Mahomed’s appeasement of the British tongue was not confined to his adopting the English language. In 1810, He set up London’s and possibly Britain’s first Indian owned restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House…It was the prototype of the takeaway and home-delivery restaurant.
If you were to ask a Londoner today where to go for a proper ‘English’ curry, you would surely be pointed towards the direction of Brick Lane or Tooting. However, the rage of the Indian spices that really raided the British palates during the period of the Regency, had as its center for all imported gastronomies in Marylebone, which also became popularly known as “Little Bengal.” It was a place—like the microcosm of “Little London,” in Bengal (established by returning exiles such as Rammohun Roy)—where India-returned nabobs could experience a vicarious Indianization. (One of the nabobs during that time was William Makepiece Thackeray, the grandfather of the novelist Thackeray, who made a fortune trading elephants in the Sylhet district of Bengal, and retired at the age of 27, assured that the next three generations of his family would not be required to earn a livelihood). That spot of London was described in a mid-1830s’ issue of the Quarterly Review as “that European Elysium of Asiatics—the streets north of Cavendish and Portman Squares.” And, the one man to whom credit must certainly go for fueling the colonial curry and colonial appropriation of other Indian artifacts is Sake Dean Mahomed.
Dean Mahomed was a pioneer of pioneers. He was born in 1759, at Patna, in the Bengal Presidency. At the age of 10 he joined the East India Company, under Captain Godfrey Evan Baker, where he served as an apprentice surgeon until 1782, when he was 23, and both Baker and he resigned to travel to Britain. In 1794, with the publication of The Travels of Sake Dean Mahomed, he became the first Indian English author. Mahomed had had no formal training in the English language, and whatever rudimentary grammar he had picked up during his travels he sought to refine in England. Before the writing of his book he had migrated to Cork, in Ireland, with the Baker family, where he began taking English lessons at the local school. It was here that he met and fell in love with his future wife, Jane Daly. In order to marry her, Mahomed converted to Anglicanism, and all of their children were born Christians, five of them Protestants.
Mahomed’s appeasement of the British tongue was not confined to his adopting the English language. He took the lead in shaping the culinary sensibility of nabobs in fin de siècle London. In 1810, He set up London’s and possibly Britain’s first Indian owned restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House (or Hindostanee Coffee House). The Morning Post of February 2, 1810 carried the following advertisement:
Sake Deen Mahomed, manufacturer of the real currie powder, takes the earliest opportunity to inform the nobility and gentry, that he has, under the patronage of the first men of quality who have resided in India, established at his house, 34 George Street, Portman-Square, the Hindoostane Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club. Apartments are fitted up for their entertainment in the Eastern style, where dinners, composed of genuine Hindoostane dishes, are served up at the shortest notice.
Mahomed’s coffee house did not sell any coffee whatsoever. It was the prototype of the takeaway and home-delivery restaurant, for as the Morning Post advertorial went on: “Such ladies and gentlemen as may desirous of having India Dinners dressed and sent to their own houses will be punctually attended to by giving previous notice.”
The interiors of the Hindoostane Coffee House were furnished with Asiatic paintings, bamboo chairs, diwans and spiced hookahs, where the Bohemians of the City of Westminster could tuck into tender meat curries along with drawing the breath of heaven from the Persian hubble-bubbles. The Coffee House found a worthy mention in the Epicure’s Almanack (1815), which was London’s most sought after Guidebook during the time it appeared.
Mahomed’s curry shop came up a good fifty years before Britain’s own “enduring love,” fish and chips. The first fish and chips business in London was set up in Joseph Malin in 1860, by a Jewish immigrant from Europe. Although the Hindoodstane Coffee House’s popularity was short-lived—the establishment had to be shut in 1812—Dean Mahomed’s name has travelled to the present day. The Life in the UK Test which is taken by about 150,000 people each year for British citizenship requires its examinees to know the year in which the Sake set up his curry house in London. In 2002, The Guardian wrote that when the complete history of Britain is written a paragraph should surely be dedicated to the memory of Sake Dean Mahomed.
Although the Sake closed his business in London, early enough, his real taste of success came later with the opening of Indian Shampooing Baths in Brighton. He had earlier worked with Basil Cochrane, in London’s Portman Square, introducing what he called “Indian Vapour Cure.” Cochrane did not let Dean Mahomed get away with the credit of being the pioneer then. However, once in Brighton, the Sake’s popularity knew no bounds, as the clientele of the “Shampooing Surgeon” now included King George IV and much of the British nobility. He was even conferred on a Royal Warrant for his shampooing therapy.
The building where the Hindoostane Coffee House once stood is now known as the Carlton House, and a green plaque put up by the City of Westminster authorities commemorates the site of the great Sake’s curry bar.