After craving real Indian food for 5 years now (yes, 5 years of Berlin Indian food will do that to you), we felt compelled to apply for a UK visa rather than have to fly home 12+ hours in search of food. A few weeks later, we made it to London.
Our first stop was Vasantha Bhavan– a proper dosa and filter coffee for our bellies and a bag full of desserts from the neighbourhood Tesco’s to take home. While we're on Tesco's, can I just point out– they have paneer and kulfi just lying around in their refrigerators? Slightly infuriated at the casualness of how these Indian specialities co-exist in the British pantry while the words are likely unheard of in Berlin’s food landscape. The drought is real…and it’s making me a mean person. I was never so India-crazed– until I moved to Berlin. But after 11 years of leaving home, this is not a good time to stop allowing me Indian food, is it?
Back to the food pilgrimage. After spending the next couple of days pretty much circling around Indian fare, one restaurant after another off the list, we landed at Dishoom Shoreditch on the third day, for an early lunch. At this point, the reputation of Dishoom precedes itself, and I would even imagine it’s a bit of cliché to talk about it. For those who haven't yet heard of it, it’s currently one of the most popular Indian restaurant names in the UK and is inspired by Parsi cafés in Mumbai which are now slowly in decline. I experienced the glory days of these Irani cafés myself as a young girl in Pune– with many memories of piping hot, lace-thin bread omelettes ordered at the one close to my father's office in Cantonment. Time as a dimension was lost in these unpretentious, laidback cafés dotted with elderly men reading their daily newspapers and sipping their chai against the lazy droning of ceiling fans.
Unpretentious is not what I’d call Dishoom. It has a statement to make and a hipness to exude. The food is good, the carefully curated decor is an eyeful and makes for a fun hangout with friends, but in all honesty, if you're seeking “dirty Indian” like I desperately am– the gritty, unapologetically messy stuff that hits your senses like a tonne of bricks– this carefully-curated chain may not hit the spot– or so, I thought.
When the Indian-looking waiter (pardon my assumption) came by, all of us at the table ordered away, ready with our requests. It was my sister-in-law Nikita's turn. She was still poring into the menu. She has a special diet, which makes Indian food (ironically) difficult. She is a vegetarian, cannot digest spices of any kind and cannot eat cheese either. This left her with very little to pick from. The man waited patiently and answered all her questions as she went through each item and checked for spices, a tall order in an Indian restaurant. In a desperate plea, she surrendered the menu and asked him to whip something up that would fit her requirements instead. He declined politely, “Madame, this is a set menu, we cannot make new items”, almost alluding to the otherwise ever-accommodating brand of hospitality and improvised service familiar to both him and us from back home. He put the spice levels into context and suggested she try our dishes before ordering.
After a round of tasting, Nikita was still unsure of what she could actually eat. The waiter returned to us, and when she expressed her inability to decide, he pulled out the menu this time and started shooting recommendations with renewed devotion. They riffed back and forth about combinations, and as I watched them, the dialogue reverted to the familiar warmth from back home– one that spoke to attending to every need and want. A type of familiarity amongst unfamiliarity– a distinct flavour of which I have grown up with, and only encountered back home. In those few minutes, I felt like I was in a real Parsi café, and the ambience transformed beyond the carefully put-together Dishoom, the wildly popular chain.
Soon after, they arrived at…bun and raita. Weird with a capital W. But it left my sis-in-law satiated and happy. And that’s all that mattered.
Time for dessert. I wasn't feeling anything, even though I wanted to, since it was an eating trip, after all. I am not much of a kulfi person, but when I took a taste of Nikita's kulfi, my taste buds exploded. I asked for my own. The man had a twinkle in his eye when he saw us enjoying the kulfi we ordered. You could tell he was genuinely glad that we enjoyed our choices and were having a good time.
Every now and then, on the subject of cooking, my mother would quip that food carries the energy of the person serving it. She'd say, don't cook when you're angry (or jokingly, good luck eating an angry person's food). Growing up, I dismissed it as a sentimental quote, but here I am, compelled to continue this series whenever everything about a simple restaurant visit, a bakery walk-in or a coffee served just comes together, just so, in a manner that can't be put into words. It's the small joys.
I learnt in the end, while asking for a picture, that Raju Ahmed is from Bangladesh, not India.