The story of the first Indian restaurant — the ‘Hindoostane Coffee House’ in Portman Square, near Oxford Street — reflects the many levels of exchanges that took place in the colonial cauldron. It was opened by one of the first and most interesting Indians to move to Britain while the East India Company was in the process of consolidating its hold in India.
His name was Sake Dean Mohamed, born in Patna, Bihar, in 1759. He joined the colonial army at the age of 11 and joined the unit of an Anglo-Indian Protestant officer, Captain Godfrey Evan Baker, as a trainee surgeon. The two became friends for life and when the officer resigned from the army to return to Cork in Ireland, Dean Mohamed followed him. During the course of his unlikely life journey, Dean Mohamed not only launched the first Indian restaurant in London, but also learnt English and became the first Indian to write a book in English, titled The Travels of Dean Mahomet, published in 1794. He also introduced shampoo to Europe.
After joining Captain Baker on his return home in Ireland in 1782, Dean Mohamed lived with the Baker family for some years, married a young woman, Jane Daly, and later moved his family to London around 1808. He found a base in Portman Square, near Oxford Street, a fashionable area popular with former colonial officials who had returned from India with some wealth and were locally known as the ‘nabobs’.
Dishes based on spices and curry powder were being served in London’s coffee houses since the mid-18th century, but it was only in 1810 that the first Indian restaurant opened in Portman Square, when Dean Mohamed offered authentic Indian food in an environment that reminded the ‘nabobs’ of their time in India (its initial name was Hindoostane Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club). He inserted an advertisement announcing the restaurant in the Morning Post:
“Sake Dean 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… 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…”
His ad in The Times gave more details:
“HINDUSTANEE COFFEE HOUSE, No 34 George-Street, Portman Square — MAHOMED, East-Indian, informs the Nobility and Gentry, he has fitted up the above house, neatly and elegantly, for the entertainment of Indian gentlemen, where they may enjoy the Hoakha, with real Chilm tobacco, and Indian dishes, in the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England with choice wines, and every accommodation, and now looks up to them for their future patronage and support, and gratefully acknowledges himself indebted for their former favours, and trusts it will merit the highest satisfaction when made known to the public.”
However, not much more is known about the restaurant, apart from the details in the two advertisements and some information in The Epicure’s Almanack, London’s first restaurant guide. A room inside offered the ‘hooka’, the guide reported in brief, adding: “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.” The restaurant appeared a success for some time but Dean Mohamed could not continue to meet the expenses of operating from the prime location. Besides, the ‘nabobs’ had their private kitchens with Indian servants who cooked Indian dishes, and did not need to go to the restaurant to enjoy them. Business suffered and, in 1812, he filed for bankruptcy.
Today, there is a green plaque outside the building to mark the location of London’s first curry house. It was unveiled in 2005 by the city of Westminster. In 2018, a London-based rare books company auctioned the restaurant’s handwritten menu for £8,500. The menu included more than 25 dishes such as pineapple pulao, chicken and lobster curries and a selection of breads, chutneys besides dishes considered ‘too numerous for insertion’.
After the restaurant collapsed, Dean Mohamed moved to Brighton where he started a bath house — ‘Mahomet’s Bath House — and offered Indian head massage and aromatherapy, with the Prince of Wales among his clients. This venture succeeded, he came to be locally known as ‘Dr Brighton’ and was later appointed shampooing surgeon to members of the royal family. He also wrote two books on shampooing, detailing his efforts to popularise it in Europe and the problems he faced.
Dean Mohamed died in Brighton in February 1851, aged 91, leaving behind a rich legacy as the first Indian writer in English, pioneering the use of shampoo in Europe, and opening London’s first Indian restaurant. His life has been the subject of much research in recent years, including by academic Michael H Fisher.
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