Curries had started appearing on the menus of London restaurants since 1773. In the early nineteenth century, community centers for lascars started serving Indian cuisine. Lascars were Indian crews of commercial vessels which had started arriving at the East India Docks which opened in East London. There were about 470 lascars who had jumped ship to seek employment in London and some of them were cooks.
Shortly after, the first proper restaurant exclusively for Indian cuisine opened on Portman Square. Its proprietor was Sake Dean Mahomed, from Patna in Bihar, described as “a charming Bengali traveller, surgeon, entrepreneur, and captain in the British East India Company,” who established the Hindoostane Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club in 1810. Over time it came to be known as the Hindoostane Coffee House. The British were a coffee-drinking nation before they started drinking tea, and it was fashionable to call restaurants “coffee houses.” Dean Muhammad decorated it in a colonial style with bamboo chairs and walls full of pictures. The eastern atmosphere was enhanced by offering the “Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection.” It was a popular restaurant and since most people still dined at home, it was the first restaurant to offer takeaway. Unfortunately, it ran into financial difficulties and closed down in1833.
For the next 80 years, London did not have any Indian restaurants worth their name, but things started changing in the twentieth century. Salut-e-Hind was the first to open in Holborn in 1911, followed by The Kohinoor in Roper Street, and Curry Café on Commercial Street in the 1920s. The Kohinoor did remarkably well and the three Bahadur brothers from Delhi opened more branches of Kohinoor in Cambridge and Manchester and the Taj Mahal in Brighton; Oxford and Northampton and all before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Amongst the early Indian restaurants that became successful in London was Shafi’s, which opened in 1920. It was the brainchild of Nora Eileen Cronin, of English-Irish origin, who was married to Dr. Rahim, a surgeon at the Royal Dental Hospital. She wanted to establish an Indian restaurant and her brother-in-law offered to finance it. So, she named it after him. When Rahim passed away, Nora continued running the restaurant and subsequently married Sadiq, who was training to be a doctor at Guy’s Hospital. For the next 15 years, she remained the owner of Shafi’s and entirely managed its affairs.
Shafi’s opened on Gerrard Street (which is in London’s Chinatown) and initially catered to the ordinary people. In a short time, it became a rendezvous for Indians – visitors, expatriates, and students who had grown in increasing numbers in the interwar years. By 1931, there were over 1,800 Indian students in the UK, a steep increase from only 100 in 1880. For all of those who came from a Subcontinent where food and companionship went naturally together, Shafi’s was like being back home. But it wasn’t only students who frequented the resteraunt. Among its clientele were personalities like Allama Iqbal, the Quaid Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Sir Mian Muhammad Shafi, a well-known Punjabi lawyer and politician. So, also, were many Indian dignitaries who were invited to attend the Round Table Conferences conducted in the early 1930s. It was also patronised by the English, particularly those who had served in India and relished the flavour of genuine Indian food.
The author’s father Maj Gen Syed Shahid Hamid and other Indian cadets who were being trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the Royal Air Force Academy at Cranwell during the 1920s and 1930s also made a beeline for Shafi’s on their visits to London, for a welcome break from the bland English food that they had to suffer in the academy. Sportsmen from India like Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, the famous cricketer who captained the Indian team when it toured England in 1946, also dined at Shafi’s. The restaurant served high-quality Indian cuisine and was therefore frequented by patrons like Nawab Ali Khan of Akbarpur, known as “Nawab Chakkan.” The Nawab was a great gourmet and introduced items of Lucknow cuisine such as karelas (bitter gourd) and several daals (lentils) to the restaurant’s menu.
Nora was an excellent hostess, friend, and confidante to everyone who came in, whether to eat or just for the company. Even though many of her young customers were well-off, their stipends from India were frequently late. Nora devised a plan to help them without embarrassing them. She placed a large goldfish bowl filled with five-pound notes outside the men’s lavatory. A notice next to it informed the Indian students that they could take whatever they required and replace it later. This worked like a charm and boosted the popularity of the restaurant. At the end of every month, when she counted the money in the bowl, there was always more than what she had put in. With this extra money given to her by appreciative borrowers, she hosted a monthly meal for her regular diners.
After the war, Anglo-Indian cuisine started falling out of favour amongst patrons of Indian restaurants. The reason was the liberal use of curry powder that gave the dishes a singular flavour – mellow, spicy and a little sweet
Shafi’s did good business till the Second World War, but in 1940, Nora and Sadiq’s house on Talgarth Road, Kensington, was hit by German bombers. They were evacuated to Wales, where Sadiq became the area doctor and a general practitioner. Shafi’s was acquired by Dharam Lal Bodua and run by an English manager. Dharam was a close friend of Bahadur who opened The Kohinoor, and he managed to run Shafi’s till the 1950s.
In 1926, Veeraswamy, the first high-end Indian restaurant in London, opened on Regent Street – where it still thrives today. Its founder Edward Palmer was a retired Indian Army officer belonged to the same Palmer family mentioned in The White Mughals by William Dalrymple. Edward’s great-grandfather William Palmer was a general in the East India Company and was married to Begum Fyze Baksh, a Mughal princess. In 1896 he had setup Veeraswamy & Co. in London to promote Indian food products and under the brand name of Nizam, they were sold in many stores and grocers in England. He lectured on Indian cooking and was the catering advisor to the Indian Government at the 1923-24 Wembley Empire Exhibition, where he ran the very successful Mughal Pavilion. After being persuaded by friends and acquaintances, he brought staff from India to establish the resteraunt. Veeraswamy was the family name of his grandmother who also shared a passion for Indian food and was part of his inspiration for an interest in the cuisine.
It became a popular hangout for Anglo-Indians, retired civil servants, fashionable Londoners, politicians and royalty – all of whom were drawn by the lavish ambience, which was inspired by Indian palaces. Some of its patron included Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). It remained so popular with the rich and royalty that even Queen Elizabeth II requested the restaurant for a function at Buckingham Palace – the first time Her Majesty requested outside catering. Prince Axel of Denmark had met Edward Palmer during his visit to the Empire Exhibition and when he heard of the opening of Veeraswamy, the Prince paid it a visited, He was so enchanted by its ambience that he presented a case of Carlsberg, the royal beer, with orders for a case to be delivered every Christmas. It set a trend of drinking beer with Anglo-Indian cuisine that spread through England.
Anglo-Indian cuisine originated in the kitchens of the English serving in India in the late 1700s, where cooks began creating Indian dishes like kedgeree, mulligatawny soup, ball curry and fish rissoles that appealed to English palates of their masters. As more and more British served in India, the interest in Anglo-Indian food in increased and led to the commercialisation of curry powder and the publishing of recipes. Mrs. Beeton, the author of Book of Household Management published in 1861 advised the reader that ready-made curry powder bought from any good store is “generally speaking far superior, and, taking all things into consideration, frequently more economical” than freshly grinding the spices at home. She was wrong, of course.
While eating houses like Shafi’s only served unadulterated Indian cuisine, Veeraswamy and a few other restaurants take credit for introducing the Anglo-Indian cuisine to the British public. Amongst these restaurants was Dilkush in Windmill Street, The Shalimar on Wardour Street owned by Asif Khan from Punjab, and The Durbar and The Bengal India on Percy Street. There were others on Brick Lane, New Road and Commercial Road. None of these survive today except Halal, which opened on St Marks Street in 1939.
Indian restaurants continued to serve customers during the Second World War, but curry powder, herbs and spices were difficult to acquire and probably for this reason, the choice of Indian dishes were limited. A menu card of Veeraswamy had only one choice of an ‘Indian’ serving – pigeon, rabbit, lamb, or veggie curry with Burma rice, poppadoms and mango chutney. The rest of the menu consisted of traditional British fare such as braised lamb, rabbit chasseur, chicken cutlets, etc. During the war, the well-to-do in London continued to enjoy nearly the same standards of cuisine at top restaurants that were available before the war. This caused such discontent that the government banned eateries from charging more than 5 shillings (or a quarter of a Pound), for each meal. Consequently, that is what a full-course lunch cost at Veeraswamy, but coffee was an extra shilling.
After the war, Anglo-Indian cuisine started falling out of favour amongst patrons of Indian restaurants. The reason was the liberal use of curry powder that gave the dishes a singular flavour – mellow, spicy and a little sweet. The restaurant goers had begun to appreciate that Indian cuisine was very varied and the flavour of dishes originated from a selection/mixing of different spices and herbs in varying quantities – not just one curry powder. However, one of the few Anglo-Indian foods that survived and still graces the British pallet is chutney.
I am grateful to my friend Jan (Johnny) Sadiq a retired PIA pilot for providing firsthand information on Shafi’s. Nora was his mother and he narrates an interesting incident that occurred in Karachi, after the 1965 War. “I was entertaining my friend, Squadron Leader Shabbir Hussein Syed, at the restaurant of North Western Hotel. He had just been promoted to wing-commander and he was celebrating with my wife and I. The food was superb and we had fine wine with it. The manager personally brought the bill and asked my name. When I told him “Jan Sadiq,” to my astonishment he asked if I was related to Mrs. Sadiq, who owned the Shafi’s restaurant in London. I said ‘yes’ and he embraced me! It turned out that he had been the manager of Shafi’s, working for my mother. He refused to give me the bill – I could pay he said, but for future meals.”
I am also grateful to Naveed Henderson for sharing the group photograph taken in Veeraswamy in the 1930s.