Sake Dean Mahomed: How Britain's Most Popular Food Failed at First

Talk about being before your time.

Inverse photo illustration from original portrait by Thomas Mann Baynes, via Brighton Museums

After becoming the first Indian author to publish a book in English, but before introducing Great Britain to concept of shampooing, Sake Dean Mahomed opened Great Britain’s first Indian restaurant.

To commemorate the anniversary of his groundbreaking book in 1794, he was honored with a Google Doodle on the search engine’s homepage Tuesday. But while evidence of Mahomed’s legacy can now be seen on every British street corner, he was also definitely ahead of his time.

Today, chicken tikka masala is essentially the national dish of England, and Indian “curry houses” abound. But Mahomed’s attempt to popularize his homeland’s cuisine in the British Isles ended as swiftly as it started and drove him to change careers.

The entrepreneur opened the Hindoostane Coffee House in 1810, located in in London’s Portman Square. He posed it as a fine-dining establishment serving curries that, according to the British National Archives were “allowed by the greatest epicures to be equalled to any curries ever made in England.”

Translation: It was dank.

Mahomed even let his guests have an after-dinner smoke of “Hookha ‘with real Chilm tobacco.”

Mahomed's restaraunt is now a landmark.

Jamie Barras / Flickr

As amazing as that sounds, customers were initially skeptical, and the budding restauranteur was in short order forced to declare bankruptcy, and the Hindostane Coffee House shut down in 1812. Celebrity chef Vivek Singh told the BBC in 2005 that Mahomed’s restaurant didn’t make it because he wasn’t getting enough of a key demographic through the door.

“The Indian aristocracy however would not come out to eat,” he said. “They had chefs at home cooking more authentic food - it was just not a big enough draw to come out.”

Like any resilient entrepreneur, Mahomed pivoted, eventually finding success by opening a string of successful spas in the seaside town of Brighton. And, while he may not have been the one to cash in on the Anglicized take on Indian food we’ve come to love, the food he attempted to popularize served as inspiration for Singh’s renown London eatery, The Cinnamon Club, which influenced the countless curry houses currently serving up chicken tikka masala across the pond.

Talk about being before your time.

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