If you ever decide to have dinner at Gymkhana in Mayfair, who’s Michelin award for fine Indian dining is well-regarded, you’ll want to know four vital facts.
First, it won't be cheap.
Second, its name describes a type of Indian racket-ball court, and is a marriage of the Hindi word gedkhana with gymnasium, itself a bastardization of the Greek word gumnasion, meaning to exercise naked, by the colonial ethnic-cleansers of the British empire.
Thankfully, the wait staff adhere to a strict code of attire, namely, wearing some, so you won't be put off your muntjac biryani, ‘a pomegranate and mint raita’.
Which leads us nicely to the third fact, that no-one in India actually eats food that resembles this in any way, and the concept of fine dining that fuses Indian food with Western culinary preferences probably borders on cultural appropriation.
But the British are good at that; their national dish is chicken tikka masala.
The fourth and, you’ll be pleased to know, final fact is that if you are eating at Gymkhana or any of the other thirteen-hundred Indian restaurants in the UK - a further seven-thousand-two-hundred are actually Bangladeshi, but most diners couldn’t give an onion bhaji about the distinction - you are doing so thanks to Sheikh Din Muhammad.
Sheikh Din Muhammad, or, to use the Westernised version that he had to get used to thanks to the inability even then of the British to respect names that don’t start with John and end in Smith, Sake Dean Mahomed, was born in the state of Bihar, in the city of Patna, which, when Mahomed was born in 1759, was being ravaged by the Bengal Presidency, a subdivision of the oppressive British Empire.
Mahomed was born into a Muslim family, descended from the great Nawab of Bengal, the hereditary equivalent of a Grand Duke in Europe. On his father’s death, he was fostered by Captain Godfrey Evan Baker, an Irish officer who introduced him to army life in the East India Company, and launched him on a medical career as a trainee surgeon.
When Baker resigned from the Army in 1784 and moved back to Cork, Ireland, so did Mahomed, preferring the uncertainty of life far away than the tyranny of the colonial dictatorship that had invaded every aspect of his world.
In Cork, Mahomed honed his English language, and fell in love with Jane Daly, whose family didn’t immediately warm to the idea of a matrimonial bond between their ‘pretty Irish girl of respectable parentage’ and this recently-arrived Indian doctor. And, of course, in true Irish style, it had been made illegal for Protestants to marry non-Protestants.
So, to curry favour with the Daleys, Mahomed converted to Anglicanism.
They then eloped to a nearby village where people didn’t know them quite as well, and were married, before eloping even more to London, where they set up home in Little Ryder Street, around 1800.
At the same time, Mahomed wrote and published The Travels of Dean Mahomet, in which he mainly plagiarized earlier travel works, and described, from a very eurocentric perspective, his early life, his travels with the Bengal army, descriptions of language and culture, bartering, production, and trade, culinary and lifestyle accounts, and military conflicts, and, finally, his arrival on the shores of England in 1784.
This somewhat mediocre effort out of the way, Mahomed set about reproducing.
He fathered seven children with Jane; Rosanna, Henry, Horatio, Frederick, Arthur, and Dean, and enjoyed all that so much that he married another Jane, Jane Jeffreys, in 1808, and had another child, Amelia.
Which would've been fine had he divorced Jane Daley first, which he didn’t.
What he did do though was go to work for Basil Cochrane, the Scottish civil servant, inventor, and wealthy businessman who amassed staggering wealth while engaged with other diehards of the East India Company, and seems to have been connected to the same people as Mahomed via that imperial entity.
Cochrane’s passion for vapour baths led him to install a steam bath in his house which the public could use freely. It was here that Mahomed was employed, and introduced the idea of champooi or shampooing, what we know today as massage.
After this stint in the bath house, Mahomed determined to change Britain even more, and opened a dinner and smoking establishment, later known as the Hindoostane Coffee House, Britain’s first ever Indian restaurant, in George Street, London. The restaurant offered hookahs and chilam tobacco, and an array of 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 even home delivery for those who couldn't get to the restaurant because they were too relaxed from their massage.
The Morning Post carried his first full advertisement in 1810, stating that ..
Sake Dean Mahomed, manufacturer of the real currie powder, takes the earliest opportunity to inform the nobility and gentry, that he has, under the patronage of the first men of quality who have resided in India, established at his house, 34 George Street, Portman Square, the Hindoostane Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club.
Apartments are fitted up for their entertainment in the Eastern Style, where dinners, composed of genuine Hindoostane dishes, are served up at the shortest notice. Such ladies and gentlemen as may [be] desirous of having Indian Dinners dressed and sent to their own houses will be punctually attended to by giving previous notice.
A year later, though, the restaurant hadn’t captured the imagination of anyone.
Private chefs and the ingrained habit of eating at home all conspired to end the short-lasting dream of Sake Dean Mahomed, and he sold up, and moved his family to Brighton in 1814.
Mahomed’s experience didn’t dampen his spirits though, and he doggedly found a way to open another business and another first; the first commercial shampooing vapour masseur bath in Britain, describing the treatment as ‘a cure to many diseases and giving full relief when every thing fails; particularly Rheumatic and paralytic, gout, stiff joints, old sprains, lame legs, aches and pains in the joints’.
Unlike the Hindoostane Coffee House, this venture found instant success, and Mahomed published two more books on the back of his euphoric rise, Cases Cured by Sake Deen Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon, and Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapour and Sea-Water Bath (1820), and Shampooing; or, Benefits Resulting from the Use of The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath, which had three subsequent editions, in 1822, 1826, and 1838.
Mahomed talks of his challenge in bringing a new idea to a country of pedantic Luddites, when he writes that ‘to attempt to establish a new opinion without the risk of incurring the ridicule’ is impossible, and that even ‘in the face of indisputable evidence’ he had to 'struggle with doubts and objections raised and circulated’ against him.
Rather than be remembered as the man who brought the Indian restaurant to Britain, he became known locally now as ‘Doctor Brighton’, and was duly appointed as masseur to both King George IV and William IV, at which point massage became established as an acceptable practice on the little islands of Britain, while visiting Indian restaurants didn’t for some years yet.
And of course, Mahomed’s other first - his third first - was the publication of those books. Because as well as the Indian restaurant and massage, he is considered the first Indian author to write and publish in the English language, not a bad addition to a life’s work.
He died in 1851, aged a little over ninety, and was buried in Brighton with at least one of his wives named Jane. The inscription on his gravestone only acknowledges that Mahomed was a ‘Patna Hindoostan’, but says nothing whatsoever about his achievements.
Even though they would surely grace anyone’s balti list.
photo by Pixabay