The green plaque at 102 George Street in Marylebone must be the least conspicuous commemoration in the whole of London. I passed by it twice without realising it was there. That is because it is fixed to a wall behind a window in an office block to which there is no public access. When I took a photo through the window I ended up with the image above – a weird reflection rather than the real thing – which, I suppose, is rather appropriate.
This is the site of what is claimed to be the first Indian restaurant in London, and it doesn’t take us back, as you might imagine, to the 1960s but to 1810, over 200 years ago. The restaurant was owned by Sake Dean Mahomed, an employee of the East India Company from Bengal, who was, among other things, a surgeon, a shampoo specialist, a traveller, a writer and an entrepreneur described by Wikipedia as “one of the most notable early non-European immigrants to the Western World”.
Mahomed didn’t introduce curry to Londoners, which had been savoured for centuries in private homes by discerning palates. Hannah Glasse’s 1774 international best seller The Art of Cookery – buyers included Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln – contained recipes for curries. There is evidence that some restaurants also sold individual curry dishes but, at the very least, 102 George Street (or 34 as it was then numbered) was the first dedicated curry house run by an Indian. Authentic.
The restaurant, near Portman Square, was called the Hindoostane Coffee House. Its menu modestly included “Indian dishes…allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England”. By all accounts it would also deliver food to your home – the first Indian take-away. Alas, despite such grandiose claims, the restaurant was not a success and had to close after barely a year. Mahomed was ahead of his times. London was not yet ready for what would eventually become one of the city’s favourite foods.
But Mahomed the entrepreneur was undaunted. In 1814, he and his wife moved to Brighton, where they had lived before, and opened England’s first commercial shampooing vapour masseur bath (not to be confused with shampooing your hair) where the Queens Hotel is today. It was an immediate success and Mahomed became known as “Dr Brighton” eventually becoming shampooing surgeon to King George IV and William IV. He was also the first Indian to publish a book in English. He is buried at Brighton’s St Nicholas Church.