bazaar for chairs and old photos. 
Soon, two recreations of mid-century Bombay haunts materialised in London. One, with all its disheveled corners, in the bohemian Shoreditch and another in the upmarket Cotton Garden locality. The menu includes, among other items, warm baked biscuits along with keema puffs (just like the ones at Sassannian), berry pulao, lamb rann burgers and kala khatta. The waiters are called babus and the captains, bade babus. And though the stencilled text on the windows lists 'Do not sit more' among other 'don'ts', the plates campaign makes that one difficult to follow. 

Most patrons of Irani cafês have their favourite cafê stories. Thakrar is no exception. During one visit to Mumbai, Thakrar encountered the famous owner of one well-known example, Britannia. "Do you know how old I am?" asked Boman Kohinoor Irani of Thakrar and went on to answer the question himself. "As old as this hotel. " When Thakrar asked, "What can I have to drink?" the Irani cafê owner launched into an impromptu rhyme - "Nimboopani is nice and sweet. Ideal to beat the Bombay heat. " 
Thakrar plans to keep the campaign to record such vignettes going. The restaurant's website encourages visitors to share stories and memories, of which the best are still being chosen to be baked on to the dishes. Incidentally, at his restaurants, there is no signborad that says, "No stealing of plates".


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