Some 2000 people descended on Battersea Evolution this week for the 10th annual British Curry Awards, the so-called ‘Curry Oscars’, celebrating the curry what is now not only one of the most important elements of Britain’s cultural fabric but an industry worth nearly £4 billion and which employs tens of thousands of people across the UK.
Among the winners were Scotland’s Light of Bengal; Mem Saab in Nottingham; the achingly cool Covent Garden hotspot Dishoom and London’s Cinnamon Club, the venerable lounge and restaurant located not too far from what is widely considered Britain’s first curry house, the appropriately-named Hindostanee Coffee House, which opened in 1810 near Portman Square, Marylebone.
The man behind the restaurant was the colourful and flamboyant Sake Dean Mahomed.
Mahomet was born in 1759 near Patna, Bihar.
When he was only eleven years old, he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the East India Company Army, serving under a British officer named Captain Godfrey Baker who became Mahomed’s closest friend and confidante during the duo’s decade of service together.
In 1807, Mahomed arrived in the UK and followed Baker to his native Ireland.
Baker treated Mahomed as a son and paid for him to go to school where he primarily studied English language and literature.
Another student, Jane Daly, caught Mahomed’s eye.
The same year his patron Baker died, Mahomed and Jane eloped. It is believed that at the time of his flight, Mahomet had converted from Islam to Protestanism.
Mahomet first received public recognition in his new homeland by publishing his autobiography titled ‘The Travels of Dean Mahomed, a native in Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of the Honorable The East India Company’, which provided a then-rare insight into life in the sub-continent.
Mahomed and his growing family then moved to London in search of more lucrative opportunities.
Instead of living among the East London merchants who traded with India, they settled in Portman Square, a hub for high society.
His first job in London was as an assistant at the famous ‘Vapor Bath’ or steam room owned and operated by Sir Basil Cochrane, a Scottish industrialist who had made an enormous fortune in India.
Not content sitting idly by as the wealthy opened their pores, Mahomed introduced the bath’s clientele to ‘Champi’, derived from the Hindi word for Champissage or head massage.
This treatment involved first lying in an herbal steam bath. When the patient was sweating, he was placed in a flannel tent with sleeves. The practitioner, who was outside the tent, put his arms through the sleeves to give an invigorating massage.
Champi would later become anglicized and evolve into “Shampooing”.
Over the years, the ambitious Mahomed saved up enough to set himself in business, and came upon the idea of opening a restaurant.
As the first Indian owner of a curry house, he offered his customers an authentic Indian experience with bamboo furniture, curry, and hookahs with real clay ‘Chillum’ pipes.
He hoped that men like Sir Basil – the wealthy Britons who had returned to London after making their fortunes in India and the Far East – would miss the cuisine they learned to love and flock to his cafe.
Unfortunately, an already established restaurant on the east side of town, and the Indian servants of the local aristocracy who cooked their native dishes for their employers, proved to be too much competition.
Mahomed was forced to take on a partner, and then ended up declaring bankruptcy.
By now Mahomed was in his fifties.
He moved his family to Brighton, and the only work he could find was as a manager in a bathhouse. He began reinventing himself as the “Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapour Baths … by whom the Art of Shampooing was first introduced into England”.
Again cashing in on being Indian, Mahomed added the title Sake, a variation of sheik, to his name.
In addition, to legitimize himself, he embellished his background to include medical training in India before he joined the army.
To make this plausible Mahomed added ten years on to his age.
He started advertising his Indian oils and herbal treatments as a cure-all for various ailments.
At first, the public and the medical community dismissed his claims as bogus, but he offered free treatment for patients who were not getting relief from diseases such as asthma, paralysis and rheumatism in other ways.
Soon the lobby of his bathhouse displayed crutches and other paraphernalia of those he claimed to cure.
He published the descriptions of his treatments and testimonials of his patients who claimed to be cured. From then on business was booming and he was known as Dr. Brighton.
In 1815, Mahomed’s family expanded with three more sons, and he started working in the Battery House Baths. Soon after that, a son and daughter died.
Mahomed wanted his own establishment, so in 1821 he and Jane opened Mohamed’s Baths near the waterfront.
Ladies and gentlemen had their facilities on separate floors.
Each floor had a reading room with various reading material and a parlour for the clients while they waited for their treatments.
Each floor had four bathing rooms each of which had a marble bath with hot and cold water, and two of the bathing rooms were set up for the vapour and shampooing treatment.
On the top floor there were five bedrooms for anyone who wanted to stay longer for more intense treatment. Two men and three women lived on the premises as bath attendants and servants.
This luxurious facility attracted an a wealthy and often aristocratic clientele including monarchs George IV and William IV.
The royal patronage led to Mahomed’s appointment as Shampooing Surgeon to the King, and he was giving a Royal Warrant so that he could officially promote himself as giving treatment to the royal family.
In addition to his work, Mahomed was a very generous donor to local charities and the official Steward for the Annual Charity Ball.
In the 1930s, however, competition started taking its toll.
Although he was in his late 70s, Mahomed opened another bath back in London with his son.
A few years later, his silent partner in Brighton died, and the establishment went up for auction. Mahomed did not have enough money to buy it himself, and the new owner hired Mahomed’s former employees and claimed to give identical treatments to those of the former owner.
Mahomed tried to disassociate himself with the new owner through newspaper ads, and he and Jane continued to treat patients in their home.
Gradually Mahomed fell farther out of favor and became all but forgotten.
He died at age 92, only two months after Jane passed away.
Several of their sons followed in the family business but none ever developed the reputation their father had enjoyed.