Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hindostanee Coffee House

34 George Street, Portman Square, London

It has been 9 years that I left my position on The Union that sailed into the London docks in 1801 from Bengal, and 9 years that I am now able to afford some of the pleasantries of life. After the two harsh years of living on Kingsland Road, my fluency with both the language of Bengal and England, my education at the Charity School in Calcutta, and my interest and inquiries into the Natural Philosphies and Chemistry provided me the opportunity of a situation as butler to Mr. Reeves, returned from India, where he was an officer for the East Indian company at Cossim Bazaar. I had the good fortunes of making his aquaintance at the end of a lecture that was given by the great chemist Humphry Davis, at the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street, on the decomposition of alkalis and soda with the passage of electricity. He, being curious of mind, we fell into a discussion of the sciences. Being desirous of the conveniences of a Hindostanee butler from his stay in India, and delighted at the opportunities for conversation afforded by our mutual scientific interests, he promptly offered me a position that I was, of course, delighted to accept. My employer, a man of pleasant disposition, offers me reasonable comfort, a comfortable salary, and duties that afford me occasional free time to explore London and its surroundings. So it was a stroke of fortune that I chanced upon a notice in The Times on March 27, that read thus:

“Hindostanee 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.”

Gourmandizer that I am, and seeker of wholesome fare from my native soil, it was soon after that, my hunger incited as the consequence of a long walk, decided to proceed at once to Portman Square to the Hindostanee Coffee House. The proprietor of the Coffee House, a Mr. Sake Din Mahomet, originally hailing from Patna, greeted me warmly. The interior was well and tastefully appointed with chairs made of bambou and paintings on the wall of myriad sceneries of life from India. He set forth on my table a tankard of ale, and a measure of gin, and warmly asked after me, being solicitous that I receive all the comforts of his establishment without inconvenience. Most of his customers, he remarked, were English gentlemen returned from tours of duty in India, and eager to enjoy the dishes that had shaped their palates the preceding years. Occasionally a rich Nabob would visit with his retinue, there being a fair number of Indian Princes who maintained establishments around Mayfair and Marleybone.

I was served chapatis, not made in the usual style for the sahib-log with flour and milk, but with wheat. There was carp fish, that is familiar to me by the name of Rui and a delicious Lucknow chutnee that I had not had before. According to Mahomet, while the first curry dishes were available at the Coffee House in Norris Street more than thirty years ago, his is the first establishment dedicated to the foods of India. He had, as promised in his publick notice, the Hoakah set aside, but this was a habit that I was not endeared to. Most of all I enjoyed the pleasant company of Mahomet, who came to England at a young age. He spoke about his desire for starting yet another new business, vapor baths carried out in the Hindostanee style, and about introducing to England, the head massage method of Champi, which his Irish wife Jane calls “shampoo”. With him I met a young boy, William Munnoo only 15 years of age, arrived recently from India, a servant in the employ of Mr. James Hickey, who was dining at the house. Mr Hickey having brought him from India after a payment of a sum of money to his mother, did send him to receive an English education, and treated him with fairness, though as I understood from Mr. Mahomet, Mr. Hickey himself had long enjoyed a life of dissipation and waste.

Of all the dishes that I had, the one that was most appealing was the curry, though upon querying him as to the origins of this dish, Mahomet took me aside and wrote me down a description of the cooking method. This, he gleaned, he said, not from his experiences in India but from the fine book “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy”, by Hannah Glasse, (the reprinted edition he had was from 1774) a copy of which he came across perchance. I append the recipe below, though on this particular evening he had used pheasant instead of chickens.

Hannah Glasse’s To make a currey the Indian way

Take two small chickens, skin them and cut them as for a fricasey, wash them clean, and stew them in about a quart of water, for about five minutes, then drain off the liquor and put the chickens in a clean dish; take three large onions, chop them small, and fry them in about two ounces of butter, then put in the chickens and fry them together till they are brown, take a quarter of an ounce of turmerick, a large spoonful of ginger and beaten pepper together, and a little salt to your palate; throw all these ingredients over the chickens whilst it is frying, then pour in the liquor, and let it stew about half an hour, then put in a quarter of a pint of cream, and the juice of two lemons, and serve it up. The ginger, pepper must be beat very fine.

Indeed the excellent Indian pellow with cloves, pepper, and boiled eggs, Mahomet confided, was also prepared according to the instructions from this same book.

All in all, a savoury meal that cost me about 6 p. for the food, about 1 p. for the quart of ale, and about 1 p. for the gin. I shall be back. Onwards now to Gunter’s in Berkley Square for some confections.

(Note: This, as you may have guessed is a fictitous review. The restaurant, Hindostanee Coffee House, was real and is considered to be the first Indian restaurant in the West. Its proprietor, Dean Mahomet (Din Mohamed),is also responsible for the the introduction of the work “shampoo” in the English language. It was ahead of its time, and Mahomet lost money on this. A version of the restaurant continued, apparently, till the 1830s, though not under Mahomet's management. Much information about him can be found on the web. The advertisement from the Times is a real one that did, apparently, appear. William Munnoo (William Munnew) is a known character, and one of many of the Indian servants who travelled to England when their masters returned to England after their stay in India. His employer, James Hickey, spent time in Calcutta. Searching the web, one can still find genealogical references to Munnew's and Mahoment's descendants. In the early nineteenth century there were also a few hundred lascars, or ship hands, typically stranded in London, living under very poor conditions. The Royal Insititution was started at the beginning of the 19th. Century, and Humphry Davis, the great chemist credited with many discoveries—among them the isolation of sodium and potassium, was one of its earlier employees. Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery was one of the most successful cookbooks from the 19th. century that enjoyed many reprints and is credited to be the first western cookbook with a recipe for curry. The first edition did not contain the additions of ginger and turmeric that the 1774 edition has—this edition may be found online on Google books. Finally the Charity School was the first English language school in Calcutta (what is now St. Thomas School), started in the late 18th. century )


  1. Fabulous! What you need to do is make this into a short story.

  2. What a fun piece. Interesting that the Glass recipe predates curry mix and is actually made with a group of spices.