“Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences,” said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in 2001. When you take decade-old statements like that into account, it might seem as though India and Britain’s culinary history have always been entwined, but as it is with all tales of colonisation, there was a beginning even if there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. Unsurprisingly, there are many claims to the title of ‘London’s First Indian Restaurant’. This is the story of the one that’s true.
As unbelievable as it may seem, the plaque shown below is quite real and can be spotted on 102 George Street in London even today. Indian curries started becoming popular in England in the 1960s but even in ancient times, India was famous for its condiments and spices. It was around 200 years ago, however, that Sheikh Din Mohammed, an enterprising Bengali man, settled the dispute of who came first by setting up the very first Indian eatery in busy London. His extraordinary life remains to be documented better, what with his near-brush with nobility making him a candidate ripe for the history books.
Mohammed was born in 1759 in Patna, which was then part of the Bengal Presidency. He joined the East India Company at the age of 11 where he was trained as a soldier and fought in some battles including the Maratha uprising. He resigned in 1782 and that same year travelled to Britain along with his friend and mentor Captain Godfrey Evan Baker and in 1786, married an Irish woman with whom he had fallen in love with. In February 1810, Mohammed formally announced the opening of his restaurant to the gentry of London in the following newspaper advertisement.
“Saik Deen Mahomad, 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 Hindostanee Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club. Apartments are fitted up for their entertainment in the Eastern style, where dinners, composed of genuine Hindostanee dishes, are served up at the shortest notice; 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,” stated The Morning Post 2 February 1810
There were a number of Indian restaurants in London at the time of this announcement but the Hindustan Coffee House was the first one to be run by an Indian. The restaurant was setup in Portman square, an area of the city fashionable among colonial returnees and former employees of the East India Company. These families longed for the familiar tastes of Indian curries and tried to recreate Indian dishes in their homes but most of them were unsuccessful as the spices available in the market were transported from India by sea and were more than a year old by the time they reached England.
Noting the demand for authentic Indian food among the English folk, Mohammed opened his restaurant and decorated it in the colonial style. Dinner tables were covered with crisp white linen and South-Asian waiters attended to the guests. London’s first restaurant guide ‘The Epicure’s Almanack’ was published by Ralph Rylance in 1815 and it mentions a few words about the Hindustan Coffee House – “All the dishes were dressed with curry powder, rice, cayenne and the best spices of Arabia. A room was set apart for smoking from hookahs with oriental herbs. The rooms were neatly fitted up en suite, and furnished with chairs and sofas made of bamboo canes. Chinese pictures and other Asiatic embellishments, representing views in India, oriental sports, and groups of natives decorated the walls.” So we know that the restaurant had a relaxed air about it and was probably much like a modern hookah bar.
Unfortunately, Mohammed’s idea was way ahead of its time and within three years of opening the restaurant he had to declare bankruptcy. The costs of starting up and running the restaurant simply couldn’t be recovered as there was not much of an eat-out culture at the time. His target customers were affluent people and were either cooking Indian dishes at home or paid chefs to serve elaborate meals. He sold the restaurant to an English gentleman and was forced to advertise his services as a butler to wealthy gentlemen. The restaurant continued to operate till 1833 under different management. Ever the entrepreneur, Mohammed didn’t give up hope though. In 1814 he and his wife moved to Brighton and opened the first commercial shampoo bath in England. He derived the name ‘champooi’ from ‘champi’ which means ‘Indian massage’ and ‘champooi’ was pronounced ‘shampoo’ in England. This business, unlike his previous venture, was a great success and he came to be known as ‘Dr. Brighton’ owing to the therapeutic effects of his shampoo baths on patients of joint pains and sprains. At the zenith of his career he was officially appointed as the “shampoo surgeon” to many notable royals including The Prince of Wales, George IV.
Mohammed was also the first Indian to publish books in English and authored two books in his time. The first was titled “The Travels Of Dean Mahomet” and was largely an account of his life until he moved to England. The second book was a result of his success with shampoo baths. Coming from humble origins, his life was a roller-coaster ride from battles to business to bankruptcy to fame. Mohammed died in 1851 in Brighton and was interred at St. Nicholas’ Church where his grave reads “Sake Dean Mahomed of Patna Hindoostan”. He left his mark on a number of professions and the green plaque marking the site of Hindustan Coffee House in the City of Westminster is one legacy worth remembering.