Food:‘Where’s the Taj Mahal?’: Indian restaurants in Dublin since 1908

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Volume 18

Above: A spread of typical North Indian or Mughlai food. Influenced by fashions from British India, curry found a place in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and on the menus of officers’ messes and gentlemen’s clubs across the British Empire as the ‘curry lunch’. This incendiary dish was far from the aromatic spiciness of curry found in India and the east, but it underlines that curry has evolved far from its regional origins.

Above: A spread of typical North Indian or Mughlai food. Influenced by fashions from British India, curry found a place in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and on the menus of officers’ messes and gentlemen’s clubs across the British Empire as the ‘curry lunch’. This incendiary dish was far from the aromatic spiciness of curry found in India and the east, but it underlines that curry has evolved far from its regional origins.

The first Indian restaurant in Ireland opened nearly a century ago. In summer 1908 Karim Khan opened the Indian Restaurant and Tea Rooms on Upper Sackville Street, beside the Gresham Hotel. Promising real Indian curries served by native waiters in costume, Khan boasted that his was the only Indian restaurant in Ireland. His venture lasted less than a year, but pre-dates by three years the first twentieth-century Indian restaurant in London, the Salut e Hind. And it was a Bengali with Cork connections, Sake Dean Mahomet, who, with his Irish wife Jane Daly, established London’s first-ever Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, in 1810. Mahomet had met his wife in Cork and had previously lived on the city’s South Mall for 25 years after moving to Ireland to improve his English. Like Khan’s venture in Dublin a century later, it too was unsuccessful, closing in 1812.

Warning from ‘a mem sahib’
In post-independence Ireland, knowledge of curry was limited to a dish known as ‘Indian curry’. The ‘Woman and her home’ page in the Irish Times carried a warning from ‘a mem sahib’ in April 1923: ‘You people at home know nothing about curries. Even your professed cooks send up a liquid mess of insipid flavour and doubtful colour.’ After Karim Khan’s premises closed in 1908 there were apparently no further Indian restaurants in Dublin until 1939, when the India Restaurant opened at 50 Lower Baggot Street. Later renamed Mahomet’s, it too closed in 1943. In the meantime, the Bombay Restaurant in Bray, run by Indian Rask Dhas, had opened in 1942, followed by the Indian Restaurant on Burgh Quay in 1943.

The few Indian students in Dublin found Irish food unpalatable and their own favourite dishes difficult to cook. Garam masala they mixed and ground themselves; meat was dear, though rice was only tuppence a pound. Ghee, clarified butter for cooking, was easily made as butter was only 10d a pound. Indian independence in 1947 brought immigration to the United Kingdom. With the end of wartime rationing, interest in curry grew. The 1950s saw the first flock-wallpapered Indian restaurants open across Britain, but not in Ireland: at a 1952 reception at the Shelbourne Hotel for Dublin’s Indian community, hosted by Indian ambassador Krishna Menon, all the food was imported.
Mohammed ‘Mike’ Butt

Sake Dean Mahomet, a Bengali who had lived in Cork’s South Mall for 25 years, opened London’s first-ever Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, in 1810. (Welcome Trust)

Sake Dean Mahomet, a Bengali who had lived in Cork’s South Mall for 25 years, opened London’s first-ever Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, in 1810. (Welcome Trust)

By 1955 the most exotic choice facing Dublin diners beyond the French-dominated style of Jammet’s was Italian. New Year 1956, however, saw a small, important development. A six-table restaurant, enticingly named the Golden Orient, opened at 27 Lower Leeson Street. It was run by Mohammed ‘Mike’ Butt, a Kenyan of Kashmiri descent, and his Dublin-born wife Terry, a graduate of Cathal Brugha Street College of Catering.

The Golden Orient was more like a nightclub. Regulars included the Dublin Indian community and Irish people who had been abroad and had picked up a taste for foreign dishes. Butt told the Irish Times in 1956 that ‘even Dubliners who have never left the country are becoming very adventurous and critical where food is concerned’. Regulars included Bertie Smyllie of the Irish Times and Terry O’Sullivan of the Evening Press. Students from UCD waited tables to get a free dinner. Many Dubliners ate their first curry in the Golden Orient. By the time he retired in 1984 Butt had fed four generations.

Taj Mahal

The Golden Orient was joined in 1966 by the Taj Mahal, run by an Indian, Mohinder Singh Gill, who came to Ireland from Britain. In business to the mid-1990s, the Taj Mahal became one of Dublin’s longest-lived and best-known Indian restaurants—so well known, in fact, that it provoked the hilarious response to Larry Gogan’s ‘Just a minute’ quiz question. The Taj Mahal fed Trinity students, civil servants and journalists. It received special mention in tourist guides for serving the hottest curries in Dublin, with a special category even hotter than vindaloo known as ‘Mícheál Ó Domhnaill’, after an insatiable and asbestos-tongued regular customer.
The July 1968 edition of Nusight magazine reviewed mid-range restaurants in Dublin. There were few quality premises to choose from, though the article included New Delhi on Camden Street. Run by Jimmy James, once a chef at the Golden Orien’, it was ‘comfortable, snug, with the aroma of curry heavy in the air’. An October 1969 Irish Times feature highlighted the shortage of ethnic restaurants in Dublin. There was ‘some Chinese and Indian food to be found. However, one sees no reason for the filth of at least one of these places which serves excellent food on tables covered with grubby tablecloths.’ Butt’s new venture for the 1970s countered this view. Joining Leeson Street’s Golden Orient were the Tandoori Rooms on Harcourt Street, haute cuisine premises with dining and disco dancing until the early hours. Wine critic T.P. Whelehan publicised the Tandoori Rooms. From the 1970s Butt promoted wine as part of a crusade to get Irish restaurants full liquor licences. The Tandoori Rooms were praised by Egon Ronay, Michelin and the New York Times. Regulars included Oliver Reid, Peter Sellers, Gay Byrne, Charlie Haughey and Terry Keane. Butt never publicised those who ate at his restaurants, giving his customers complete privacy. In public he was the celebrity of the Tandoori Rooms.

Thom’s Directory for 1973 shows nine Indian restaurants in Dublin, including a cluster from South Richmond Street to Camden Street, including the Bombay Grill (South Richmond Street), the Calcutta (Camden Street), the New Delhi (Lower Camden Street) and Punjab One (Upper Camden Street). Across the restaurant sector business was looking up. However, the 1973 oil crisis and subsequent recession decreased disposable income. Eating out declined and restaurateurs suffered through the late 1970s.

Madhur Jaffrey and A passage to India

Mohammed ‘Mike’ Butt, a Kenyan of Kashmiri descent, who hired out cars to Jomo Kenyatta, then organising the Mau Mau, emigrated to Ireland and opened the Golden Orient restaurant in Lower Baggot Street in 1956 and the Tandoori Rooms in Harcourt Street in the 1970s. In the 1950s he also introduced the country to ice lollies. A naturalised Irish citizen, he served in the 1970s as Pakistan’s honorary consul in Dublin. Butt became a major force in the Irish catering industry and was instrumental in establishing the Restaurant Owners’ Association of Ireland.

Mohammed ‘Mike’ Butt, a Kenyan of Kashmiri descent, who hired out cars to Jomo Kenyatta, then organising the Mau Mau, emigrated to Ireland and opened the Golden Orient restaurant in Lower Baggot Street in 1956 and the Tandoori Rooms in Harcourt Street in the 1970s. In the 1950s he also introduced the country to ice lollies. A naturalised Irish citizen, he served in the 1970s as Pakistan’s honorary consul in Dublin. Butt became a major force in the Irish catering industry and was instrumental in establishing the Restaurant Owners’ Association of Ireland.

Madhur Jaffrey’s popular television series on Indian cookery first aired in 1982. At the same time Sharwoods Spices launched in Ireland, their promotion entrusted to Mike Butt. Feeding a nostalgia for India accompanying the release of the David Lean film A passage to India, together they sparked an interest in Ireland in eating Indian food. A change in the Dublin Indian restaurant scene occurred in 1984. The British Rajdoot Tandoori chain, owned by Des Sarda, opened with considerable media attention beside the upmarket Westbury Hotel. With Indian and Nepalese chefs and a tandoori oven, the ‘finest North Indian cuisine’ had come to Dublin. According to Elgy Gillespie in the Irish Times (30 June 1984), ‘It was a bit of your Far Pavilions . . . we’ve a long way to go yet’.

Yet Indian restaurants were losing their cult status, as ‘Rajdoot’ was joined in 1985 by ‘Eastern Tandoori’, a chain run by Manchester businessman Feroze Khanin. Indians and Pakistanis already in Ireland, many working in the clothing trade, saw new opportunities and moved into the restaurant business. The number of curry houses grew. By the late 1980s Irish tastes in food had become more adventurous. Foreign travel, emigration, the rising popularity of vegetarianism, increased disposable income, urbanisation and reasonably priced ethnic restaurants all explained the development. Indian restaurants spread into Dublin’s suburbs, in particular to Dalkey, Blackrock and Malahide. There were over 150 ethnic restaurants in Ireland by 1989, with just over half in Dublin city and county.

In May 1989 licensing laws changed to allow the serving of beer in restaurants. The 1990s saw eating out boom in ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland. Undemanding entry and residence regulations made it easy for Indian restaurants to bring in staff from India and Pakistan. Indian food had become ‘all the Raj’, as Sandy O’Byrne wrote in the Irish Times on 20 April 1991.

Indian haute cuisine

The opening of Saagar (Harcourt Street, 1995) brought Indian haute cuisine to Ireland. The trend continued with the opening of Jaipur and Rasam. Two men, former business partners, were integral here: Nisheeth Tak and Asheesh Dewan. Proprietor of Rasam in Glasthule, Tak began his career at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai and arrived in Ireland in 1990. Eschewing old-style curry houses, he introduced Irish palates to a wider variety of Indian food. Saagar was one of his first ventures. Dewan’s Jaipur group expanded from George’s Street in Dublin, bringing sophisticated regional Indian dishes to Irish diners. Ananda in the Dundrum town centre, a venture of Dewan’s with Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochar, opened in 2008. It was all in tune with the mood of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland.

The history of Indian restaurants in Dublin is that of the popularity of the cuisine that weaned Ireland from steak and chips. It presents a different perspective on the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of post-war Ireland. Much of the Indian restaurant scene in Dublin has lost its homely, if insular, streak. The rawness of an Ireland in culinary as well as social and economic transition has vanished, and with it the naïve, often ignorant, wonder of these decades since 1945. Sophisticated diners know their curries. Yet the soullessness of modern Ireland rings through the clinical sameness of many restaurants. Thus curry provides an insight into social, economic and cultural change in twentieth- and 21st-century Ireland: after all, we are what we eat.  HI

Michael Kennedy is Executive Editor of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series, Royal Irish Academy.
'


Copyright © 2018 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568