Restaurant Quality

Dishoom's Shamil Thakrar on Eggs Kejriwal, Which Will Transport You to Bombay

August 21, 2020
Photo by HAARALA HAMILTON

COVID-19 changed the restaurant industry as we knew it. And even as businesses begin to reopen across the country, there are countless challenges ahead. In this series, Restaurant Quality, we're checking in with a few of our favorite chef-slash–cookbook authors and seeing how they're holding up. Along the way, you'll get signature recipes to make at home—and find out how you can support the chefs and their staffs. Today, we're catching up with Shamil Thakrar.


When you walk into Dishoom—there are eight locations across the U.K., from London to Manchester—you’re immersed in a story. Every sense of where you were before opening the door changes: It’s a different country, perhaps a different year. This was a purposeful choice by owners and cousins Shamil Thakrar and Kavi Thakrar, who, along with Chef Naved Nasir, have created immersive-experience restaurants that aren’t kitsch, because these stories are told with such intention.

“Food is obviously very visceral and stories, I think, are the next most visceral thing, because stories are our identity,” Shamil told me over the phone. “I literally write a story every time we design a restaurant. For me, that's how we make sense of the world, and I want to really embrace that, whether it's in the food or the design.”

In some ways, Shamil is a writer first, restaurateur second. Much of his 2019 cookbook, co-written with Kavi and Nasir, Dishoom—a “cookery book and highly subjective guide to Bombay with map”—features essays that place readers in the western Indian city. The writing is so vibrant that, when reading it, one might feel as though they’ve fallen into the pages and come out sitting at a cafe table in the early-morning sun, dunking sweet bun maska into a cup of chai. The book is peppered with reflections on Bombay’s formerly ubiquitous Irani cafes (opened by 20th century Zoroastrian Iranian immigrants to the area), of which only about 20 remain.

“You will have noticed the overpowering nostalgia for that wild port city of migrants seeking their fortunes, bringing with them their myriad cultures and beliefs and stories and foods, all of which was woven completely into the fabric of the city,” the authors wrote in the book, noting that to them, the city will always be Bombay. (In 1996, Bombay, an anglicized version of the city’s Portuguese name, was formally changed to Mumbai.) “Bombay does somehow refer to the more cosmopolitan side of the city, and is still used by many who would see themselves living in that cosmopolitan city,” Shamil added when we spoke, reinforcing the ideal with an essay by cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote that refers to the city as a palimpsest.

To Shamil, capturing the cultural context while eating a specific dish is just as important as the recipe. One could eat vada pav while sitting down at any restaurant, he says, but it would be a completely different experience than being on a hot Bombay street, burning your tongue on the spice-dusted potatoes just handed to you by a street vendor.

“There's the soundscape, the smells, the sugar cane vendor next to you. There's a beautiful Gothic building in front of you. In a way, our restaurants try to do that, where we reconnect you with a bit of the culture,” Shamil said. “Because the recipes are handed down for generations, and it's odd to just disconnect them from their roots and their background.”

Though Shamil notes that cultural context can be subjective, removing these dishes from any connected environment does them a disservice: “This is the city and this is the food of the city. They need to be banged right back together into one experience. The food and the culture are one.”

One of the biggest impressions Bombay left on Shamil was breakfast. Not brunch, but a contemplative weekday breakfast, most often eaten alone. “I think there's such a romance about being in a quieter restaurant environment. It's a snatched oasis,” he said. So, it seemed only right that we should discuss one of his favorite breakfast meals: eggs Kejriwal.

Fittingly, this is a dish with a story attached. It’s said to be named after a man who so often ordered eggs with chile and cheese at Bombay’s Willingdon Club in the 1960s or ’70s—the first such institution to admit Indians (albeit only those of a certain social status, Shamil added). Kejriwal supposedly ordered the eggs surreptitiously, as some Hindus are lacto-vegetarian. Though the recipe, which is on the menu at Dishoom and in the cookbook, is simple—chile, spring onions, and sharp cheddar melted onto toast, topped with fried eggs—Shamil had one admonition: “Do it properly with the cheese [the recipe] tells you to use.” As in, all 80 grams (nearly 3 ounces) of it, thank you so much.

Right now, the Dishoom restaurants—like others around the world—are deeply challenged by the pandemic. Notably, the restaurant was able to work through the past several months without laying off any employees. But that’s not to say things didn’t get tough. Shamil described it as “exhausting and humbling. You think you're doing something and everything seems stable—and then suddenly the ground is pulled away from underneath your feet.”

Though taken aback at how swiftly everything changed, the Dishoom team pivoted hard to keep customers and employees engaged. As they transitioned to takeout-only, they shared recipes on Instagram that were published in the cookbook and unpublished from the menu, and they launched an at-home cooking kit with ingredients to make their famous bacon naan roll.

The team also expanded on their already well established charitable arm. Since 2015, they’ve pledged that for every meal sold at Dishoom, they will donate a meal to a child in the U.K. or India. They fed thousands of U.K. National Health Service workers as well: “We basically repurposed one of our restaurants into a support for the hospital,” Shamil said.

He noted the importance of keeping spirits high among his employees, hosting virtual yoga classes, running clubs, and a huge iftar during Ramadan in April. “I feel a strong responsibility in our business for not just the guests, but for our team. Here I am, founder of a business, and we employ a thousand people. It's my job to help get everyone through and to make sure we look after everyone…It was a pretty busy time; it feels like a fever dream.”

Dishoom has managed to stay afloat, even opening their newest location in Birmingham in July. The same can’t be said for thousands of restaurants and their employees a fact of which every restaurant owner is painfully aware. While it can’t only be left up to customers to save the restaurant industry, Shamil hopes that when people feel comfortable, they’ll go out to eat again, and keep ordering takeout. And for those outside of the U.K., pick up a copy of the cookbook and keep an eye on Instagram for new recipes. To add to Dishoom’s holistic experience, they also sell a record of 1960s music from Bombay and London.

Ultimately, Shamil loves when people make Dishoom recipes, sharing in and maintaining the nostalgia of Bombay: “We'd be delighted if you cooked,” he said.

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Rebecca Firkser is a freelance food writer and recipe developer. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, among them Food52, TASTE, Edible Manhattan, Extra Crispy, The Strategist, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish and Basically. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl.

2 Comments

gandalf August 24, 2020
The recipe appears to leave out one or more steps: what to do with the reserved cheese? At what point is the egg cooked, and are there special directions for that?
 
Rachelm August 24, 2020
Oh, I love Dishoom! I've been in London and Edinburgh and I dream about their breakfasts all the time.
I will definitely try to make this at home.